Edith Morley: the first female professor in Britain or Ireland

Barbara Morris, editor of Morley’s memoir, says it will appeal to anyone with an interest in women in academia, the work of Fabian socialists and the women’s movement

When in 1907 Reading University College began its quest for full university status all heads of department were promoted to professorial level, except Edith Morley. Convinced that this was solely because of her gender, she commenced struggle for her position and title. “I have always regarded [this struggle] as my contribution to the battle for fair dealing for women in public and professional life”

When in 1907 Reading University College began its quest for full university status all heads of department were promoted to professorial level, except Edith Morley. Convinced that this was solely because of her gender, she commenced struggle for her position and title. “I have always regarded [this struggle] as my contribution to the battle for fair dealing for women in public and professional life”

 

It must have been clear to anyone who knew Edith Morley as a child that she was going to be an independent and feisty adult. Her “noisy and voluble protest” over clothes she didn’t want to wear, her flouting of the rules of late Victorian childhood femininity were all portents of her future as a woman who would fight “not only with courage but sometimes aggression and always with passionate sincerity for Human Rights and freedom”. “Provocative and disturbing” she may have been, but this was always in the cause of others, from women’s rights to the refugees from Nazi Germany.

Her memoir, Before and After, written in the early 1940s, was intended to “relate my experiences to the background of my period and to portray incidents in the life of a woman born in the last quarter of the nineteenth century”. At a superficial glance her life seems uneventful – education, lecturing posts at King’s College and Reading University – but her boundless energies saw her actively involved in the Fabian Society, the women’s movement, several literary societies, and the early years of the Workers Educational Association. She was a member of the Howard League for Penal Reform and a magistrate in Reading. She lived through both world wars, doing her utmost in both situations to make whatever contribution she could. In 1938, she set up and headed the Reading and District Refugee Committee for which she was awarded an OBE in 1950.

Morley paints a vivid picture of her early years in late Victorian London. She details the relationships between the family and their servants, exploring how, though the work required of them was onerous, (all hot water had to be heated in the basement and carried up several flights of stairs, though the children all took cold baths) many of them became friends and stayed in touch with the family after their employment ceased. Her mother, a highly intelligent and well-read woman, was a dutiful and efficient manager of her household, though she never enjoyed her “daily domestic round”, and, like cooking and cleaning, child care was in the hands of the servants: their dearly loved nanny was “an ideal guide, philosopher and friend” to the young children.

She provides a lively description of the world outside her home – the sights, noises and smells of the London beyond her doorstep: mud and horse dung, drunkenness and beggary, street cries and street music; the fun of travelling on the new buses, the entertainments on offer.

As a child she was cossetted and spoilt but “I did hate being a girl” and her boundless physical and intellectual energies were deeply frustrated by the restrictions imposed on young women at the time: she wasn’t allowed to go out unescorted, not even to cross the road to post a letter, nor even answer the door herself. Middle-class young women were discouraged from any form of strenuous exercise, could not mix with other social classes nor talk to anyone they had not been introduced to.

After her return from finishing school in Germany she was allowed to pursue some desultory studies at King’s College, Ladies Department, but at the age of 19 the future seemed bleak. “I hated my then mode of existence, I found nothing to attract me to the only society open to me … I hadn’t enough to do, I hadn’t enough companionship, and I was full of unexpressed and unformulated longings for a life of usefulness which would give me some scope for my vigour of mind and body … There seemed no point in what I was doing and no way of escape into a fuller life ...”

Rescue came in the form of the charismatic Lillian Faithfull, the new principal of King’s College, Ladies Department, who not only had her students studying for Oxford and London University examinations, but set up societies which gave these young women opportunities for socialising hitherto unavailable to them. A keen sportswoman herself, Faithfull started a hockey club, which, despite the absurd costumes they had to wear – skirts six inches off the ground, high starched collars, tight belts, and boater hats – provided an outlet for Morley’s physical energies, and the companionship she longed for. Another form of liberation came when she was given a bicycle. “In 1896 bicycling was still so unusual a proceeding for girls that my father took counsel with various medical friends to find out whether there was any likelihood of my injuring myself permanently ... We rode, as we did everything else in wholly unsuitable garments – skirts, braided as usual round the hem but only four yards wide instead of the customary seven; gaiters to the knee, lest too much leg were exposed; tight underclothes; hats secured by dangerously protruding pins – but we rode: into the country, in the busy streets, to and from engagements made independently with our own friends. We even went on holiday with other girls, abroad as well as at home.”

She obtained part-time lecturing posts at both King’s College and Reading University Extension College and she gives an interesting account of the early years of the fledgling university of Reading, and how it was moulded into a community, including the role of the Gild of the Red Rose with its arcane language and bizarre rituals.

It was at Reading that Morley succeeded in becoming the first female professor in the country.

When in 1907 Reading University College began its quest for full university status all heads of department were promoted to professorial level, except Morley. Convinced that this was solely because of her gender she commenced her long and bitter struggle for her position and title “I have always regarded [this struggle] as my contribution to the battle for fair dealing for women in public and professional life”.

The education of women and their role in public and professional life was a continuing concern, reflected in her editing Women Workers in Seven Professions for the Fabian Society, published in 1913. This highlighted the enforced celibacy commonly imposed by the requirement that women should resign from work on marriage, and the inequalities of opportunity and pay, still a significant issue over a century later.

An active suffragist (the non-violent wing of the movement) she was a member of the WSPU, and her protests included not paying her rates, resulting in having some of her belongings confiscated and auctioned as a punishment, spending a night walking the parade in Aldeburgh with her friend Elizabeth Garrett Anderson to avoid registering for the census, and putting her name to a letter to the Times written by Mrs Pankhurst. When a journalist pursuing this discovered that Prof Morley was a woman he stormed out of the room without bothering to talk to her.

Morley had a strong social conscience which impelled her to help people whenever she could, whether friends, students or, during the second World War, Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany. Morley’s account of the treatment these refugees encountered in Britain finds echoes in our current refugee crisis: they were treated by the army authorities as prisoners of war, deprived of their identity papers and personal possessions, and in some cases transported against their will; the conditions in some of the internment camps were atrocious, and there was a sinister growth of anti-Semitism.

Morley’s lively sense of humour shines through in amusing anecdotes: her father falling into a pond during a thick fog; being offered Irish stew, when knocking on a cottage door in search of a piece of steak to put on a black eye, received during a hockey match; Fabian Society summer school members sleepily falling off their chairs asleep during a lecture by George Bernard Shaw; the occasion during the first World War when she had to lecture on eating less bread to a reluctant cinema audience of soldiers and munition workers, who booed and catcalled.

For anyone with an interest in women in academia, the work of the Fabian socialists, the WEA, women during the wars, Before & After will provide many insights, but it is also an important record of everyday living in times past, and of those women who helped to improve things for all women living in the present day.

Before and After by Edith Morley is published by Two Rivers Press in paperback

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