Orlando: Women’s Writing in the British Isles from the Beginnings to the Present is a digital text, available on the web at orlando.cambridge.org. We like to call it a textbase, not a database, because it doesn’t do bean-counting, but connected historical-critical prose, written by an ever-expanding list of scholars and students. Orlando consists of entries on individual writers. It is centred on British women, but includes some selected male and non-British writers, because literature is a territory without frontiers – and contextual historical material. Orlando will be free to access for the whole of March, Women’s History Month.

Oxford and the Suffrage

Neither the city nor the University of Oxford were particularly prominent in the fight for women’s suffrage, but they were certainly touched by it, as every place and every institution in England was. Oxford was, of course, prominent in the campaign for higher education for women, which was closely connected with the suffrage campaign. For instance, the prolific historical novelist Emma Marshall not only published a pro-suffrage pamphlet, 1886, but also persuaded Oxford dons to travel to Gloucester, where she was living, to give lectures to women and girls.

Somerville College was named after the great mathematician and scientist Mary Somerville; she was one of the organizers of the first massive petition for female suffrage, which was presented to parliament in 1867 by John Stuart Mill, who was a committed, even a heroic, male suffragist.

It’s embarrassing that probably the most distinguished Victorian novelist connected with Oxford, Mary Augusta Ward, who wrote as Mrs Humphry Ward, was an anti-suffragist. She was born into a very Oxford family (Matthew Arnold was her uncle); after she left school she lived with her parents in the Banbury Road. After marrying an Oxford don she lived in Bradmore Road, in a house that now has a blue plaque. She was one of the first women allowed to use the Bodleian. She campaigned stoutly for higher education for women. But not for the vote. She was on the committee for setting up the first women’s college; more, she was actually the one who proposed naming it Somerville. One of her last novels, published in 1918 just as women in England got the vote, has as its heroine an Oxford graduate with a degree in Greats.

But Mary Augusta Ward was against votes for women. Long before 1918 her relationship with Somerville College had broken down over this. In 1889, when the college was about ten years old, she wrote and circulated a Ladies’ Appeal against Women’s Suffrage, and in 1908 she set up the Women’s Anti-Suffrage League. She travelled around giving anti-suffrage lectures, though she came to dread doing this because of what Orlando calls “the attendant heckling, violence, and chaos” – ironical, when this was exactly what the suffragists had to contend with too.

Among suffragists whom Oxford did foster, one deserves mention as a social heroine. (Orlando offers great opportunities for finding heroines, even if that’s a politically incorrect approach.) This is Maude Royden (or Agnes Maude Royden) who is best known as the early twentieth-century campaigner for another cause, women’s ordination. She was one of the many who clashed with Mary Augusta Ward over suffrage, and she encountered both of these (Ward and the suffrage struggle) in Oxford. Royden, a graduate in history from Lady Margaret Hall, became in 1905 a lecturer in English literature in Oxford’s Extension Delegacy programme; she quickly became prominent in several suffrage organizations: vice-president, for instance, of the Oxford Women Students’ Suffrage Society. She was an Anglican, but the Church of England was dead set against women in the pulpit, and Royden went on to launch a stellar preaching career at the City Temple Church in London, which was Congregational.

She got this job through her mentor the Rev. Hudson Shaw, a radical Anglican clergyman whom Mary Augusta Ward also admired. He was seventeen years older than Royden, but the two of them fell passionately in love when she was twenty-five. They then chose to live in a platonic triangle for more than forty years until Shaw’s invalid wife died, and they worked together both for women’s suffrage and women’s ordination as Anglican ministers. To her shame, Ward tried to smear Royden’s reputation by a mention of the ‘darker’ topic of free love.

More Oxford connections. Christopher St John (the playwright nee Christabel Gertrude Marshall) also attended Somerville (reading history). She was arrested in 1909 for the classic protest of setting a pillar-box on fire; and she and her partner Edith Craig opened their London house as premises for the Suffrage Shop.

Eleanor Rathbone, “one of the foremost female politicians of the early twentieth century,” was another Somerville graduate. She presided over suffrage organizations in Liverpool, Lancashire, and Cheshire, and never lost sight of the belief that the vote was “a practical instrument for effecting reforms.” Among her many publications was a pamphlet entitled ‘What the Anti-Suffragist Men Really Think About Women’.

Cicely Hamilton, author of the touring suffrage spectacular A Pageant of Good Women, also 1909, was a speaker in February 1914 at a Women’s Inter-College Debate at Oxford.

Those who refused as non-voters to pay their taxes (no taxation without representation, like the colonial Americans before them) included Flora Annie Steel, whose short stories set in India have caused her sometimes to be called the female Rudyard Kipling. When she was nearly eighty she went to stay with an Oxford undergraduate grandson, so that she could do some research about philosophy in the Bodleian.

Ray Costelloe (later Strachey), who had also attended Newnham, Cambridge, and Bryn Mawr in Pennsylvania, was the first woman to attend lectures on electrical engineering at Oxford. She became a Strachey by marriage only after becoming closely associated with Strachey women in the suffrage struggle, and she published The Cause: A Short History of the Women’s Movement in Great Britain in 1928, dedicated to Millicent Garrett Fawcett.

Access Orlando for free for the whole of March, Women’s History Month.

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