‘By herself’: rediscovering the history of women at St John’s College, Oxford

This year St John’s College is celebrating the establishment of its new Women’s Network with a Women’s Festival on the 10th March 2018. As part of the festival, the Library has collaborated with Archives and Paintings to create an exhibition on the history of women at St John’s, from its founding in 1555 through to the modern day.

Rediscovering Women’s Stories

Using artefacts preserved throughout the College’s history, we hope to offer a window into the real, active ways in which women participated in university life in the centuries leading up to their acceptance as official members. Despite social barriers, women influenced the growth of the College and of higher education for women through their roles as benefactors, creators, educators, and more.

While the women depicted in this exhibition are important and fascinating figures, it is important to consider the limitations placed on them by their societies and the university itself. Wealth and familial connections liberated their position enough to have a visible, recorded impact on College life: for the vast majority of women, this was not the case. When exploring the lives of exceptional women, we must equally remember the immeasurable potential left untapped.

Guidance and Gifts

It is difficult to find evidence of women participating in College life in the early years of St John’s due to the many expectations, restrictions and obstacles that prevented women from engaging with public society and academia. Despite this, we are able to catch glimpses of the influence of women on the growth of the College primarily through their roles as benefactors. By supporting St John’s through gifts of money, literature and patronage, key female figures were able to take part in the processes that shaped the direction in which the College would develop.

Deed documenting Lady Joan White’s benefaction

The Foundress

From the founding of St John’s College in 1555, women emerge as key influencers of the College’s history. Lady Joan White was the wife of Founder Sir Thomas White, making her the College’s Foundress. Following Sir Thomas’ death, the College suffered financially and its position became uncertain. It was Lady White’s benefaction that rescued St John’s from instability.

The creation and preservation of portraits and documents celebrating other female relatives of Sir Thomas White, indicates some level of their visibility and relevance in relation to College life. A relationship also begins to manifest between the academic world of the College and the domestic world of the families and women behind the scenes.

van Dyck, Anthony, 1599-1641; Henrietta Maria (1609-1669)
Portrait of Henrietta Maria by Anthony van Dyck, 17th century.

Henrietta Maria

Henrietta Maria, Queen Consort of England, Scotland and Ireland (1625-1649) and wife to Charles I, was a key figure in the life of St John’s College Library. She was an ardent patron of the arts and her support was a catalyst for the Renaissance classic style seen in the College’s Canterbury Quad and Laudian Library. Henrietta Maria was herself a key figure in the opening of the Laudian Library, as revealed by contemporary accounts of the lavish celebrations. Despite becoming deeply entangled in the English Civil War, Henrietta Maria outlived her husband and survived the conflict. She is an ancestor of most of today’s European royal families.

Marg Cav
The title page of Cavendish’s Philosophical and physical opinions.

Margaret Cavendish

Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle-upon-Tyne (1623 – 1673), was an attendant to Henrietta Maria and a ground-breaking figure in women’s writing and academic. Her works circulated under her own name and her philosophy was well received, enabling her to become the first woman to attend a meeting at the Royal Society of London in 1667. Cavendish presented some of her books to St John’s College Library as documented in the library’s benefactors’ book, which recorded and celebrated acquisitions throughout the 17th and 18th centuries. In the male-dominated world of Enlightenment academia, Cavendish reminds us of the existence of women writers and academics who struggled against and occasionally broke through societal norms.

Elizabeth Baylie

Elizabeth Baylie connects three generations of St John’s College Presidents. She was the niece of Archbishop Laud, the wife of Richard Baylie, and the mother-in-law of Peter Mews. Her role in the history of the College reveals the way in which academic positions were inseparable from familial relations. Rather than a divided male public sphere and female domestic sphere, the overlaps between the College and the home suggest that women may have had a stronger influence over academic life than is immediately apparent.

Sarah Holmes
Sarah Holmes painted by Enoch Seeman the Younger (c.1694-1745).

Sarah Holmes

Sarah Holmes was the wife of William Holmes, who was President of St John’s College from 1728 to 1748. Records reveal that Sarah played a crucial role in guiding and encouraging William’s benefaction, resulting in the construction of the Holmes Building. The grand monument to William in the chapel was created on Sarah’s instruction. Sarah also made her own bequest to the College, providing money for scholarships.

Cataloguers and Creators

St John’s College owes much of the preservation and organisation of its artworks to women, who catalogued its extensive collection. The collection includes paintings of women, including members of royalty, wives of academics, and some anonymous figures. However, women are not limited to art subjects, and frequently feature as creators. Recent presidential portraits have been painted by women, such as Victoria Crowe’s painting of William Hayes (1991) and Susan Ryder’s painting of Sir Michael Scholar (2010).

Sunflowers by Beryl Atkinson

Beryl Atkinson

Beryl Atkinson was secretary of St John’s College, and a talented painter. Some of her paintings are still held by the College.

Paintings by Vera Ellen Poole

Vera Ellen Poole

Vera Ellen Poole was the wife of Austin Lane Poole, who was a history tutor at St John’s College from 1913 and the College President between 1947 and 1957. Despite Vera’s artistic accomplishment, her painting was largely restricted during her marriage. The College has kept several of her paintings.

Cat Entry
A catalogue entry by Rachael Lane Poole – p171, vol. 3

Rachael Lane Poole

Rachael Lane Poole was the wife of university archivist and the mother of college president Austin Lane Poole. She is a central figure in the preservation of university and local history, having catalogued artworks not only for St John’s, but for the Bodleian and many of Oxford’s public buildings. Her work, the three volume Catalogue of Portraits in the Possession of the University, Colleges, City and County of Oxford (1920), is still widely used by those researching art in Oxford and St John’s College.

Angela Scholar’s catalogue, 2004.

A more recent catalogue was compiled in 2004 by Angela Scholar, who researched the artworks held in the President’s Lodgings.

Educators and Activists

The nineteenth century saw the beginning of the British suffragist movement, including campaigns to expand women’s academic and professional opportunities. Emily Davies (1830-1921) was a pioneering activist for women’s higher education and a founder of Girton College in Cambridge. Her landmark book, The Higher Education of Women (1866), asserts that access to university-level education was essential for women and society on a whole. The text also provides an insight on the experiences of young women unable to pursue their intellectual interests, and their frustrations at feeling trapped in the domestic world.

There is no point on which schoolmistresses are more unanimous and more emphatic than on the difficulty of knowing what to do with girls after leaving school. People who have not been brought into intimate converse with young women have little idea of the extent to which they suffer from perplexities of conscience. ‘The discontent of the modern girl’ is not mere idle self-torture. Busy men and women, and people with disciplined minds, can only by a certain stretch of the imagination conceive the situation. If they at all entered into it, they could not have the heart to talk as they do.

For the case of the modern girl is peculiarly hard in this, that she has fallen upon an age in which idleness is accounted disgraceful. The social atmosphere rings with exhortations to act, act in the living present. Everywhere we hear that true happiness is to be found in work; that there can be no leisure without toil; that people who do nothing are unfruitful fig trees which cumber the ground. And in this atmosphere the modern girl lives and breathes. She is not a stone, and she does not live underground. She hears people talk – she listens to sermons – she reads books.

(Davies 43-45)

Unofficial Academics

Throughout the 19th century and much of the 20th century, further education was still largely inaccessible for women. Despite this, women in Oxford made use of their academic surroundings and organised their own education on an unofficial level.

In her research on the lives of Oxford academics’ wives, Shirley Ardener (The Incorporated Wife, 1984) reveals the active, exciting world of women’s academia long before women became official university members. Women unofficially attended university lectures, illustrated by a series of geology lectures in which “the class [was] chiefly composed of women”, and played significant roles in academic life, such as examining. Fellows’ wives also played an important pastoral role, hosting events such as tea parties and breakfasts for students.

Restrictions in their participation in the life of the University compelled women to incorporate their academic curiosity into the domestic sphere, resulting in lectures and debates taking place in drawing rooms rather than lecture halls. Lectures and seminars organised for women by women outside of the command of the University evolved into the early colleges for women.

Colleges for women

The first colleges for women in Oxford opened in 1879, although they were not granted full collegiate status until 1959. St John’s supported the founders of women’s colleges by selling them property on generous terms.

The First Cohort

Amendment to College Statutes

Women were first admitted as members of the College in 1978, when the first Junior Research Fellowship was awarded to a woman. In Michaelmas 1979, the first cohort of women undergraduates arrived. This shift was documented in the college records and formalised in the statutes.

Cohort Photo
Martriculation photograph, 1979

“We have of course had other women lecturers recently, and we now have our first woman Junior Research Fellow, Ann Jefferson, formerly Lecturer in French; but as yet no woman is a member of the Governing Body. It is a noticeable lack, for there will be over thirty women undergraduates (including six scholars and exhibitioners, and also an Organ scholar) coming up in October. This is the outcome of the first entrance examination which has been open to women; they have secured about 30% of the places.”

St John’s College Record 1978

“More than one person has commented that this year the College has seemed more of a College in the proper sense than it has done recently. Conjecture is inclined to associate this with the advent of the first mixed intake: there are some thirty women in the first year, and the same number next October.”

St John’s College Record 1979

Looking Forward

Since 1979, St John’s College has seen the matriculation of more than 2000 women, and their impact across the world can be seen in fields such as politics, sport and journalism. In 2012 Professor Maggie Snowling became the college’s first woman president. The talent, determination and energy of St John’s women are demonstrated by their achievements and leadership both in college life and beyond.

Written by Rhiannon Williams; with thanks to the St John’s College Women’s Network, Dr Juliana Dresvina, Michael Riordan and Dr Georgy Kantor.

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