bluestockings coverOriginally uttered in a faintly pejorative tone, a ‘Bluestocking’ was an 18th century literary luminary, an educated, intellectual woman. In Bluestockings – The Remarkable Story of the First Women to Fight for an Education, Jane Robinson reclaims the term and uses it to pull together an extraordinary tale of misogyny, determination, ambition and the quest for knowledge more than a century later.

In 1869, Emily Davis made history by creating a college for the first female undergraduates in England, in a house outside Cambridge. The lecturers were whoever could be persuaded to help out; the five students were not to actually be awarded degrees at the end of their courses. It would take two world wars before Cambridge allowed its female graduates to qualify, becoming the last university in England to do so – although it was the first English university to tolerate female students, after a fashion.

So what happened between 1869 and 1948? Who were the women who pushed the boundaries of education and perceived wisdom about the academic abilities of the ‘weaker’ sex? What was life like for those women at the edges of academia, striving for a world where further education would no longer be a privilege offered only to men? Answers to those questions provide the meat of Robinson’s very readable history.

Through interviewing and corresponding with some 120 of these women, as well as poring over endless letters, diaries, school records, reports and articles of the day, Robinson has created a very vivid and personal picture of life for women in the early 20th century. Individual stories are used to illustrate the kinds of hardships they faced and how they were overcome.

For one, there was the tide of public opinion to surf. Women were commonly considered to be by nature incapable of study, with their lighter brains and monthly bleedings. How could a body slighter than a man’s and regularly drained of lifeblood possibly cope with intellectual rigors? Surely if a woman studied too hard she would become not only unattractive but actually infertile.

Robinson starts with this point and then, through 11 thoughtful chapters, explores a quiet revolution, which has been all but forgotten next to stories of suffragettes throwing themselves before horses. While it’s easy enough to recognise the casual misogyny present in the late 1800s, as the dates become uncomfortably nearer to the 21st century it’s quite astonishing to realise how recently female education was inaccessible at worst, restricted at best.

Just what, apart from maybe teaching and nursing, were the nauseatingly labelled ‘graduettes’ good for?

It is incredible that barely 60 years after Cambridge finally deigned to award degrees to female students, the issues dominating the news are whether or not girls outperform boys academically and why girls are claiming a higher proportion of university places. Although of course this is telling in itself – we are still seeing education discussed in terms of an ongoing ‘battle of the sexes’.

Stepping back in time through Robinson’s book, the kinds of hardships facing women at university seem – thankfully – alien. Of course there were the financial issues which plague students to this day and problems of an ample workload. Yet on top of this, Bluestockings had to deal with ridicule, a battery of bizarre rules and regulations to prevent ‘vulgar’ behaviour that might discredit their entire gender.

Some also had to deal with realising that their hard-won fight to attend university was going to end in disappointment, for example some became disillusioned when they found the communal life unpleasant, or were dragged home by a family crisis, in a way their brothers never would have been.

Finally there was the issue of what to do with the nauseatingly labelled ‘graduettes’ – just what, apart from maybe teaching and nursing, were they good for?

All this is compelling enough, but what really makes Robinson’s tale required reading is the way it is told. Her style is wry, occasionally acerbic, often peppered with unconcealed incredulity. She weaves together the different life stories at colleges across the country, from women of varying backgrounds and ages, skilfully; the story of Constance Maynard, for example, appears across several chapters and eventually the mention of her name is like rediscovering an old friend. That Maynard’s father tried to bribe her out of accepting a university place by offering her a pony seems to tickle Robinson in particular, as she brings it up repeatedly. You can almost see her eyes rolling.

There are generous doses of warmth, humour and admiration for the women, which draw the reader in, but the writing is never sentimental and always delivers a healthy dash of realism. Robinson recognises that the women of the time often were helpless – conditioned to be so by their circumstances – and takes to task those disinterested or just plain vindictive tutors who set them up for a fall by offering impossible assignments with no background knowledge or explanation.

Probably the best way to sum up the essence of Robinson’s writing can be taken from her biography, which describes her as “an engaging social historian with an appreciative eye for eccentricity”. Put that together with the myriad personal histories of this extraordinary period of emancipation, and Bluestockings becomes a first-rate addition to anyone’s bookshelf.

Alexandra Roumbas Goldstein is a blogger, editor and charity online community manager. In the best traditions of the internet she loves technology, cats, reading and baking