LSE Centennial Professor Mary Evans charts the history of women at LSE and the changing attitudes towards gender in higher education and society that occurred throughout LSE’s early decades. 

LSE opened in 1895 and among its famous founders were Beatrice Webb and Sidney Webb. Much less well known among those who contributed to the funds for the School was Charlotte Payne Townshend, the wife of George Bernard Shaw, who contributed an initial £1,000 and in 1911 endowed a scholarship for women only. The correspondence on the file about the endowment of the Library indicates that the Shaw Library was named in honour of Charlotte Shaw but somehow Charlotte has disappeared in the collective memory. When we speak of the ‘Shaw’ Library we might, therefore remember not just the man but also the woman whose husband happened to be a well-known author.

Charlotte and George Bernard Shaw, Beatrice and Sidney Webb, 1932

Seated: Sidney Webb, Charlotte Shaw, George Bernard Shaw, Beatrice Webb, 1932

LSE’s first Director was a Mr W Hewins and from the start the School offered ‘courses for various forms of training’. Those courses formed part of what became the BSc (Econ), first awarded in 1902 and from the first open to both women and men, ‘working people’ as they were named, and awarded without any gendered discrimination. In 1933 William Beveridge and Lionel Robbins established an Academic Assistance Committee, designed to support those academics forced to leave Germany. The funds were provided by voluntarily  top slicing salaries on a sliding scale. So by 1933 a progressive  presence had been established for the School: the public endorsement of  the idea that the life of a society could be ordered in such a way as to provide a greater degree of fairness and competence than that which  might result through  chance,  haphazard interventions or the exercise of inherited power.

From the first, there was a commitment at LSE to the de-naturalisation of social explanation; an assertion hugely important to questions of discrimination. It was in this institution that women played a significant but often complex part.

Beatrice Webb and Virginia Woolf

I want to introduce Beatrice Webb through the eyes of that famous couple, Leonard and Virginia Woolf. I am doing this in order to consider the different ways in which two exceptional women engaged with the twentieth century, how those different forms of engagement remain important and significant to this day and how they have implications for the ways in which universities, and LSE in this particular case, accommodate gender.

Virginia and Beatrice were both daughters from the prosperous, educated white upper middle class. Both, as was also the case for Mr and Mrs Bernard Shaw, enjoyed what is sometimes known by the more reticent biographers as ‘companionate’ marriages.

Beatrice Webb appears several times in the diaries of Virginia Woolf but I want to explore one account of her in particular: in 1917 Leonard and Virginia went to lunch with the Webbs and this is the account which Leonard gave. It is also a unique entry by Leonard in Virginia’s diaries: Beatrice Webb clearly aroused such strong feelings in both husband and wife that Leonard was allowed, on this single occasion, to add to his wife’s record of events:

‘ One of the worst Webb meals to which we have been… Mrs W began to talk almost at once about the Reconstruction Committee which she is on. She talked incessantly and every tenth word was Committee. She has apparently succeeded in inventing a committee for babies, a committee for lunatics, a committee for the sick, a committee for the disabled and a committee for the dead; but the scheme for the Cosmos is not complete because she has so far failed to invent a committee for the able-bodied and the unemployed. However, she still has hopes… Immediately after luncheon we fled.’

Beatrice Webb copy by Unknown photographer, glossy vintage print, 1883

Beatrice Webb, 1900, National Portrait Gallery

Let us consider some of the relationships in that text between gender and power and how they relate to the history of LSE. First, of course, we could regard Leonard Woolf’s remarks about Beatrice Webb as the irritation of a man about the interference of a woman in the public world. How dare she, Leonard might be saying, meddle in politics? Leonard himself was no mean meddler in politics and belonged, in his long life, to an extensive list of committees. But is there something more here than everyday sexism, as if misogyny was not enough.

Leonard’s spontaneous reaction (after the sparse and miserable lunch for which the Webbs were famous) was not just his, it belonged to those people, often male, who consider that the discussion and the organisation of politics should belong to those who already exercise power and who should be allowed to judge the ways in which it is exercised. Beatrice was a threat, not just for the problems of her approach to the social world but because of the challenge that this presented to the existing order of power. Beatrice made no secret of the fact that she wished to engage in the politics of the early twentieth century and that for her one of the important ways of doing this was to establish social institutions that might ensure better and improved  lives. We can regard this as interfering do-gooding but we could also regard it as a woman stepping with determination into the actual making of the social world, in itself constitutive not just of a challenge to the existing order but as a reproach for its manifest failings. This is not simply about making good the failures of the past and the present, it is about engaging with the idea of a better future.

Virginia Woolf stands as one of the great figures in English modernism, endlessly discussed and owned by competing critics. She ‘did’ the twentieth century in a way which was very different from that of Beatrice Webb and she was famously opposed to various forms of institutional recognition, refusing all kinds of honours. Equally important, as her non-fiction work demonstrates, she was passionately opposed to institutions organised through male privilege. From 1926 and A Room of One’s Own with its reformist agenda and mild satire she moved, in 1938 and in Three Guineas to a furious onslaught on the self-importance, pomposity and sheer absurdity of male dominated central state institutions.

Virginia Woolf by George Charles Beresford, platinum print, July 1902, , National Portrait Gallery

Virginia Woolf, 1902, National Portrait Gallery

Although Beatrice Webb and Virginia Woolf had very different attitudes to public and institutional life they also shared a sense that they had every right to engage with it. This engagement was never without a certain ambivalence in that in both cases their concerns for the general were often greater than their sympathies with specific human beings. But they nevertheless recognised something that was as important in the history of LSE as it is in the history of the twentieth century, the difference that gender makes in terms of the ways which dictate how women are expected to manage the ways in which they engage with the social world, or even, and even more challenging, exercise various forms of control over it. Virginia Woolf can be read as a fugitive from the ‘real’ world but this view does not accord with what she says here in Three Guineas. Writing about the ‘alarm bells’ that ring when challenges to changes to the gender order are mentioned in conversation she notes, ‘the physical symptoms are unmistakable… fingers automatically tighten upon spoon or cigarette.’ This is defining resistance to the discussion of the erosion of male privilege in the ways which many people outside its conventional order have long recognised; the shifts in body language, the exchange of significant glances, the rapid moving into other discussions: in all the discomfort that the mere mention of gender discrimination can create in many social contexts.

Woolf, in common with Beatrice Webb, was part of a generation which had lived through the seismic events of the First World War  and as such was appalled by the re-armament and the growing possibility of another European war that dominated the 1930s. But both had also seen in the suffrage campaigns explicit demands by women for alterations in the organisation of the state, the medium of the politics of war. Both were initially dismissive of suffrage, both also came to support it and in doing so entered that world where the word ‘woman’ and the idea of the ‘woman question’ came to acquire political meaning.

For all the difference between their forms of public engagement what Woolf and Webb together show us are the ways in which any study of institutional life has to recognise both the subjective life of any institution – and how that is made by gender – as well as the central and potentially positive place that bureaucracies of various kinds can play in our everyday lives.  Indeed, what it is possible to see in the persons of Virginia Woolf and Beatrice Webb are precisely those contrasting reactions to bureaucracy which their contemporary Max Weber was busy identifying on the other side of the Channel: bureaucracy provides a framework for all forms of democratic access but at the same time can create its own resistance to democracy through its narrow, elite expertise. Beatrice Webb, we might conjecture, spoke for the principal of fair and regulated access to state services, Virginia Woolf rebelled against the judgements and the authority of those who might manage the system.

LSE’s early years: 1895-1930s

So where were women in the early history of LSE – the first thirty years of the twentieth century – and how did the relationship between women and the institution change over the years?

Until the 1960s there was relatively little formal organisation of departments, although academics were appointed in particular subjects. What had started to become clear by the end of the 1930s was that women had a considerable presence, as both teachers and students, in one discipline in particular: Social Science and Administration. Many of  the teachers in that subject  were classified as ‘occasional’. This looks very much like the beginning of that pyramid structure throughout higher education in the UK in which women are much more present at the junior and more insecure ranks of staff than at the senior. Although casualisation has now become recognised as a feature of higher education it is clearly not a new one, so looking for the women not only reveals the existence of the women themselves but the beginning of a long term pattern that has existed to this day. It was only in the 1960s when the Robbins Report initiated an expansion in higher education that more ‘real’ jobs were created , some of which – although not many – went to women and went to women in those subjects in which women predominated as students.

LSE never imposed gendered rules about those who should, and those who should not, be given a degree. It did not follow the arcane practices of Oxbridge nor did it ever attempt some of the ‘fudging’ exercises of which other universities were capable. Equally, LSE did not exercise the dreaded marriage bar, which excluded married women from state school teaching and the civil service until after the Second World War. LSE, from the early years of its foundation, invited women to come and speak on various subjects; Beatrice Webb was one of those who contributed what was then a standard teaching practice of a series of five lectures on a specialist subject.

Eileen Power, c1930s

Eileen Power, c1930s

The question that arises from all these excellent practices is that of how this then emerged into a pattern in which women were largely absent from the public face of the institution, either as academics or as members of the administrative staff. This cannot be explained by the literal absence of women: three women (Christian Mactaggart, Jessie Mair and Eve Evans) were School Secretary in the period between 1896 and 1954: Mactaggart from 1896-1921 – although initially she did not enjoy the title of Secretary, Mair from 1921 to 1937 and Eve Evans from 1946- 1954. Eileen Power and Lillian Knowles were both Professors in Economic History, Vera Anstey was Sir Ernest Cassel Reader in Commerce, never a Professor but commemorated with a named physical space. Lillian Knowles was the first woman to become a Dean of the University of London  – in her case the Dean of the Faculty of Economics – in 1920.

In the period from the granting of the first degrees in 1902 up to the outbreak of the Second World War, and given the limitations in terms of expectations about the higher education of women, LSE was something of a pioneering institution, both in terms of the students admitted and the presence of women on the staff. But clouds were also gathering, not just in European politics but in thinking about women and the academy. All universities have to respond to such things as changes in government financing but as an institution LSE – perhaps because of its intellectual association with the social sciences – has always been  particularly receptive to changing ideas, some of which have been about gender. Not for LSE the Oxbridge debates about the admission of women to full degrees, the battles over co-education in the colleges or the explicit, written, refusal of women’s intellectual authority which we can see exhibited elsewhere. But on the other hand, there are important ways in which women have had to contest, consistently but in different ways against different forms of misogyny and dismissal.

The early days of LSE were certainly days of hope. If we look at the records of those teaching short courses or those teaching on the BSc Econ degree there are many women: according to my count there were 97 regular lecturers, and 57 occasional lecturers, women who taught in various capacities between 1895 and 1932. But only six of those women were ever on the Professorial Council and not all at the same time. A majority of those women taught in Social Science and Administration, the next most popular subjects were Economic History, Economics and Geography. All  the women deserve special mention, but three to single out here are Agatha Harrison, who held the first post in a British university that was specifically related to industrial welfare, Mary Christie, a Lecturer in Social Administration who was one of the first women on the LSE  academic board and Lucy Mair, initially appointed as a Lecturer in International Relations but from 1932 a Lecturer in Colonial Studies; subsequently a distinguished Professor of Social Anthropology. The administration of the Empire was an important concern of the early School; perhaps the instance and the influence of Leonard Woolf, an experienced colonial administrator himself was at work here.

Janet Beveridge (centre) and children, 1918

Janet Beveridge (centre) and children, 1918

The early days of the School also coincided with the powerful presence of British suffrage and its eventual triumph in the granting of universal suffrage, independent of property status in 1928. Although Woolf and Webb had their reservations about suffrage – ‘the screechers’ as Webb once described them – neither of them had any doubt that women’s suffrage was important. Webb became more enthusiastic, Woolf less dismissive. The white dresses, the banners that proclaimed the ‘respectability’ of the Suffragettes all emphasised that only good could come from the greater engagement of women with politics. The threat of endless committees, perhaps even headed by women, that had so enraged Leonard Woolf was diluted in the invocation of the presence of women in politics as part of the construction of a specifically  progressive future. The greater good of the world, as George Eliot had asserted at the conclusion to Middlemarch, was to lie in the unhistoric acts of those who lie in unvisited tombs; precisely the kind of women who played such a considerable part in the  early days of LSE in the teaching of Social Administration.  Those women contributed, in ways which were to become problematic, to a presence which very clearly placed the welfare of others at the top of the academic agenda. After the Second World War, the boundaries between Social Administration and Social Work sharpened: practice and theory started to move in different directions and those different directions were gendered.

In the first two decades of the twentieth century were powerful themes about the urgent need for the improvement of the material conditions of the majority of the British population with a sense that the early years of the twentieth century mark a fracture with the past. The idea of the ‘modern’ and being ‘modern’ had acquired associations with ideas about planning, reform and – loathed as it was at the time by some powerful voices – the ‘new woman’. That ‘new woman’ found a place in the study of the means for social improvement.  So here I am suggesting a homology between an identifiable and coherent set of ideas about the social world and the practices about gender of the early LSE.

But by the time we reach 1932 storm clouds are gathering, not just across Europe but in the perception of women in the academy. The dreams of a better future, organised and articulated through progressive forms of social organisation, had not been achieved.  The energy and the public presence that was part of the suffrage campaigns had become diluted; a sense of ‘job done’ as far as general ideas about gender equality came to the fore. Although many important feminist organisations did not disappear, elements of disruptive challenge disappeared. It is therefore here that we encounter different forms of relationship between general ideas about gender and gender in the academy re-emerging.

Lilian Knowles and Eileen Power

Lilian Knowles and Eileen Power were both economic historians, Lilian Knowles became a Professor in 1921, Eileen Power in 1931. So by 1931 the LSE had had two women Professors in a single department, a feature which few, if any, other universities or university colleges could match. Eileen Power was a self-declared feminist, while a condolence – letter that exists about  Lilian Knowles after her death in 1926 states that the writer, a distinguished doctor  named Janet Lane-Claypon ‘is glad that she  succeeded without the feminists’. We also know, from Maxine Berg’s biography of Eileen Power that she was enthusiastic in the encouragement of inter-disciplinary studies, and was celebrated in her obituaries for her general warmth, friendliness, her elegant dress and enthusiasm for life. I have never read an obituary for a male academic which comments on his clothes and of course what is important about the record of her excellent human qualities was often the minimal recorded praise of her intellectual achievements.

Lilian Knowles

Lilian Knowles

To return to Lilian Knowles and that remark about doing well ‘without the feminists’. It’s a few words but perhaps important ones, not least because those words are followed by a brief discussion by the writer of the letter about the cost to their physical  health of ‘exceptional’ women taking on men’s jobs. ‘Their staying power’ the author writes is not as great as that of men. These reflections – in which it is difficult not to suppose that the author is suggesting that Lilian Knowles brought about her premature demise by working too hard – is important for two reasons. One is that the rejection of the idea that there might be a place for feminist arguments in questions about the promotion of women is an early precursor of all those debates about the evils of positive discrimination, women only short lists and so on that have been part of political discourse since the 1980s. Second, the letter also contains, again in a pre-emptive way, that thesis that it is not the expectations implicit in the form of work that is a problem but an issue for the individual. An early glimpse into the world of ‘leaning in’.

The 1930s should have been a decade which rejoiced in being the first decade in British history to hold General Elections that were truly universal; it was the decade  in which we can trace an emergent conservatism about gender, what historians have described as ‘re-domestication’, a phenomenon that seems to beset many western societies with some regularity. In the 1930s it took the form of, for example, active campaigning by some Trade Unions to enforce the marriage bar in certain occupations – action specifically against women – and the exodus of women themselves from political activism. Thus the National Union of Societies for Equal Citizenship which had had 220 groups in 1920 had only 48 by 1935. In a completely different context, even as Chanel was introducing trousers for women the paraphernalia of womanhood, the hats, the gloves and above all the handbags had seen a lively growth in sale. Yet these new opportunities for consumption were not matched by any greater financial rewards for women: throughout the 1930s the average woman in paid work received half the salary of her fellow male worker; feminism it seemed, was ‘out of fashion’ and we can observe the emergence of that tradition of the assumption that we live in ‘post-feminist’ times.

Viola Klein, Anne Bohm and Ilse Boas

Wherever feminism was in the 1930s, it was overshadowed by political events that resulted in war but also with the arrival of remarkable women at LSE: Viola Klein, Anne Bohm and Ilse Boas. All these women came from Germany, all of them were to play a part in the history of LSE and indeed in the making of academic life. Viola Klein was the academic of the trio, Anne Bohm and Ilse Boas were long term members of the administrative staff; Anne Bohm becoming a legend in her lifetime as the head of the Graduate Office.

Helen Buckley (left) and Anne Bohm (right), Research Students Association Weekend, Hastings, 1948

Helen Buckley (left) and Anne Bohm (right), 1948

Viola Klein is famous for her two major publications, the first in 1946 was The Feminine Character: history of an ideology and the second, with Alva Myrdal, published in 1956 was Women’s Two Roles. Interestingly, The Feminine Character had been submitted by Klein for her second doctoral thesis and its original title was Feminism and Anti-Feminism: a study in ideology and social attitudes. Perhaps the dreaded F word of ‘feminism’ had persuaded Klein and her supervisor Karl Mannheim that the word ‘feminine’ was far more acceptable in a book title. Whatever the circumstances of this change of title, Klein’s book remained one of the very first of the post-Second World War world to examine the ways in which women have internalised a sense of being second class citizens. De Beauvoir was to give this thesis a more dramatic – indeed sensational – form in the construct of woman as ‘the other’ in The Second Sex but perhaps Klein has a particularly important place in the history of the School. Not only did Klein survive the traumatic circumstances of migration from her country of origin and the loss of her parents in the Holocaust but what she also did was to put on record what has been called the ‘presence of gender’. Eileen Power had done this in a sense in her books on Mediaeval Nunneries (1922), Boys and Girls of History (1926) and Mediaeval People (1924) but Klein was the first to consider the contemporary social implications of biological difference. Power’s lectures on Mediaeval Women were not published in her lifetime but collected after her death by her husband MM Postan.

The decade in which Klein published her second book, the 1950s, is always considered as one of the most energetically ‘domesticating’ in British history. Women historians in particular have named the ten years after 1945 as a decade which saw the re-creation, in new, more consumer-friendly terms, of the ideal of home, family and the world of Janet and John. But it was also the decade which saw the introduction of equal pay in state schools and the civil service and in less formal arenas cultural shifts towards what became famously misnamed as the world of the ‘angry young men’. Given that one of the great, if not the greatest, plays of the 1950s was Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey, we have to regard this naming with a mountain of salt. We should also note that Delaney’s play brought together issues of class, gender and race; an almost unique achievement in British drama in the twentieth century. Whatever we conclude about the social culture of the 1950s, universities – and LSE is no exception – did not occupy the same place in political momentum and engagement as they were to do in the 1960s and the 1970s and as LSE had done in the early years of the twentieth century.

Viola Klein, University of Reading special collections

Viola Klein, University of Reading special collections

Edith Morley

It is to those decades that I now turn and look in particular at the interventions and the connections between what became by the beginning of the 1970s of both increased access to higher education and vocal, trans cultural feminism. Edith Morley was a scholar in English literature, the first woman appointed to a Chair in a British university level institution, at Reading in 1908 – although Reading at that time was an extension of Christ Church, Oxford. When she was appointed to her Chair, she was not allowed to take the title of Professor of English Literature but had instead to be appointed as a Professor of English Language. Not for a woman associative expertise with canonical literature. In 1977 a biography of Reading University appeared in which the author,  J C Holt, described Morley as ‘aggressive’ and ‘a woman who frightened the most extrovert of men’. There was little mention of Morley’s work in the support of Jewish refugees in the 1930s or the pioneering work she did about the status of women in the professions, resulting in the 1914 publication of her Women Workers in Seven Professions: a survey of their conditions and prospects. She subsequently published, towards the end of her life an autobiography, Before and After: reminiscences of a working life in which she had set out her side of the story about working in the academy. Morley’s career shows the networks which could support and sustain women. In Morley’s case it was her links with the Fabian Society and individually with Maud Pember Reeves and Arthur Bowley and his wife Julia. 

At about the same time as Holt was writing a Professor at LSE requested information about Lilian Knowles in a letter which opened with the words ‘I am a little interested in Lilian Knowles’. That same person could not resist the temptation, in later correspondence, to point out that Lilian Knowles had been paid a ‘fortune’ at one point in her career, ‘very much more than Beveridge had received for establishing Labour Exchanges’.

Edith Morley, University of Reading special collections

Edith Morley, University of Reading special collections

Exceptionalism versus recognition

The remarkable and learned women who had worked at LSE in the early years of the twentieth century had contributed enormously to the institution and had often – although not always – been welcomed. But as the twentieth century went on, and as women visibly became more present in all public contexts, women became not a spectacular presence but a threat. In the case of Edith Morley at Reading, the hostile biographer and the comment that implicitly suggests the lack of importance of her work in the late 1970s is important. Competition around issues of prestige and promotion became a more visible and institutionalised aspect of the academy, new forms of credentialism appeared which did not bring with them greater democracy.

LSE in common with other academic institutions therefore should not only celebrate the women of its past but consider the ways in which the very celebration of exceptionalism is more complex than that of recognition. When we look back over the history of women at LSE what we can perhaps see is the way in which assumptions about the achievement of formal gender equality have often worked not to the betterment of the less privileged but as a stabilising force in terms of the relation of two things: the stabilisation of the existing power relations within the institution and the public face of the institution in terms of the outside world. These forms of stabilisation do nothing to disrupt forms of unspoken and implicit privilege, of place, of networks, of relations to care, of assumptions of entitlement to intellectual authority. The mythical ‘level playing field ‘ of various forms of institutional access are constantly disrupted by evolving narratives about the consistently highly gendered narratives about the academic ‘person’:  in the early twentieth century these narratives were about women’s formal access to public  politics. In the twenty first century the question becomes, perhaps, more closely associated with expectations of the neo-liberal subject: the ‘masters’, if not of the universes, then at least of the academy. Exactly the kind of relation to intellectual authority which Edith Morley was not allowed.

Contributed by Mary Evans (LSE Centennial Professor, Gender Institute)

With thanks to Sue Donnelly, LSE Archivist. This blog post has been adapted from After Beatrice: the hidden women in LSE’s history, an LSE public lecture by Professor Mary Evans.

Read more

Interested in women’s history? See Women at LSE

Please read our comments policy before commenting