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'A Serious Endeavour' is an account of the role of one Oxford college in the history of higher education for women. When it was first founded in 1886 there were very different views on what such education should be, even among its supporters. The university would not even grant female students degrees until 1920, and students were allowed to choose their own course of study and whether they would take formal exams or not before this.
Laura Schwartz draws together the threads of wide ranging research in a fascinating and readable story of St Hughes. Her sources include recent historical research and biography, but also 19th century writings on education, committee papers and student publications throughout the history of the college.
Schwartz outlines the context in which the college was set up by its founder, Elizabeth Wordsworth, and its first Principal, Annie Moberly - Wordsworth wanted to offer educational opportunity to daughters of the Church of England clergy, and chose Moberly as someone who shared her values and would appeal to and reassure the parents of would be students. The college was modelled on 'the life of a Christian family'. Student behaviour was closely observed and female students were expected to employ chaperones to accompany them to lectures.
Schwartz points out the contradictions and tensions between such apparent conservatism and the social and political pressures for change of which St Hughes' and other women's colleges were just part. Annie Moberly's successor Eleanor Jourdain actively supported the campaign for women's suffrage. The changes brought by WWI, the granting of the vote and the right to take degrees, the economic and social changes affecting the lives of students and staff at college, obviously had an impact but St Hughes also held on to its older traditions.
Different or Equal?
Later in the 20th century, the question of different or equal and the continued justification for the existence of separate women's colleges became a contentious issue, and St Hughes finally went mixed in 1986, more than 20 years before St Hilda's College gave up being women only.
Who Cleans a Room of One's Own?
One of the best parts of this book is Schwartz's examination of how the opportunities for young women to study and learn are supported by other women's domestic labour, in the chapter, Who cleans a room of one's own? Like other Oxford colleges, rooms in college are maintained by domestic staff. This is a subject which many other accounts of higher education, even those from a feminist perspective, don't consider much. The best known portrayal of scouts in a women's college is the rather hostile one in Dorothy L Sayers' novel Gaudy Night, in which domestic staff are described as stupid and philistine.
Whose Education is it Anyway?
Schwartz considers herself a socialist as well as a feminist, and the main text of the book ends with a chapter, Whose education is it anyway? which considers the issues of funding and protest, throughout the history of the college, particularly in more recent years around first the replacement of grants with loans, then the introduction of tuition fees, then right up to date with our current government's hikes in fees.
Notes and Pictures
This book is a serious scholarly work with nearly 50 pages of endnotes (and these ones contain enough extra material, anecdote and quotation to be worth reading alongside the main text) and a 20 page index. At the same time though, it is an accessible account of women's higher education which should be attractive to the general reader, with some black and white photos showing early students and staff at the college.
A Serious Endeavour was published by Profile Books in July 2011. The £17.99 cover price for a slim volume sounds a bit daunting, and even at Amazon it is £10.43 or £9.39 in Kindle ebook format. It is aimed at a more academic rather than a popular market. I can only hope libraries will buy it as, although it's about just one college, it is quite illuminating on the issues facing women in higher education well beyond St Hughes or even Oxford University.
This review originally appeared at www.thebookbag.co.uk