Scandal and segregation in the early years of women’s higher education

Helen Sunderland

Last week, Georgia Oman, a PhD student at Newnham College, Cambridge, kicked off this term’s programme with a fantastic paper on the gendering of space at the University of Wales, Bangor. It was a story of suspicion and scandal. Georgia used a notorious incident of a female student’s alleged inappropriate conduct and the libel case against the university’s Lady Principal which followed, to uncover deeply entrenched anxieties about interactions between men and women in co-educational institutions.

The attempt in 1892 to stop mature student Violet Osborn from befriending (and potentially corrupting) an ‘impressionable’ younger undergraduate drew on prejudices about class, nationality and age that were played out spatially. Because Violet rented private rooms in town – a cheaper option than university accommodation – she sat awkwardly in between the town/gown divide. The difference between students living in closely-supervised halls and lodging out was a moral as well as a geographical one.

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I was particularly interested in the media storm that resulted from such a localised incident. The scandal was debated in the Houses of Lords and Commons and reported in the press up and down the country. In my own research in this period, isolated examples of elementary school children being exposed to party political opinions in the classroom were treated in much the same way. At opposite ends of the educational spectrum, new initiatives – women’s higher education and universal elementary education for the working classes – were particularly vulnerable to attack.

After the scandal, Georgia explained, Bangor increasingly turned to the built environment to control its students. The rebuilt campus of 1906 separated male and female students through its architecture. Punishments for breaching the increasingly strict regulations on gender-segregation at Bangor were also spatial. Students might get ritually ‘sent down’ – away from the university – or be confined within it through curfews.

Georgia’s approach to use “architecture as lingering evidence for gender segregation” at Bangor is an effective and challenging one, which fitted particularly well with Professor William Whyte’s paper at the Modern Cultural History Seminar the following evening. He argued that architects in the ‘age of industry’ increasingly saw buildings as agents and instruments for reforming their occupants and, to carve out their own professional space, architects sought to educate the public in these ideas. Together, the papers challenged me as a historian who mainly uses textual sources to consider the materiality of the places in which my subjects live, work, study and travel. While traces of this enter the written, visual and oral record, the ‘language’ of the built environment itself is a useful and often untapped source in our histories. What might architecture be lingering evidence for in our own work?

As university students ourselves, workshop members were particularly interested in unpacking the restrictions our predecessors faced. We discussed the mechanics of chaperonage, and the restrictions female students encountered accessing not only social spaces but the places where knowledge was held – libraries and lectures.

Overall, the co-educational university emerged paradoxically as a place both of increasing control but also social opportunity. As Georgia argued, the mixed university was a space of romantic possibility. In a somewhat unexpected finale to the Bangor scandal, the nearly-disgraced student Violent Osborn married one of the professors and, taking on the role of the academic wife, established herself in the institution more permanently.

Image: Main Arts Building, Bangor University. Photograph by Denis Egan, Creative Commons license

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