The University of Reading is justifiably proud of the award of a chair to Edith Morley in 1908; her Professorship of English language was a landmark in the history of women in academia, and she is celebrated as the first woman to be appointed Professor at a university or university college in the UK. The wording of the previous sentence is important because her achievement has been disputed.
In 2017, the BBC News website published this report from Scotland:
The Royal Conservatoire of Scotland has uncovered the story of Emma Ritter-Bondy, whom it believes was the first female professor of a higher education institution in the UK. The Glasgow Athenaeum School of Music, which is now the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, made her Professor of Piano in 1892.
The article goes on to point out that this was 16 years before Edith Morley’s appointment. This is true. I believe it is also true that there was a female Professor at a teacher training college in Cardiff before 1908 (Dyhouse, 1995).
Some may wish to defend Morley’s claim by referring to geography (England versus the UK) or the relative academic status of each institution, but it seems to me that to pit these pioneering women against each other, in a competition they never asked to enter, merely detracts from their achievements.
What makes Morley particularly interesting and worthy of recognition, however, is that the chair wasn’t handed to her on a plate; she had to fight for it – and that is something that is often overlooked.
Reading’s first Professorships
In 1907, as a step on the long journey to becoming a university, University College Reading founded the Faculties of Letters and Science, appointed their respective Deans, and established eleven professorships.
Thus, the title of Professor was conferred on the lecturers responsible for the following subjects:
- Modern History (W. M. Childs, College Principal)
- Philosophy (W. G. de Burgh, Dean of Letters)
- Botany (F. Keeble, Dean of Science)
- Geography (H. N. Dickson)
- French Language and Literature (A. V. Salmon)
- Mathematics and Economics (A. L. Bowley)
- Physics (G. J. Burch)
- Chemistry (J. K. H. Inglis)
- Zoology (F. J. Cole)
- Agriculture (J. Percival)
- Fine Art (W. G. Collingwood)
It will come as no surprise that the subject missing from the above is English, nor that the professors were all men. The College Principal, W. M. Childs, makes no attempt in his memoir ‘Making a University’ of 1933 to explain this omission, nor to mention the struggle that ensued; he simply adds a footnote in small print to state that, ‘English language was added to this list in 1908.’ (p. 124). Edith Morley doesn’t even seem to merit the honour of an entry in the book’s index.
John Holt’s official history of the university also pays little attention to the affair, although he does refer the reader to Morley’s own ‘Reminiscences’. Holt’s single mention of Morley’s professorship is nothing more than second-hand gossip from a colleague claiming that she ‘pounded poor old Childs until he made her a professor’ (Holt, 1977, p. 89). Though Holt’s account is not entirely negative, the tone of this is in keeping with several other of uncomplimentary descriptions of her, such as ‘provocative, disturbing, aggressive, intransigent’ (p. 89) and a ‘rogue professor’ (p. 276).
It was statements such as these that prompted the social historian Carol Dyhouse to treat Edith Morley’s time at Reading as a case study in her history of women in British universities (Dyhouse, 1995, pp. 156-161: ‘Difficult careers: the case of Edith Morley’).
Originally, Morley had been led to believe that a smaller number of ‘outstanding’ heads of department would receive professorships. So she had no great expectations for herself. In fact, in her memoir, and elsewhere, she seems to doubt, or at least downplay, her own capabilities:
- ‘[I] had no illusions about my own merits.’
- ‘I possessed the makings of a tolerable scholar’
- ‘I knew that I had no claim to outstanding intellectual gifts and that it was beyond my power to produce original work of a high order.’ (Morley, 1944/2016, p. 115).
It was only when she realised that she was the sole lecturer responsible for an academic discipline who had not been given the title that she resolved to fight the decision. She was particularly incensed by what she perceived as the underhand and tactless way in which the whole business had been conducted, and believed she had a stronger case for a professorship on the grounds of both teaching and scholarship than some of the male heads of subject.
My next post will document Morley’s interactions with the Principal in pursuit of her claim for equality with her eleven male colleagues.
Childs, W. M. (1933). Making a university: an account of the university movement at Reading. London: J. M. Dent & Sons Ltd.
Dyhouse, C. (1995). No distinction of sex? Women in British universities, 1870-1939. London: UCL Press.
Holt, J. C. (1977). The University of Reading: the first fifty years. Reading: University of Reading Press.
Morley, E. J. (2016). Before and after: reminiscences of a working life (original text of 1944 edited by Barbara Morris). Reading: Two Rivers Press.
The first female professor in the UK. BBC News (2017), https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-39191297 (retrieved 13/5/2023).
University College, Reading. Calendar, 1907-8 & 1908-9.
University College, Reading. Report of Council, 1906-7.