Written by Virginia Rowan (BA German & Dutch, 1968) and Sanaya Robinson (Chemistry, 1984)
First Ladies, an event organised by the Bedford Society at Regent’s University, the former home of Bedford College, welcomed over 120 guests including Bedford College alumni from five decades, past Bedford College staff and a past and a current Bedford Society scholar.
The event was organised to mark the centenaries of the Representation of the People’s Act of 1918 and the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919 passing into law and highlighted the achievements of several pioneering women, a number of whom had studied at Bedford College.
After an introduction and welcome from Professor Aldwyn Cooper, the Vice Chancellor and Chief Executive of Regent’s University, the first series of speakers were introduced by Professor Ruth Livesey of Royal Holloway and Bedford New College (RHBNC) who chaired the session and the day most ably.
Katie Broomfield, a former lawyer and former Bedford Society scholar, now a postgraduate research student at RHBNC in her talk: ‘Before women were persons’, discussed the legal profession and the impact of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act on women who chose law as their profession. One example: before this act became law, Gwyneth Bebb, whose application to be admitted to the Law Society ended up in the Court of Appeal, which body acknowledged that Miss Bebb was ‘probably, far better than’ many male candidates ‘in point of intelligence and education and competency’ but because she was a woman in 1913 she could not be admitted to the Law Society. The first female to gain a law degree was Eliza Orme who graduated in 1888. It was only after three bills were passed by Parliament in 1919, supported amongst others by Millicent Fawcett, that women were able to practise as lawyers. Despite a high proportion of female law students, even today women face obstacles with only 15% of QCs being female.
The next speaker was Helen Thornley, Technical Officer at the Association of Taxation Technicians, who told the stories of The Two Ethels. Ethel Ayres Purdie was the first woman to be admitted to a professional accountancy body, The London Association in 1909. Ethel Watts, who was a student of Bedford College, with the support of Sir Harry Peat was the first woman to be admitted to the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales (ICAEW) by examination in 1924. She set up a women’s dining society as women members remained a rarity and even today only account for 28% of the membership of ICAEW.
The next talk was given by Dame Rosemary Spencer, a civil servant and diplomat in the Foreign Office and former HM Ambassador to the Netherlands, who spoke of her experience. When she joined the Foreign Office in 1962, there was a 10% quota for women and a “marriage bar” whereby women had to resign upon marriage, which was only lifted in 1972. During her early career, women were not usually offered the opportunity to learn ‘hard’ languages like Chinese, Russian, Arabic. Equal pay for women was introduced in 1955. The first married woman ambassador was appointed in 1982 and it has taken until 2018 for the first woman with a family to be appointed as the UK’s Permanent Representative to the UN in New York.
During the question and answer session that followed the talks, a key observation was that the UK had generally lagged other countries in continental Europe and the US in admitting women to the professions of law, accountancy and diplomatic service.
The first talk of the second session was about scientific research. Dr John Prebble, Honorary Fellow, former Vice-Principal and Senior Lecturer in Biochemistry at RHBNC, spoke of the work of Dame Kathleen Lonsdale in the field of X ray crystallography. Kathleen Lonsdale was a graduate of Bedford College, having been admitted as an undergraduate at the age of 16 despite initial reservations from Margaret Tuke. She excelled in her studies and was mentored by Professor Bragg of UCL, with whom she went on to work at the Royal Institution. Kathleen owned the whole of X ray crystallography in her time and did early work on the structure of benzene. She overcame considerable prejudice against women to be elected in 1945 as the first female Fellow of the Royal Society, a body founded in 1660. She later rose to the rank of Vice President of the Royal Society and was also made a Fellow of Bedford College, one of only four Fellows at the time.
This talk was followed by a session on female Chartered Surveyors presented by Carrie De Silva, Principal Lecturer in Law and Taxation, at Harper Adams University, who introduced us to Irene Barclay (1894 -1989). Irene Barclay was a graduate of Bedford College and the first woman to qualify as a chartered surveyor following the enactment of the Sexual Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919.
Carrie touched on Irene Barclay’s moving autobiography ‘People need Roots’ and described Irene’s considerable public service, especially in the field of housing.
Women’s public work after the Sex Disqualification (Removal) act of 1919 was the subject of Dr Anne Logan, Reader in Social History, University of Kent. Her remark ‘let’s hear it for the failures’ struck a chord with the audience and highlighted the contribution of many “statutory women”, for example, women who had no right to vote, yet stood as candidates to be MPs and others who served on public bodies, including Mary Bridge Adams, a Bedford College alumna. Why and how they failed is just as important a story for us to understand as the stories of women who succeeded in breaking down prejudice and illuminating areas of darkness in public life.
At the end of the various talks, it was striking to note that all the women whose lives and work we heard about was their commitment to improve the lives of the whole community, the whole country. They put the improvement of civic life first, before their own personal and private lives.
Generosity of spirit is an abiding experience of our alma mater. That spirit lives on thanks to all who participated in ‘First Ladies’.