Centenary Event recording 'A thing inexpedient and immodest': women in the University of Oxford's School of Geography now available online

Estimated reading time:
55 minutes
The School of Geography's first degree cohort in 1934

On 16th October Dr Elizabeth Baigent, Reader in the History of Geography at the University of Oxford, delivered a special event uncovering the hidden stories of the School of Geography and the Environment's first female geographers.

The event formed part of the University's Women Making History campaign, which celebrates women's contribution to scholarship and to progressive change at Oxford and marks 100 years since the first women were awarded degrees at the University in 1920.

A recording of the event, 'A thing inexpedient and immodest': women in the University of Oxford's School of Geography, is now available to view online:

['A thing inexpedient and immodest': women in the University of Oxford's School of Geography]

Professor Gillian Rose: "Hello, I'm Professor Gillian Rose. I'm the Head of the School of Geography and the Environment and I'm delighted to be introducing this talk. Once every term the School of Geography hosts a research seminar that we hope will be of wide interest to all our staff, and this seminar, this term, is a very special all-staff seminar because it's part of the women making history campaign that's just been launched by the University to mark 2020 as the centenary of women's right to matriculate and to graduate here, in other words to become full members of the University.

"Now that was just a first step on a journey that the University and the School are still on, a journey towards becoming fully diverse and inclusive academic communities, but we're marking the hundredth anniversary of this afternoon by exploring a thing 'inexpedient and immodest' apparently - women in the Oxford School of Geography, and I'm delighted to welcome Dr Elizabeth Baigent who will speak to that topic.

"Dr Baigent is Reader in the History she's been research director of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography and she's particularly interested in how biography can uncover geography's hidden histories. She sits on the on the history of geography and she co-edits its serial, Geographers: Biobibliographical Studies, and next year she'll be convening a conference taking place to commemorate 100 years of degrees for women at the University of Oxford. I am delighted to hand over to Liz right now."

Dr Liz Baigent: "Thanks Gillian for that introduction. It's lovely to be here today talking as part of the University's celebrations to mark 100 years of women's graduation, and it's lovely to be able to talk about how in particular that has relevance for the School of Geography.

"So, a thing inexpedient and immodest: women geographers at the University of Oxford. Now I take the title of my lecture from a University Sermon given in 1884 by J.W. Burgon, whom we see here. "To educate young women like young men and with young men, a thing inexpedient and immodest," he said. Now Burgon was described by his recent biographer as an indefatigable champion of lost causes and impossible beliefs, so we mustn't pretend that all men, or all clergymen, thought along the same lines as Burgon. This was by no means the case, and in any case, there were already by 1884 when he gave his sermon, there were women in Oxford. They were in Oxford but they were not of Oxford. So they were in Oxford having a higher education but not on the same lines as men and not with men.

"Some of the landmarks of women in Oxford are in 1879 when Somerville and LMH and the forerunner of St Anne's (the Society for Home Students) - they were all founded in 1879 - and in 1875, since then, women had been taking degree level examinations for women. But women's colleges didn't have the same status as men's and women, as we know, couldn't take their degrees until 1920 and the image that you see there is of women waiting to enter the Sheldonian in Michaelmas Term 1920 to graduate but of course they'd had to wait a great deal longer than simply waiting in the foyer there. So, there were women in Oxford, but they were not of Oxford and it was this really that Burgon was objecting to. He accepted that the women were here to stay but what he really was objecting to was that they would be objected like young men, so following the same syllabuses for example, and with young men, alongside young men. And he was not the only person to be concerned about this and the key thing to point out here is that Oxford was a residential university, so in many other universities, for example in London or the Scottish universities, many students, not just women, many students lived in their parental home so admitting women to courses alongside men, was relatively unproblematic. But at Oxford and indeed Cambridge being residential universities this caused particular anxieties, moral anxieties, disciplinary questions peculiar to a residential university. And so Burgon was articulating these widespread anxieties about admitting women to a male residential university.

"But as we know, Burgon lost the battle and in 2020 we celebrate 100 years since women did achieve the right to be educated like young men and with young men. So, it's the centenary of women's right to matriculate, so the first step on their official university journey, and to graduate and to become full members of the University of Oxford. Now of course we celebrate this and we know that this landmark was achieved before Cambridge, substantially before Cambridge, but after many other universities so we need to temper our celebrations with realisations that it had taken a long time and indeed some restrictions on women remained after that 1920 landmark. For example, women's colleges didn't exist on quite the same basis as men's colleges and this excluded their heads from important university offices. So, it is a cause for celebration, but we need to temper our celebration.

"The canonical account of the struggle is told in this book, 'Degrees by Degrees' by this formidable woman Annie Rogers, and Rogers was amongst the first women to graduate in 1920, having got a first in the examination for women in 1877 in Latin and Greek and another first, two years later in 1879 in Ancient History. And in this book, Rogers focuses on the battle for degrees which she sees as the central feature in the struggle for women's education at Oxford and she tells the story of the admission of Oxford women's students to membership of the University as her subtitle declares there.

"A more recent account of that same struggle, building on Rogers's canonical work was the account in the excellent history of the University by Janet Howarth. Janet Howarth sets the struggle for degrees for women into a wider context and additionally she considers women's wider experience in Oxford's new qualifications, diplomas and certificates for example, on its non-qualification courses and in general in its colleges, halls and societies, and I can recommend that if you'd like to read more.

"But slightly counterintuitively, today I'd like to, as we celebrate degrees for women, I'd like to focus on those non-degree qualifications. Now there were proposals to have an Oxford degree level diploma for women as a device for precluding them from taking their degrees, now these proposals failed, I'm happy to say, but nonetheless there were diplomas in new subjects such as education, geography, anthropology, and these from the start were open to men and women. They provided intellectual training but also vocational training, particularly for school teaching, and in imperial service - useful training about different parts of the world for missionaries, for men going into the imperial civil service, the Indian civil service I beg your pardon, and other imperial servants. It is rather counter-intuitive to be talking about these today but I think that as we celebrate degrees these non-degree qualifications can get overlooked and of course they're important for geography so that's what I'd like to focus on today.

"So, geography… here we see the School of Geography in Mansfield Road, its home from 1922 to 2005, and I'm sure it's familiar to a lot of the alumni who are with us today. Geography was one of the first subjects to have a diploma subject at Oxford. It also had a shorter certificate and ran summer schools for schoolteachers during the vacation and those activities took place between 1901 and 1939. From 1932 they were became less popular because that was the year in which Geography established its own degree, its own Final Honour School, and having got a degree the non-degree qualifications fell off in popularity and in 1939 they were stopped. I'm going to be focusing on that period of 1901 to 1939 to look at those non-degree qualifications which really shaped the early School of Geography.

"Oxford's School of Geography - here's a picture of its first home above in the old Ashmolean building on Broad Street, I'm sure many recognise the building - its canonical history is really male. In 1887 the School was founded by Oxford men plus an all-male Royal Geographical Society. That Royal Geographical Society was male until 1913 when the first women were admitted. The first postholder in Oxford was a man - he was Halford Mackinder, Reader in Geography, and the School of Geography was known for providing courses for male imperial servants. Its own account of itself really is that it had a shaky early history but was held together by heroic self-sacrificing male leaders and in the 20th century it undertook heroic war work in in the Second World War under Professor Kenneth Mason. This war work was involved in researching and publishing the Admiralty Handbooks, these were handbooks for service people, so that wherever they were in the world there was a geography of that area for them so they could find their feet quickly in it and carry out their war work effectively.

"This canonical history is thoroughly male - geography comes out as wedded to an imperial cause, a site of heroic male endeavour, with heroic leaders holding the thing together and strategically important to the nation in its war work. The rhetoric of its early leaders shows that they conceived the discipline and the School as male. Here we have Sir Charles Firth, who is an historian, and he described in 1918 how Oxford's Geography diploma was designed for 'Honours men'. Now by that he in fact meant people who'd already graduated, who'd done their honours, but nonetheless we know that the population of people who had done their degrees, who'd done honours, included women by this time not at Oxford but at other universities, but nonetheless Firth is describing the School as for 'Honours men'. Firth, of course, was an important modernizing historian, so I'm not at all suggesting that he was a sort of backwoodsman in this sense, he is a modernizing figure but nonetheless he conceives geography in these male terms.

"Sir Halford Mackinder, the first postholder, said that the high point of his Oxford years were the "two or three men with a strong inclination to geography who would make it a speciality were there sufficient opportunity" so again he has picked on these two or three men whom he sees as the ideal core of a geography endeavour in Oxford. Halford Mackinder later became an MP and he was an important anti-suffragist and we'll come back to that theme later on and certainly he had an imperial vision for geography that fits in with his identification there of men as the high point of his Oxford years.

"Now Mackinder's successor, Herbertson, A.J. Herbertson, dreamed, in rather difficult circumstances, of a School of Geography for training the men who are to shape the destinies of their country and of their time. And he also wanted to establish geography there with an honour school in natural science. So he's envisioning it as a training ground for men and he's envisaging that the training is going to be in natural sciences and we know that natural sciences particularly in this time, but still today, attract a preponderance of men.

"Lieutenant Colonel Kenneth Mason, whom I've already mentioned in connection with the School's work, he described the School of Geography as "training men for the Colonial Office, the Church, the Army, and the Air Force… business and banking." At the very, very end of the list of professions that geographers might go on to, he finally recognized school teaching and that was the only profession that he thought geography would be useful for which women were allowed to enter.

"So again, he sees it as a male training ground. So overall the discipline of geography and the institution of the School of Geography in Oxford are portrayed as male in its canonical histories.

"However, the iconography of the School tells us a different story. This is perhaps the most famous photograph of the School of Geography in its early years. It's of the first diploma students in 1901 and you'll notice in the front row we have Joan Reynolds who was in the first cohort of students. And so, we see women are present from the start and in fact Joan there is one of three students, the others are tutors, so she's one of three students pictured in that photograph, that I'm sure many alumni will remember up in the main hall of the School of Geography building. So right from the start we have women as a presence in the School's iconography.

"Here's a picture of some diploma students in 1916 and you can see a large number of women students there, and the middle row are tutors and we have a woman tutor there, Nora MacMunn, whom we'll come back to later. Here are some images, some other nice ones of Oxford summer vacation courses and again you'll see that there are a large percentage of women on these vacation courses identified by their very elegant hats. This is the first degree cohort in 1934 and again women are there prominently. There are four women and five men, and the other five men are male tutors. So, the iconography refutes Oxford Geography's wholly male story and in fact so does its history. Let's go back to some of those people whom we've already met.

"Now on the front row, there second from the left, is Dorothy Doveton. She was the first person to get a first-class degree in Geography and the first person to hold the School of Geography's graduate research scholarship. She wasn't just the first woman to do these things, she was the first person to do these things. The first person to get a doctorate in the School of Geography was En-Lan Liu, who was a Chinese-American student who took her degree DPhil in 1940, from Ginling College where she had her undergraduate training. And we also see Nora MacMunn, whom we've met before, that tutor in the middle row there, she was the longest serving of the School's early tutors - she served for 33 years, which is longer than all these heroic male leaders combined. So, in fact iconography and history refute Oxford Geography's wholly male story and so do its statistics.

"Now we've mentioned the various qualifications in geography and we can see that the main qualification is the Diploma in Geography, that's the two-year course, and we can see actually a preponderance of students were women: 168 compared with 100 men. Women were outnumbered in the shorter Certificate in Geography and there weren't any women at all in the Certificate for Surveying because that was for imperial servants who were necessarily male, so overall there were slightly more men than women, 226 compared with 207, but in the main qualification there were actually more women than men. And similarly, statistics about staff - we go back to the 1910 summer school, which we can see in this nice image here, there were 19 demonstrators of whom 11 were women. So, statistics, iconography and history all start to make that wholly male story creak a bit.

"So who were these women that we know nothing about? Well, the early women students, whom I'm going to say a bit less about today - I'll focus on the staff, they were almost all actual or potential school mistresses. Many were older than typical undergraduates. Some were taking the diploma after taking a degree at another university some were doing a diploma after doing their Oxford final examinations, so as we remember they couldn't graduate but they had done all the three years of education for that, and some were doing their diploma instead of a degree, and the key thing is that they had a firm career path and their salaries on that career path gave them economic power in a really precarious School of Geography. We'll come back a bit later on to how precarious the School was.

"Who were the women staff? I'd like to tell you some of their stories in a little bit more detail. The first one really is Fanny Herbertson, now she was a clever woman, she started off as a classicist. In 1888 she got her BA from London University, she got a first in classics and was placed equal second in the University as a whole which is a really remarkable achievement if we consider how important classics were in a typical public school education which boys secured. So, she was a really very clever linguist. She was a school mistress at Cheltenham Ladies' College, but she was interested in ideas about sociology and geography and in 1893 she married A.J. Herbertson who was at the School of Geography later, he was at that point at Manchester, and so she married and she really changed direction in her intellectual and publishing life to support geography and she was a de facto staff member at the School.

"She was really important in establishing geography. Geography, like other new subjects, needed a firm base in schools if it was going to survive at university and the Herbertsons, Andrew and Fanny, were really important in securing a place for the Oxford School of Geography in that story. So, the Herbertsons established biennial summer schools for schoolteachers and 850 schoolteachers attended those summer schools on which Fanny taught, and they were really, really important in raising the standard of geographical education in schools so that it could subsequently be raised in universities. And Fanny was by no means just a hanger-on on these summer schools, here's a description of her, "Mrs Herbertson, busy, energetic… a driving force at the summer schools, always everywhere, keeping everyone up to scratch'." She was really heavily involved in the geographical teaching although she didn't have an official post at the School of Geography.

"She was also an absolutely prolific writer of geography textbooks for schools in the nation and also the empire. She wrote some with her husband, A.J. Herberson, and some alone. Here's an example of one: "Descriptive Geography from Original Sources", which is actually a rather attractive series that she wrote. She said she aimed to depict the world in the language of men who've seen it. Fanny who was the author, you'll see she's first on the cover there, A.J. Herbertson comes second as the series editor, she selected and reproduced travellers' accounts, consular reports, and other accounts of different parts of the world in the language of the men who'd seen the world in fact. And the 'men' who've seen the world in fact included women, so, for example, Fanny gave excerpts of Lady Brassey's travel account of Central and South America in Fanny's own volume describing that part of the world. Lady Brassey, for those who are interested in travel writers, was a rather famous travel writer at this point she sailed round the world on her yacht, the Sunbeam, and had a nice time in various places, various parts of the world, which she wrote about and took photographs of. So, Fanny Herbertson is aware of the breadth of literature out there about different parts of the world and includes it in her geographical textbooks. Fanny Herbertson never had a formal post in the School but she's a really important figure in securing its early development.

"Someone who did have a formal position was Nora MacMunn, and again we see her in that middle row as a tutor and she's on the left there. Now she had pursued modern history at Oxford, she'd done the Final Honour School in modern history, and had followed that with a diploma in geography. And after having done the diploma she was immediately appointed Demonstrator in Geography, so she was only the second woman to hold a university position at Oxford, which is a really important landmark. She progressed up the scale at Oxford: Senior Demonstrator, Assistant Lecturer, Lecturer, and so on, and she was amongst the first cohort of women to graduate in 1920. She was at the School of Geography and she also taught at the Society for Home Students - if you remember, that's the forerunner of St Anne's College.

"She made an important intellectual contribution, here are some of her publications, she like others in the School of Geography was writing regional geographies, which was the reigning paradigm in Oxford in geography education at the time, and she wrote accounts for Oxford Geography series but also in things like the Oxford Survey of Empire where she gave a very crisp account of the strategic importance of Gibraltar and Malta showing her strict army family background. She had a really, very firm grasp of strategy. She also wrote geographical teaching materials and with her early training as a historian continued her scholarly historical research. Interestingly she was also heavily involved in the suffrage movement. Now this was originally an artifact of her home background - her mother and her sister and she were all very active in the women's suffrage propaganda league in their hometown. She was a speaker and a marcher she gives us a very nice account of how after one particular march she was being chased by the police and had to dodge into an empty house and didn't turn on the lights so the police wouldn't know she was there. When she came to Oxford she joined the Oxford University Women's Suffrage Society but importantly she was also involved in the Women's Social and Political Union.

"Now the suffrage movement had many different ramifications but there were some suffrage societies which were purely non-violent and others which were prepared to countenance militant measures and the WSPU was on the militant wing. As the WSPU espoused more militant methods, many people, many women, felt they could no longer support it. However, Nora MacMunn was not one of those - she continued to support the WSPU and in fact even increased the level of her financial contributions after violence was increased. She was also a member of the Women's Tax Resistance League, they had a slogan of 'no taxation without representation' so they said that since they weren't represented in parliament and they couldn't vote, they were not going to pay their taxes. As a single woman Nora MacMunn was responsible for her own taxes. Married women's husbands were responsible for married women's taxes so this was a significant step for Nora MacMunn. Actually I don't know whether she earned enough from the School of Geography to be liable to pay income tax, that's a subject for future research! So she had at least a theoretical commitment to refusing tax.

"The School of Geography seemed to be emerging as a center for suffrage activity in the University, that will need some more research, but it's an interesting question. We know of four suffragettes who were attached to the School of Geography. Nora MacMunn has this very substantial and long-term connection to the School. Her sister, Lettice, who was also active in the St Leonard's and Hastings branch of the women's suffrage propaganda league but also was a WSPU supporter, and she was involved in teaching on a summer school because she was an art teacher she was teaching field sketching which was a traditional geographical skill at the time. So she was involved with the School of Geography, but not long term. Another WSPU member was Madeline Fripp. Like MacMunn, she had been a modern historian and then became a geographer, did the certificate and then registered for the diploma, we're not sure she ever actually completed it, but she wrote geographical articles and she was one of the first women fellows of the RGS, so she thought of herself as a geographer. She was involved in the WSPU in Oxford as a committee member, she supported the WSPU financially and she was absent from the 1911 census. Now this was again another way of resisting, of agitating for the women's suffrage, was to say that if the state didn't recognize me as a person because it wouldn't let me vote, then I would evade the census of 1911. There was a a broad campaign for census evasion, which was of course illegal, so this was quite a significant step. Negative evidence is tricky, you can't actually tell why someone was absent from a census and it's possible that they were simply overlooked, but I think it's significant, given her other activity, that she was absent from that census. So she's our third suffragette, and our fourth suffragette in the School of Geography is Dorothy Wharton who again was absent from the 1911 census and much more tellingly she was actually, in 1912, she was sentenced to a month's imprisonment for malicious damage in a suffrage protest. The following year she achieved her diploma with distinction so I think she must have been a diploma student while she was sentenced to a month's imprisonment.

"So, Oxford School of Geography does seem to have had some quite significant suffrage activity, that's something that needs more research, but I think it's rather… it's certainly a rather distinguished part of Geography's history here in Oxford. Now while we can't link the campaign for Oxford degrees for women simplistically to suffrage, links between the two are evident at an individual level and we see influence of family background here rather than necessarily Oxford. We can see, for example, with the MacMunn sisters that they were already wedded to suffrage before they arrived at Oxford, but there does seem to be a little cluster of suffrage activists in Geography, Nora MacMunn being central and she was a suffragist before she came to Oxford, so Oxford didn't make these women suffragists, but it's interesting that they clustered in the School of Geography when they were here.

"On to our next staff member, Mary Marshall, who may be a face that's familiar to some alumni. She was a Demonstrator in the School, and then Departmental Lecturer, and then Senior Lecturer, and she was at the School for many, many years as you can see there. She had a very busy war on geographical work, initially she was cartographer to the Oxford War Agricultural Committee and was working under a great deal of pressure then. In the latter part of the war she was a Geographer, formal title, on the Naval Handbooks which were based at the School of Geography. These Admiralty Handbooks, or Naval Handbooks as they're called, and she worked on the three listed there: 'Turkey', 'Palestine and Transjordan' and 'Western Arabia and the Red Sea', and was important in contributing to these mainly jointly authored works which were to help service personnel find their way around different countries where they'd been posted. In really a frantic level of output she was also really involved in the Land Utilisation Surveys Oxfordshire volume, this again was a sort of modernist planning venture under Dudley Stamp which was trying to track land use throughout the whole country. It was a big project involving school children and many others who provided information which was consolidated into big reports by geographers and others and was going to be part of a sort of rational land use planning after the war.

"Now many will remember Mary Marshall as a rather reclusive figure. She was not in good health and many may remember she kept rather odd hours in the School of Geography looking for peace and quiet because she suffered from bad tinnitus but I think what's really interesting about looking at her history is the extent to which she was extraordinarily productive in the war years and really benefited from being part of research groups with a clear publication schedule and a focused kind of output. She didn't sustain an individual research career, we mustn't criticize her for that because a lot of the other members of staff, the male members of staff in the University, in the School of Geography, didn't do that either, but it's interesting to speculate with others who've worked on the Naval Handbooks that for many of them the pressure of work in the war was such that they never quite recovered from it. So, Mary Marshall perhaps would have flourished in the kind of team-based research, thematic research group culture, that we have now in academe.

"So why do we know so little about the women staff members that I just told you about and indeed the students? Well these are perhaps hidden histories as some people have called them. They were unofficial members of staff in some cases. Fanny Herbertson, for example, isn't mentioned in canonical histories or even the account books because she was an unpaid helper, and they are kind of branded as uninteresting. For example, Nora MacMunn isn't mentioned in the history of the School in the First World War. Her male colleagues, for example, take up government work of importance, or go on 'Active Service', capital A, capital S, and we get the impression that Nora MacMunn is kind of left behind. On the other hand, her male colleagues who don't go off to war - they're described as holding the School together, whereas, and we've seen that Nora MacMunn actually works for more years than they do, the impression given in the literature is that she's not interesting, that other people are going off to do interesting things and she's simply left behind. So, these are hidden histories, but they're hidden in plain sight really and the reason we know so little about the women is that no one's looked for them before.

"The research for this talk comes from a collaboration that some members of the School of Geography did in writing a group biography for the series here, Geographers Biobibliographical Studies, and I'd like to acknowledge the contributions of Heather Viles, Claire Hann, and Susan Squibb to that project. That article appeared in volume 38 of that serial, and that was the first volume where every geographer who was memorialized was a woman. There are lots of volumes where all the geographers memorialized men and this broke the mould in having an entirely female cast, which was nice. So, these women are hidden in plain sight and we know so little about them because no one's looked at them before. Heroic work was undertaken with some of these by Avril Madrew, who's an alumna of the School, and whom you may know, and then we built on that in this article here.

"So we've seen how the early rhetoric of the School was relentlessly male and to counterbalance that I'd just like a slight digression to give you some gendered description of women geographers. Here's an early research geographer, Marie Bentivoglio. "It's refreshing to meet such a feminine and charming girl whose excellent brain and fund of knowledge have not yet made her into a feminist," was the view of the Sydney Mail in 1930 after Marie Bentivoglio had settled in Australia. So, we see a kind of gendered comment that men would simply not have had made about them. Elspeth Buxton, whom alumni may remember. "She has the disadvantage of being six feet high but a very clever, charming girl, who is very keen on her subject," thus wrote someone who was actually writing her a reference for a post. So, it's interesting that that's what the referee felt called upon to write. Moira Dunbar, who trained at the School and then went on to become a very distinguished glaciologist. "They regarded me as some sort of cross between a delicate flower and a dangerous disease," she said of her efforts to pursue a career in glaciology which necessarily took her to high latitudes of rather strategic importance. We see the prevalence of gendered language not only in descriptions of individual women but in descriptions of the Geography School itself, and we see that women were rhetorically emblematic of Geography's marginality.

The School of Geography, which I mentioned was rather precarious, it is constantly described as a 'Cinderella', there's some citations there, it's a 'Cinderella' subject, the use of the feminine word there, and apocryphal stories are told about the School of Geography and women feature unflatteringly in them. An early geography lecture was described as depending on a map drawn by 'two ladies' using the laundry whitener 'Reckitt's blue' and that sort of reliance on a domestic product tells you in what parlous state the School of Geography was in. Two of the three attendees at Mackinder's first lecture in 1887 were ladies who brought their knitting, said Mackinder in 1931. So now these latter ones are stories intended to be humorous and indeed they are geographers telling stories of their discipline's fragility, but still the emblem of their fragility is their reliance on women.

"And geography, we need to emphasize at this point, is extremely marginal in the life of Oxford. I'd like to give you a quotation from O.G.S. Crawford who later taught at the School of Geography but started off as a classicist. He told his college tutor he was giving up Greats (classics) to take up geography as an undergraduate subject. It was like a son telling his father he'd decided to marry a barmaid. Going from Greats (classics) to geography was like leaving the parlour for the basement - one lost caste, but one did see life! So, by Oxford's priorities geography was close to the bottom.

"It's hard to exaggerate, I think, how precarious Oxford Geography was. The initiative to establish it came from outside - the Royal Geographical Society - the first postholder's salary was subsidised by the Royal Geographical Society to try to get the university to respond and it was really not clear if it would carry on after the subsidy ended. It did, of course, but that was by no means clear at the time. It was more than 40 years before a Final Honour School was established, and as we celebrate 100 years of degrees for women, and recognizing the importance of an Oxford degree, we can see that that was shared by the geographers who were constantly trying to get it established as a degree subject, but that took more than 40 years.

"Geography dons lacked college fellowships - again an icon of arrival in Oxford terms. In the diploma days the students were lower middle class women not the upper middle class public school boys who were taking other subjects like Classics around the University, and an example of how really financially precarious the School of Geography was comes from O.G.S. Crawford who was a tutor at the School. He describes, after the summer school, A.J. Herbertson, the Head of the School, divvying up the proceeds of the summer school amongst the tutors. When he'd seen how much had come in in fees, he could then determine how much his tutors were going to earn. So, it was really a precarious hand-to-mouth kind of setup.

"In that marginal setup women had thrived and curiously as the School of Geography became better established and less precarious, so it became more male. As I mentioned its Final Honour School, that is a degree subject, degree course in geography, was established in 1932 and this was a really important stage for the discipline just as it was for women, but as soon as that was established the percentage of women students fell compared with the diploma days. The percentage of women staff members fell compared with the early decades of the 20th century and the School came increasingly to represent the male ideas of its male founders, which is where we started the lecture, it was more male in terms of the students and the staff, it was less linked to teaching, to school teaching, and more to a broader career spectrum, the Army and the Air Force, and the Church, and banking, and all those things that Mason described, if you remember from earlier on in the lecture. And it went up the social scale because the teachers that it had trained had been primarily at, or destined for, local authority - that is state schools, but it now had an intake of public school boys who dominated the subject as they did the University as a whole.

"So did the early women geographers affect Oxford's view of itself? I think not, they're really marginal people in a marginal discipline as far as the wider University was concerned. But did the presence of Oxford women geographers matter to the discipline? Well, yes it did, because Oxford was the first university geography department in the UK and it was women, women's fees, who kept it going, and women geographers made a substantial contribution to the four main objectives of pre-second world war geography in the United Kingdom. They were establishing the discipline in schools. They were writing the geography textbooks for example that Fanny Herbertson was producing, all the geographical guidance that Nora MacMunn was producing. They were tutoring the women's schoolteachers who were taking the subject into schools. They were consolidating the discipline in the universities through their work and through their writing. They were writing regional geography, which was the main paradigm in geography, and they were contributing to that, and they were making strategic and intelligence contributions, we've seen with Mary Marshall in the Second World War and all those things really were prelude to the post-war School when a woman was the School's first Research Scholar and that's Marjorie Sweeting.

"She'll be a familiar face to many alumni. She was appointed in 1953, became a Reader and she was really important internationally as a scientist and that was reflected in 1977 when she led the first British scientists to mainland China which previously been closed to academic and scientific exchanges, but she led the first group, not just the first group of geographers, this is the first group of British scientists to mainland China. She was the first Oxford Geographer really to look like a modern academic with an international research career and when I gave this lecture live someone pointed out "Ah, but she did get to be acting head of department." But to which I'd point out, yeah she was acting head of department - she did all the work of being a head of department and she was never appointed head of department, so to some extent she continues the story a bit of women being overlooked, but on the other hand she is the first Oxford Geographer to look like an international research scientist.

"Are women visible now? Yes, they are. We had a first woman professor in 2003. Marjorie Sweeting was never appointed professor, but there was one in 2003 and we think about 2012 - that's a date to be checked - we had a woman Head of Department who actually had the title Head of Department not just did all the work. But nonetheless maleness is still reinforced in the quotidian life of the School so the Chair in Geography is the Halford Mackinder Chair, there are four FHS prizes named after men, I think there's now one which was instituted by Linda McDowell but I don't think it bears her name. Until very recently all the lecture rooms in the School of Geography were named after men - I'm happy to say that that has now been adjusted, but the alumni lunch, for example, is still named after Andrew Herbertson, so maleness wherever we function, in the Oxford School of Geography, maleness is still reinforced there.

"So was the presence of women geographers being taught alongside men, was that 'inexpedient and immodest'? I'd like to suggest no, I'd like to suggest no - it was vital to the School and vital to the discipline, and as we celebrate the 1920 graduation of women to recognize that as a really important milestone but not to forget the contribution of earlier women. And I think, apart from anything else, looking into these early women reminds us that there's still work to do in broadening Oxford to all.

"Thank you very much."

The centenary provides an opportunity to take stock of our progress in promoting women's education and advancing gender equality and diversity at Oxford. This event not only reveals the lives of women staff and students of the School at the end of the nineteenth century, but uncovers the substantial contributions women geographers made to the School and to pre-1945 UK geography more widely. It also sets out their connections with wider movements such as women's suffrage, and asks why we have until now regarded them as marginal and unimportant. As Professor Gillian Rose (Head of School) also comments in her introduction to the event, the development of women's right to graduate and matriculate at Oxford in 1920, "was just a first step on a journey that the University and the School are still on, towards becoming fully diverse and inclusive academic communities".

Dr Elizabeth Baigent is Reader in the History of Geography at the University of Oxford and former Research Director of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. She sits on the International Geographical Union's Commission on the History of Geography and co-edits its serial Geographers: Biobibliographical Studies - the 2020 volume of which includes an article she co-authored on Women Geographers at the University of Oxford. She is convenor of the University's 2021 conference to commemorate 100 years of degrees for women at Oxford. For the last 27 years she has co-convened the Bodleian's public map seminars, The Oxford Seminars in Cartography, or TOSCA, to which all are welcome.

Find out more about Dr Baigent.

Find out more about the School's work and commitment to enhancing diversity and promoting equality of opportunity amongst all our staff and students.

The School of Geography and the Environment hosts a research seminar that we hope will be of wide interest to all our audiences once a term. To view all upcoming events visit our event webpages.

Centenary Event recording 'A thing inexpedient and immodest': women in the University of Oxford's School of Geography now available online

On 16th October Dr Elizabeth Baigent, Reader in the History of Geography at the University of Oxford, delivered a special event uncovering the hidden stories of the School of Geography and the Environment's first female geographers. The event formed part of the University's centenary, marking 100 years since the first women collected their degrees.