A university degree for housewives

When I give talks about the history of higher education, I find the greatest sense of disbelief from the audience comes from the description of how far we have come in terms of women’s participation.  That is not an excuse for the state of things as they currently are, but a spur to further action.

After women had won the right to take the same exams as men, two major questions remained unresolved; whether it was the right curriculum for them to take, and should they be educated together with men.  Aspects of the issues about co-education remain -but as an example, in its first systematic offering, University College London adopted a special timetable which offset the separate classes for men and women by half an hour so that they couldn’t mingle in the break (the arrangement soon ended and UCL can claim to be the first co-educational university in the UK).

The curriculum was more interesting.  The experience of extension lectures meant that the new civic university colleges realised that women were interested and capable across a broad range of subjects, there remained all sorts of issues about professional courses, but the direction of travel was set.  Except in London, where a group of benefactors worked with the Women’s Department of King’s College to develop a special course.

Household & Social Science

The history of King’s College’s provision for women is complex, involving several permutations moving from being a Ladies Department to a separate college.  The college was situated safely away from the men in Kensington.  At first it replicated the provision for men, but it developed a specialty in Household & Social Science.  The duplicated courses moved back to the Strand, leaving the special course behind.

The course developed to the extent that a University of London degree was created – the examinations being in the following areas:

Part 1

Organic & Physical Chemistry; General Biology; Economic Biology; Principles of Economics; Business Affairs (London 1921)


The examination regulations for Part 1 seem straightforward enough (although judging comparative standards over time just by looking at exam questions is a dubious practice).

Economic Biology June 15 10 to 1
1 Give an account of the habits and life-history of the itch-mite.
7 Write an essay on insects and disease

Principles of Economics June 13 10 to 1
1 Illustrate the importance of the study of Economics to the housekeeper.
2 How do you account for the fact that we are better off materially than our forefathers?
8 Account for the vital importance of the foreign exchange rates to the British working man.

However, it’s Part 2 that reveals the direction the course was taking:

Part 2

Applied Chemistry; Physiology & Biochemistry; General Hygiene; Bacteriology; Household Work; Special Household Work; Institutional Management (London 1921)

A century later this looks like a much more strange offering.  The curriculum took a more practical direction and with it the assessment.  For Part 2, the examinations included the following:

Household Work June 16 10 to 1
1 Plan meals for a day in a middle class family for each of the seasons. Give the quantities required and compare the energy values. What principles would guide you in the choice of the food.

Practical Examination June 27 10 to 4
1 Prepare a day’s meal for a family consisting of father, mother, and two children (aged 8 and 10 years) using as little fuel as possible. Hand in a list of fresh ingredients required by 11am and calculate the price of each meal.
2 All utensils used are to be cleaned and left for inspection

Dora Marsden and the Freewoman


Dora Marsden came from a working-class background, worked as a pupil-tutor from 13 and gained her place at Owens College through a Queen’s Scholarship (where she met many of the early feminists) and she went back to teach after her degree. However, this was limiting. Hicks notes:

Along with a number of her Owens’ College alumni, Marsden felt the frustrations of educated women attempting to enter the workforce and political arena only to find that despite their equal qualifications, they were still generalized into a subordinate sex and labeled as inferior.

With a fellow teacher, chemistry graduate Rona Robinson, she picketed the opening of a new chemistry lab in Manchester and was arrested.   She also heckled Winston Churchill, having hidden herself in the Southport Empire for 15 hours to get the chance.  She left teaching to work with the WSPU, but clearly disagreed with them on many issues.  She then edited a series of journals, the first of which, The Freewoman, brings us back to the Household & Social Science course.

In the issues of The Freewoman, amongst the critiques of the WSPU and the Pankhursts, stands a robust assessment of the course at Kings, which they saw as a course for housewives:

The aims of those who frame such a retrograde scheme are in radical opposition of those of the women who are desiring the freedom and development of women. They aim at perpetuating woman’s inferiority by perfecting her in the role which puts the greatest difficulties in the way of her development.  (‘Educationalist’ Freewoman 1911: 17)

The identity of ‘Educationalist’ is not given, but it is clear that she is working on the course. The Freewoman returned to the topic in 1912, and from this we learn that it is Rona Robinson, Marsden’s  friend from Manchester, who had been working at the College while in receipt of a scholarship (which she has now resigned).


She wrote:

I protest that a more impudent piece of charlatanry has never been perpetuated before in the history of education (Robinson Freewoman 1912: 256)

Over a hundred years later, it is hard to disagree that Marsden and Robinson had a point. The course went onto gain BSc status from the University of London and ran for many years. The College developed other provision, was renamed Queen Elizabeth College  and re-merged with King’s College in 1985.

As I said at the outset, looking back is not to excuse how far we still have to go, but it does help to show how much is possible.



Hicks, R, 1990, Gender of the Self – Dora Marsden and the Freewoman… Oxford University MLitt Thesis

London, University of, 1921, Faculty of Science (Household & Social Science) Examination papers, London


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