Home Arts & culture Celebrating the legacy of England’s first female professor

Celebrating the legacy of England’s first female professor

6 February 2018
Celebrating the legacy of England’s first female professor

In the centenary year for UK women’s suffrage, King’s is celebrating the legacy of its alumna Edith Morley (1875-1964): suffragette, literary scholar, and England’s first female professor.

Morley was a pioneering student at King’s Ladies’ Department in the 1890s, and one of its first students to study for a degree.

In 1903 she became an assistant lecturer in English at Reading College. In 1907 Reading prepared for university status by awarding professorships to all heads of departments — except Morley, who was the only woman. Refusing to accept such overt discrimination, she began a battle for her rights, which she saw herself fighting for all professional women, and in 1908 she was awarded her professorship, becoming the first woman professor at a English university or university college.

At King’s, Morley’s fellow-students had included the future Virginia Woolf and her sister Vanessa Bell. Morley was one of the students to be nurtured by the Principal of the Ladies’ Department, Lilian Faithfull (a Somerville scholar) to study for an Oxford degree as an external student, and in 1899 she was placed in the first class of the Oxford English honour school, although as a woman she could not actually be awarded her degree.

The experience of the College parliament at King’s encouraged Morley’s interest in politics, and at Reading she became a suffragette, joining the Women’s Social and Political Union. She had her goods seized and sold at auction for refusal to pay her rates as part of the tax resistance campaign; participated in the ‘No votes, no census’ campaign of April 1911; marched in London demonstrations, and was asked by Mrs Pankhurst to use her title as Professor to sign a letter to The Times, to aid publication.

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An expert in the writings of Henry Crabb Robinson, Morley also taught at King’s, and at the Workers’ Educational Association, and was one of the original members of the London branch of the British Federation of University Women. In the 1930s she helped establish the Reading branch of the Townswomen’s Guilds, which educated women in their rights and responsibilities as citizens. She became a magistrate and a member of the Howard League for Penal Reform.

During WW1, Morley worked for the National Council of Women’s Voluntary Patrols, the forerunner to women police, gave talks for the Ministry of Food, and assisted Belgian refugees. She was awarded the OBE in 1950 for her work for refugees during WW2.

It was said of her that she ‘fought not only with courage but sometimes aggression and always with passionate sincerity for Human Rights and freedom’.

To find out more about the history of the women’s suffrage movement and its relevance for gender equality today, watch this video.

Image credit: University of Reading.

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