Victorian Women & STEM Education: A Prize Book Awarded by the Edinburgh Ladies' Educational Association

October 10, 2016

Victorian Women & STEM Education: A Prize Book Awarded by the Edinburgh Ladies' Educational Association

Tomorrow is Ada Lovelace Day, when we celebrate women in the sciences, so over the next few days I'll be highlighting recent acquisitions that show the long history of women's engagement with STEM subjects. The first is a copy of John Herschel's Outlines of Astronomy that's directly connected to the Victorian movement for women's higher education.

Outlines of Astronomy was one John Herschel's most important books. First published in 1849, it was considered the definitive text on astronomy for much of the 19th century and was reprinted numerous times. This copy of the eleventh edition has what we refer to as a prize binding, a style of fine binding commissioned for books given out as student awards. In this case, it was presented to a young woman who achieved first place in a course on experimental physics that was organised by the Edinburgh Ladies' Educational Association.

Founded in 1867 by campaigner Mary Crudelius, the Edinburgh Ladies' Educational Association was a major player in the movement for women's higher education in Britain.

Crudelius's commitment to women's suffrage and education was "uncompromising and lasted her lifetime... She was described as someone of wisdom and intellect, a ‘woman with a mission’ (Burton, 13). Although tactful, she was also noted for her ‘frankness of speech’, perhaps unusual for her generation" (ODNB). Her surviving correspondence "suggests eloquence, liveliness, and a keen sense of contemporary issues. Indeed she was proud to be one of the first 1500 women to petition parliament in 1866 on the question of women's suffrage" (ODNB).

In addition to advocacy, the ELEA organised its own university-level courses, recruiting teachers from among sympathetic faculty at the University of Edinburgh. "The association ran its first lecture series in January 1868, [David] Masson being the first to lecture in a course on the history of English literature. Over 400 women attended the opening lecture and 250 enrolled for Masson's course" (ODNB).

By 1873, women were enrolled in Association classes as diverse as Mathematics, Moral Philosophy, Chemistry, Physiology, Botany and Bible Criticism. In 1874 a University Certificate in Arts was introduced, and by 1877 the Rules and Calendar of the Association were being printed in the University Calendar thus forging the link between the University of Edinburgh and the cause of women's education. (Edinburgh University Library finding aid, ref GB 237 Coll-42)

Crudelius was adamant that women should have equal educational opportunities rather than separate ones. She successfully led the ELEA for ten years, but died in 1877 before this work came to fruition.

In the end, the debate produced the Universities (Scotland) Act 1889 which led to the drawing up of Regulations for the Graduation of Women and for their instruction in the Universities, 1892. In 1893 eight women graduated from the University of Edinburgh. They had all been EAUEW students. (Edinburgh University Library finding aid, ref GB 237 Coll-42)

This book was awarded by the ELEA sometime in the 1870s, and the professor was the well-known physicist Peter Guthrie Tait. Unfortunately I cannot locate the student, Jean Campbell King, in the historical record. I'd love to find out about her life and whether she took any other ELEA classes, so please get in touch if you know more.

Prize bindings were common during the 19th and early-20th century, but they were usually awarded to men at this educational level. It's truly unusual to find one that has not only been presented to a woman, but to a woman who was taking a laboratory science course through an important women's advocacy organisation. It's a very special record of the long struggle of women to attain equal educational opportunities, particularly in the sciences.

  •  For more details or to purchase this book please visit its page in our online shop.
  • Check out the website Finding Ada for more on Ada Lovelace Day and women in STEM, and follow the hashtags #AdaLovelaceDay and #ALD16 for this year's news and events.
  • You may also be interested in our other rare books related to women in the sciences.