This article is based on a speech given at Halfway Hall, Feb 2020, by Dr Gill Sutherland
The mid-point of your undergraduate career is a good point to reflect not only on how you got here, but how Newnham College itself reached this its point.
Newnham College was and is distinctive, with a group of founders who worked together to create an institution. It provides an important and enduring model for collective and collaborative working.
It’s thus perhaps ironic to single one out. However, since it is the 200th anniversary of her birth, I am focusing on our first Principal, Anne Jemima Clough.
She herself had an enduring hunger to learn – and recognised the force of that in others. Talking to a group of supporters of women’s education in Yorkshire in 1875, she declared,
‘It is often asked, “Why should women leave home?” “Is not home Education best for them?” and these questions deserve a careful answer. A little reflection will, I think, shew how much more effectually & with how much less mental strain, a woman can study, where all the arrangements of the house are made to suit the hours of study, where she can have undisturbed possession of one room, – and where she can have access to any books that she may need. How very rarely, – if ever, – these advantages can be secured in any home we all know, and it is surely worth some sacrifice on the part of parents to obtain them for their daughters at the age when they are best fitted to profit by them to the utmost.’
It is the argument of Virginia Woolf’s Room of One’s Own almost 50 years before Woolf set it out. It is also the comment of a woman who in the 1840s had to get up at 6 am to learn her Greek, since that was the only time the house was quiet.
Anne Jemima Clough wasn’t either a great administrator or a great financial manager, but very much what is called a ‘people’ person. She put the individual, the individual student, absolutely at the centre of her thinking and effort. She knew that individual learning journeys could vary and be difficult – her own had been hard enough.
As a Principal, she was concerned for health, as her care of the seriously asthmatic historian Winnie Seebohm showed. She was concerned that a student’s range of intellectual interests wide enough. She discussed with the mathematician Margaret Tabor what lectures she would attend outside those required by her course She was anxious to see that there was enough social life, diversion and entertainment in the lives of her charges. Young male Fellows of Colleges learned quickly that an invitation to Miss Clough and a party of her young ladies might be successful.
Mary Hutton wrote home to her mother in Dublin in 1875, ‘ Yesterday Miss Clough & 6 students, I among them, went to lunch at the rooms of a Mr Munro, a Fellow of Trinity. The good man asked her to bring 12!’
At the same time, Anne Jemima Clough was pragmatic and flexible, well aware that for one scheme which flew there might be three others which bit the dust. She was wholly alive to the practicalities and aware that it would take a long time to secure an untrammelled route to Higher Education for women. She retained her good humour and equanimity in face of many rebuffs.
On one issue, she was absolutely firm: the importance of tolerance as a positive virtue.
She never lost her own Christian faith but was appalled at the treatment her beloved brother, the poet Arthur Hugh Clough, received, as his faith ebbed. This formed an unbreakable bond with Henry Sidgwick, another giant in this founding group, whose own loss of faith exactly mirrored Arthur Hugh Clough’s experience and who valued Arthur Hugh’s poetry accordingly.
Anne Jemima Clough and Henry Sidgwick were thus at one that their college should have no denominational affiliation and thus no chapel. This did not mean they were neglectful of faith. The early students were expected to let AJC know which place of worship in the city they planned to attend. If the student did not wish to attend anywhere, AJC preferred it if those under 21 brought a supporting note from a parent. Those over 21 were expected to know their own minds.
Indeed, from 1884 the existence of this choice underlined by the presence of the student Blanche Athena Clough, Anne Jemima’s niece, who had lost whatever faith she had had by the age of 12. Blanche Athena could always be relied upon to entertain one’s visitors on a Sunday morning, if one was at church or chapel.
When Anne Jemima died in February 1892, her modest will left £1000 to Newnham, ‘If at the time of my decease it shall remain an Unsectarian Institution as it at present is’.
She was a founder and benefactor who gave not money but time and energy unstintingly, and who proclaimed and delivered two fundamental values: the centrality of the individual and her particular learning journey; and tolerance as a positive, not a negative virtue.
These are as important and as fundamental today as they ever were in 1871.