Women who made (Harris) Manchester College

We are thrilled to be able to display the portraits of some of the remarkable women who have contributed to the development of the College in the current exhibition on the main staircase. The display starts with some figures from the College’s past, and in the coming days we'll be posting some further information about these pioneers and their contribution to our history. 

A black and white portrait of a female head and shoulders shot.  The women is resting her chin on her hand, looking into the middle distance.

Frances Power Cobbe (1822-1904)

Writer, philosopher, religious thinker, social reformer, anti-vivisectionist, and leading women’s suffrage campaigner. 

In 1873 Frances Power Cobbe’s audacious attempt to invade a Martineau lecture while College was in London kickstarted an internal debate about women’s access to learning.  Women’s admission to higher education had for some become a hot topic and while the establishment of the Ladies College in Bedford Square (later Bedford College, University of London) enabled some women to attend classes, further opportunities were sought.  Cobbe became the spokesperson for an influential group of women passionate about broadening women’s access to educational opportunities and wrote to Martineau to ask whether women could attend his lectures.  She wrote that women attending lectures ‘would not entail the slightest additional labour’.

Martineau was sympathetic to the request but left the decision to the College authorities to determine whether women should be admitted.  The Committee initially rejected the proposal, citing practical difficulties, which included lectures being held in small rooms, women being a distraction to the male students and worries about the safety of women in the corridors beyond the lecture rooms.  Nonetheless, Cobbe kept the pressure on and effectively forced College to continue to debate the issue for several years. Eventually, the College relented and in the academic session 1875-76, women were admitted to lectures on a fee-paying basis.

When reflecting on women attending lectures several years later the Committee noted that there had been ‘no inconvenience’ and ‘difficulties which were suggested have thus proved to be imaginary’.   

Frances Power Cobbe was an unconventional figure and hugely influential in a broad range of areas.  The picture in the blog's banner is taken from one of her works on anti-vivisection called 'The modern rack'.  The archive has a number of books about her and by her, including some from her own personal library.