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Archives and Special Collections: Women students at the University of Strathclyde

Guide to resources in Archives and Special Collections at the University of Strathclyde

Image shows the top portion of the 'Ladies' Page' of the Royal Technical College Magazine.

This guide was written by Niamh Cannon, Masters student in Applied Gender Studies at the University of Strathclyde, 2019-2020. It explores the experiences of women students at the Royal Technical College (the predecessor of the University of Strathclyde) between 1908 and 1930 as revealed in the student magazines of the period (collection reference: OJD/1). The magazines are a rich source for uncovering the opinions, activities and achievements of women students.

The first series of the magazines was called The Royal Technical College Magazine and dates from March 1908 to February 1914. There is then a considerable gap in the collection, the next issue being April 1923 (vol.VIII, no.I). In the 1920s the magazine became known as The Journal of the Royal Technical College until March 1924 and was renamed as The Mask: Organ of the Students of the Royal Technical College in October 1925.

The starting point for this research guide was the ‘Ladies’ Page’ that was first published in The Royal Technical College Magazine in November 1913 (vol.VI, no. II), however snippets of women’s experience at the College go beyond this one feature and are scattered throughout the issues. The guide’s end point is the March 1930 issue of The Mask, (vol.XIV, no. 6). Throughout this period, the layout of the magazine remains fairly consistent, with some additional articles or sections being added as it evolved.

It can be said that The Royal Technical College was not a strictly segregated place of learning, unlike universities such as Oxford and Cambridge at this time. Nevertheless it is interesting to see, throughout these magazines, how women students acted, and were perceived within student life as well as the dynamics between the male and female members of the student body. This study guide explores some key themes that were discovered within these magazines and what they tell us about the experiences of women students at the Royal Technical College between 1908 and 1930.

Statistics

Some statistics of women who attended the Royal Technical College can be found in The Journal of the Royal Technical College, October 1923 ( vol.VIII, no.2, p.40). Attendance included day students and evening students. Initially women were more likely to be evening students:

Attendance of women students:

Year Day Students Evening Students
1912 11 207
1923 72 223

Subject spread:

Image shows two pie charts representing the numbers of women studying particular subjects in two different years. Table one is labelled 'Women day students 1912' and shows that 7 women studied Chemistry, 3 studied Music and 1 studied Weaving. Table two is labelled 'Women day students 1923' and shows that 32 women studied Pharmacy, 21 studied Domestic Science, 10 studied Chemistry, 7 studied in the Textile Department, 1 studied Architecture and 1 studied Metallurgy.

Unfortunately there is no information on what classes the evening students enrolled for here, but these figures show the gradual diversification of subjects studied by women students.

Scholarships and Prizes

From the early issues of The Royal Technical College Magazine there is mention of the Muirhead scholarships for women. The scholarship, first mentioned in the January 1910 issue of the magazine (vol.XI, no 4., p.82), was set up on the residue of the estate of the late Dr Henry Muirhead, LL.D.  It is encouraging to see scholarships and funds for women to attend the College being put in place early on in the twentieth century.

The magazine states:

‘This residue was left to found and maintain an institution for the instruction of women in physical and biological science, and also to provide for women students receiving an education to fit them to become medical practitioners, dentists, electricians, chemists, etc.’

The article detailing the Muirhead scholarship speaks of how this funding was available from 1890 but not carried into effect until 1910. This funding was considerable and not only did it maintain four scholarships for a period of four years, it also allowed for the establishment of the Women’s Union, which was named after the donor as the ‘Muirhead Common Room’. The article comments (p.82):

‘These scholarships will prove a most valuable aid to many members of the gentler sex’.

The first mention of women receiving the Muirhead scholarship can be found in the December 1912 issue of The Royal Technical College Magazine (vol.V, no. 3, p68). It was reported that Miss Mary Smith and Miss M. M. J. Sutherland were awarded the scholarship which included £35 per annum. Unfortunately, the magazine does not reveal what either of these women were going on to study. Later, however, in the October 1925 edition (vol.X, no.1, p.9), we learn of Miss Elizabeth S. King: winner of the Muirhead Scholarship who elected to study architecture, which was a new B.Sc. in the college at the time.

As well as scholarships and funding for women’s places in the college, there are also mentions of the achievements of the ‘lady students’. Miss Barbara P. Macfarlane, for example, won a poetry prize for her poem ‘Ben-na-Callieach’ that the magazine, then known as The Mask, ran in its December edition in 1923 (vol.VIII, no.4, p.90). These mentions, although few in the grand scale of the magazine issues, show that women were encouraged to attend the college via scholarships and recognised for achievements.

Clubs and Societies

One of the most prominent ways in which women students are visible within the magazines is in coverage of clubs and societies. From the earliest issues of The Royal Technical College Magazine we see the names of participating women students, and record of their involvement increases dramatically throughout the issues, particularly within The Mask through the 1920s.

Until the Muirhead Common Room was established, helping women became a more prominent part of the student body with their own space, they appear to have infiltrated the more stereotypically ‘masculine’ committees in very small numbers. See below for further exploration of the presence of women students in particular clubs and societies.

Andersonian Chemical Society

Black and white photograph of a woman sitting in a chemistry laboratory of the Royal Technical College c.1910. Woman is Miss M. M. J. Sutherland.

Founded in 1866, the Andersonian Chemical Society was one of the oldest societies in the College (The Royal Technical College Magazine, October 1908, vol.I, no.1, p.12). In 1908 there was a mention of a Miss Sutherland B.Sc being an office bearer on the committee (Margaret Millen Jeffs Sutherland-pictured right- later became a lecturer in the Chemistry department). She was the only woman on this committee (November 1908, vol. I, no.2, p.43).

There is no further mention of women being involved in this society until April 1923 in The Journal of the Royal Technical College. Miss M. M. J. Sutherland, D.Sc., F.I.C., (vol.VIII, no.1, p25):

‘addressed the next meeting of the Society on the 8th December, her paper being ‘Some Eminent Chemists.’'

Another example of a woman student taking a significant part in a committee meeting can be found in the February 1929 issue of The Mask (vol.XIII, no.5, p.116). At a meeting in January 1929, Miss Stratton’s paper ‘How far is the Chemist to blame’ was read, and a ‘lively discussion’ followed. These reports illustrate the evolution of the position of women students in male dominated societies and committees from 1908 to the 1920s. The evidence would suggest that their place in the College had become more validated and this is reflected in their input in these clubs and societies.

The Women’s Union

The Women’s Union became an officially recognised establishment in the College in 1923. This was some time after the Muirhead Common Room was opened, however the Union became a hub and a springboard for many social activities and committees for women to get involved in and often extended to the male students too. The Women’s Union held monthly meetings in the Muirhead and in the October 1923 issue of The Journal of the Royal Technical College (vol.VIII, no.2, p.40) the first meeting of the union was reported to have had:

‘a splendid attendance of members, and an interesting and entertaining evening spent.’

As well as monthly meetings, which often involved tea, music and other forms of entertainment, the Women’s Union was also responsible for organising the majority of the annual social dances that were regularly advertised and reported upon within the magazines: they seem to have been popular events with the student body. The popularity of these dances meant that they grew in size and in the November 1928 issue of The Mask (vol.XIII, no.2, p.44) it was reported that the Women’s Union was running an external dance on the 28th of that month. They wrote: 

‘This is the first time we have attempted anything so ambitious as running a dance outside, and we hope that all students will help to make our venture a success.’

This is indicative of the importance of the Women’s Union with regard to social events within the college and the part it played in the integration of male and female students.

As the number of women students grew towards the end of the 1920s, the Women’s Union was also responsible for adding a ping-pong table to the Muirhead Common Room to ‘increase the amount of social intercourse’ (vol.XIII, no.2, p.44). Ping-pong tournaments appear to have been very popular with women students and the results were printed in the magazines.

It is evident that the establishment of Women’s Union was integral to increasing women’s involvement in student life at the Royal Technical College. It is also an important illustration of the ways in which women students were able to integrate with their male counterparts and into college life.

Drama

Reports on the Dramatic Society are an excellent source for student activity. In some issues there are reviews of the plays including the performances of lady students. The first mention of the Dramatic Society is in the October 1925 edition of The Mask in which a performance of the musical ‘Mercenary Mary’ is reviewed (vol.X, no.1, p.14). This account is relatively short, however a much fuller article on the performances of the Drama Society ladies can be found in the 1929 January issue of The Mask where the play ‘At the Stage Door’ is reviewed (vol. XIII, no.4, p.77). Miss Lloyd played the main part of ‘Anne’ and it was reported that:

‘Her greatness cannot be denied… She created an Anne full of little whims and mannerisms… To those who saw the play we need not enlarge further Miss Lloyd’s able study.’

Miss I. Campbell played 'Mrs Belle Lewis' and ‘cast quite a chill over the cast’.

A similar play review is in the 1930 January edition of The Mask (vol. XIV, no.4, p.98) The play, ‘Nothin but the Truth’ seems to have been another success and the women students who performed were credited for their acting:

‘Miss M’Neil and Miss Suttie as Mable and Sable, the actresses, caused a good deal of laughter in their parts, without descending to burlesque.'

These articles paint a detailed picture of the range of performances by the women students, and there is little to no mention of male parts- suggesting that the dramatic society was attended primarily by women.

Pharmacy Club

The Pharmacy Club was a science orientated club that was popular with women. The club was founded in 1925 and women members are first mentioned in 1928: Miss Granger was elected as treasurer for the club and Miss J. W. Park as Secretary (November 1928, vol.XIII, no.2, p.43). In October 1929 (vol.XIV, no.1, p.22) it is reported that:

 ‘The Club membership this session totals approximately one hundred, of whom a number are ladies (and very nice too).’

It appears that women became involved in this club rather quickly, perhaps because women were more established within the College by the time it was founded, or because pharmacy was a popular area of study for women students.

Hockey

Hockey seems to have been the main social sport for women in the Royal Technical College, and a team was established in 1928. From here on there were frequent reports, throughout the magazine, of the struggles and successes of the hockey team as well as their weekly fixtures and where they were playing.

The hockey team was formed by the Muirhead, the Women’s Union, and joined the Glasgow and District Ladies’ Hockey League. The first mention of the hockey team’s progress is in the January 1929 issue of The Mask (vol.XIII, no.4, p.91) and can be found under the Athletic club section of the magazine:

‘The Ladies’ Hockey section have had a very successful season so far, and although our youngest member, must be considered a very strong one.’

In the December 1928 issue of the magazine (vol.XIII, no.3, p.66) it is reported that two of the ladies on the hockey team had been picked for the Glasgow ladies’ trials and that the team were doing ‘remarkably well.’ By the next issue of The Mask (February 1929, vol.XIII, no.5, p.120) the information on the ladies’ hockey team can be found under its own heading, which illustrates their quick establishment as a prominent sports team within the College.

Suffragettes and votes for women

The issues of The Royal Technical Magazine have provided a very interesting insight into the reception of the Suffragettes and votes for women campaigns within the Royal College. Through the discussions and satire relating to the suffrage movement, thoughts and opinions of the student body, male and female alike, are revealed.

The first mention of the suffrage movement can be found in the ‘Answers to Correspondents’ section of the November 1908 issue of the magazine (vol.I, no.2, p.50). In reply to a young woman asking for diet advice, the editor writes at the end of his response: ‘why not become a Suffragette?’, implying that a hunger strike could be the best way to diet. Jokes and satire surrounding the Suffragettes and hunger strikes can be found littered throughout these early magazine issues.

Another example of this kind of satire was published in cartoon form in the February 1914 issue of the magazine (vol.VI, no.5, p.123).

This cartoon is titled ‘A Hint’ and shows a man, the lodger, looking down at the measly dinner placed before him with the text:

‘Lodger- I’m afraid this haddock has been in favour of the suffragist movement when it was alive.

Landlady- What makes you think so?.

Lodger- Well, it appears to have been on the hunger strike.’

These kinds of jokes surrounding the suffrage movement imply that the editors of the magazine regarded the hunger strike tactic as a folly. 

The magazines also include more serious discussions of the suffrage movement. An anonymous letter to the editor, signed ‘One you meet but do not know’, was published in the December 1908 issue (vol.I, no.3, p.82). They wrote:

‘I offer a few remarks. It is apparent that females have now, more than ever before, to work for a living, and have, therefore, a strong interest in the country and the Laws under which they have to live.’

This correspondence is quite firm and radical for its time. The student demands that:

‘I trust your paper will show to male students that the conduct they appear to delight in, of interrupting ladies’ meetings and acting with brutality to women who appear at men’s meetings, is neither manly nor Christian, and that the men should first show the gentle spirit they expect from ladies.’

It is encouraging, and even slightly surprising, to see a women student writing so fervently and directly to the editor of the magazine about women’s rights and place within the College in 1908. It is also noteworthy that this letter was chosen to be published by the editor, and implies that there was some acceptance of the sentiments.

Debates surrounding women’s suffrage were also held within the College and reported upon. The Dialectic Society held a debate in February 1911, ‘should women have the vote?’ that was reported the next month (vol.III, no.6, p.168):

‘Mr Gray moved that it was the opinion of the House that women should have the vote. Mr G. D. Dewar moved a direct negative, and a debate on the motion took place. Only two representatives of the weaker sex turned up, however. It was rather disappointing, as the debate concerned them particularly… Mr Rhind in his remarks went into rather lengthy discourse on the respective weights of male and female brains, and tried to prove an obvious fact, that some women are as clever as some men.’

Mr Gray’s motion was defeated by 13 votes, a relatively close call. This source is interesting as it highlights that votes for women was very much a topic for discussion and found support amongst male as well as the female students. The disappointment in the lack of female students attending this debate highlights that there was a keen interest for these political discussions to be had between men and women. Despite this debate being lost to the opposing side, it illustrates how politics involving gender was discussed at the college and that male students did not necessarily vilify the movement for women’s enfranchisement. The lack of women students making an appearance at this debate, however, may have been due to their feeling intimidated, suggested by the earlier letter calling for better behaviour towards women students.

These cartoons, discussions, and reports within the magazines would be an excellent source for researching responses and opinions generated by suffrage movements within student culture.

First day of college, 1923

One of the most arresting articles in the magazines is from The Journal of the Royal Technical College, November 1923 (vol.VIII, no.3, p.80). The article can be found on the Ladies’ Page where a new women student has written about her first day at the Royal Technical College. She was from the Highlands and new to the city, describing the College as the ‘Palace of my dreams’: highlighting how important these opportunities of education were to women.

This anonymous testimony is fascinating in that it provides a first-hand account of entering the Royal Technical College as a young woman in the 1920s. Unfortunately, it is not made clear what subject this student is studying, however it was most likely a science such as Chemistry or Pharmacy. The student’s alarm on her way to class as she realised: 

‘I arrived in good time, but I was horrified to find the door-way obstructed by groups of MEN.’

is both comical to the modern reader but also illuminates how intimidating this experience would have been for young women who may not have been exposed to that level of male company before. It also highlights the dynamic between men and women on campus, as she describes that they all ‘stood there to watch me enter’.

This article communicates how significant it was for women to attend the College to study. The student writes: 

‘It was an inspiration to have the opportunity of entering these halls of learning but I felt very insignificant and unimportant.’ 

Undoubtedly, many women students will have had some degree of 'imposter syndrome' attending the college and this first-hand account highlights this.

This article is invaluable in showing the inner thoughts and feelings of a young woman attending her first day at college and contributes to a wider narrative of the student experience of women in the early 1920s.

Primary Sources

Key dates

1908- First mention of the suffrage movement within the magazine.

1908- First mention of a woman on the committee of the Andersonian Chemical Society.       

1910- The Muirhead Scholarship was established.

1911- Dialectic Society debate: ‘should women have the vote?’.

1913- The first 'Ladies Page' published in The Royal Technical College Magazine.

1923- The Womens' Union, 'The Muirhead', was officially recognised.

1925- The first mention of the Drama Society.

1925- The Pharmacy Club was founded.

1928- The first mention of women in the Pharmacy Club.

1928- The ladies' Hockey team was established.

Secondary sources

Blog posts about women

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Acknowledgement

Study guide created by Niamh Cannon, Masters student in Applied Gender Studies at the University of Strathclyde, 2019-2020.

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