On reading Sylvia Nasar’s Grand Pursuit which I’m enjoying, I have been re-reading Keynes’ fine essay on Marshall. One real mystery – at least for someone who doesn’t know more like me – is Marshall’s famous opposition to women’s equality at Cambridge. Anyway Keynes has a section on it doesn’t leave one any the wiser as to how to understand this tension, but nevertheless outlines it concludes with British understatement and wry humour.
The controversy about admitting women to degrees, which tore Cambridge in two in 1896, found Marshall in the camp which was opposed to the women’s claims. He had been in closest touch with Newnham since its foundation, through his wife and through the Sidgwicks. When he went to Bristol, he had been, in his own words, “attracted thither chiefly by the fact that it was the first College in England to open its doors freely to women.” A considerable proportion of his pupils had been women. In his first printed essay (on ” The Future of the Working Classes,” in 1873), the opening passage is an eloquent claim, in sympathy with Mill, for the emancipation of women.
All Mill’s instances ” tend to show,” he says in that paper, ” how our progress could be accelerated if we would unwrap the swaddling-clothes in which artificial customs have enfolded woman’s mind and would give her free scope womanfully to discharge her d’uties to the world.” Marshall’s attitude, therefore, was a sad blow to his own little circle, and, being exploited by the other side, it played some part in the overwhelming defeat which the reformers eventually suffered.
In his taking this course Marshall’s intellect find excellent reasons. Indeed the lengthy fly-sheet, which he circulated to members of the Senate, presents, in temperate and courteous terms, a brilliant and perhaps convincing case against the complete assimilation of women’s education to that of men. Nevertheless, a congenital bias, which by a man’s fifty-fourth year of life has gathered secret strength, may have played abigger part in the conclusion than the obedient intellect.