Women in a Changing World
First Dame Margery Corbett Ashby
Memorial Lecture, July 26, 1982
The life and work of Dame Margery spanned almost a century, from her birth in April 1882, to her death last year. Rarely has a century so exemplified Disraeli's maxim that in a progressive country change is constant. Dame Margery, who was instrumental in bringing about so much change, was herself born into a world of change. It was a world of political change, where not only women were deprived. It is obvious that the issue of women's right to vote arises only when people's right to vote has been established, or at least is on the agenda. For most of human history it has been absent. In 1882, only thirty-three percent of men had the right to vote. Two years later the Reform Bill doubled that percentage, extending civil rights to an extra two million men.
It was a world of educational change. Elementary education had just been made compulsory by an Act of 1880. Schools and colleges for women were springing up. Newham College, Cambridge, where Dame Margery was to take a degree in classics, had been founded in 1871. It was a world of scientific and religious change. In 1882, Charles Darwin, whose theory of evolution had challenged many accepted beliefs, disturbed many faiths and brought about a radical change in all human thought, was buried in Westminster Abbey, to the disgust of many churchmen. Some years earlier, Bishop Samuel Wilberforce of Oxford, in his arguments with the Darwinians, had shown the typically Victorian chivalrous attitude to women. He said that he could accept that his grandfather might have been descended from an ape, but not his grandmother.