Edith ‘Biddy’ Lanchester was a socialist, feminist and suffragette who attended Birkbeck at a time when the education of women was still highly controversial. Her story is testament to the necessity of the women’s liberation movement that she was part of, demonstrating the treatment faced by women who refused to follow convention in the 19th century.
“The cause of her insanity was recorded as ‘over-education’”
In 1830, despite concerns from Birkbeck’s governing body that allowing female membership was “inviting its downfall”, the College became one of the first, if not the first, institution in the UK to admit women. By the 1890s, Birkbeck was a hub for the “New Woman”: radical young women asserting their independence and challenging social hierarchies.
One such woman was Edith ‘Biddy’ Lanchester, a self-styled New Woman who took classes in botany and zoology at Birkbeck. Although born into a wealthy middle-class family, she insisted on making her own way in the world. At the College, Edith gained skills in science, but also in more practical classes for typewriting and shorthand, which helped her earn a living by drawing diagrams for lecturers. She was also a clerk for the Cardiff Gold Mining Company and secretary to Eleanor Marx, the English-born youngest daughter of Karl Marx.
Edith was socially and politically radical. She was a vegetarian who wore her hair cropped short, described by the Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper as an independent spirit. She was involved with the Social Democratic Federation (SDF), Britain’s first socialist party, and even stood as a candidate for West Lambeth.
By 1895, she was 24 years old and in love. She met James Sullivan, a working-class clerk and active member of the SDF, at her shorthand classes at Birkbeck. But vehemently opposed to marriage, believing it was an institution that robbed women of their independence, Edith wanted to build a life with him by cohabiting rather than marrying. She told her mother that if she married, she would “lose all my self-respect.” Her announcement was met with horror and incredulity.
The day before she was to move in with James, her father, three brothers and a psychiatrist burst into her Battersea home, accusing her of committing ‘social suicide’ and being ‘not of sound mind’. She was tied up, dragged into the street and then admitted to an insane asylum in London. The supposed cause of her insanity was recorded as ‘over-education’.
Upon her release, Edith immediately returned to her activism for workers’ rights and the rights of women, and never spoke to her family again. The story incited a media frenzy and provoked extensive discussion on the social status of the New Woman, and the dangers of female education.
You can find out more about the rich 200-year history of Birkbeck and its vibrant characters in Professor Joanna Bourke’s new book, Birkbeck: 200 Years of Radical Learning for Working People.