“Marriage or Career?”: The Times and Tribulations of Dr. Turnadge

Dr Isabel Turnadge,née Soar was a Birkbeck alumni who championed women’s right to vote and work after marriage in the 1920s. As part of the College’s 200th-anniversary celebrations Ciarán O’Donohue, PhD candidate in the Department of History, Classics and Archaeology recalls the origins and trajectory of Dr Turnadge’s activism. 

Dr Isabel Turnadge

Dr. Isabel Turnadge, née Soar, with her son, Peter James. Becoming a parent will be a turning point for anyone, but perhaps for none more so than Isabel.

Only five PhDs in the sciences were awarded by the University of London in 1921. These were the first people ever to hold the distinction. Among them was botanist Isabel Soar, who had toiled tirelessly every weekday evening after work for five years at Birkbeck College.

Soar was in many ways the archetypal Birkbeckian, engaged as she was in full-time work and part-time study. The daughter of a stationer and a book-seller, Soar was a bright child: a ‘keen student of science, and particularly fond of botany’. After her own schooling, she pursued a career in teaching, taking up her first post as a science teacher in Ipswich in 1907.

Within six short years, she found herself in the daunting position of lecturing to trainee teachers in London at Stockwell Training College: an impressive achievement for one so young. Yet, Soar was not satisfied. Perhaps inspired by the experience of teaching others, Soar was determined to deepen her own knowledge. So, working full-time in the week, Soar began evening classes in botany at Birkbeck.

All her work was crammed into long weekdays. She made ‘it a point never to study on Saturdays, Sundays or other holidays’ and was a fervent believer that there was ‘a time for work and a time for play.’ In 1916, after three years of intense study, dedication and sacrifice, Soar achieved her Bachelor of Science in Botany, with first-class honours. The Middlesex County Times highlighted Soar as ‘an outstanding example of the rewards which await industry and determination.’

Still, Soar’s thirst for knowledge remained unquenched. Immediately after the completion of her bachelor’s she began to pursue original botanical research. Her trademark abundance of determination and its seemingly inexhaustible wellspring ensured she persevered for five long years. In June 1921, Soar’s Ph.D. thesis was approved, and she became the second Birkbeck student to achieve the title of Doctor. Bearing the title, The Structure and Function of the Endodermis in the Leaves of the Abietineae, it was of substantial interest to contemporary botanists. Before the end of 1922, an abridgement was published in The New Phytologist and she was elected a Fellow of the Linnean Society.

Meanwhile, her professional life was also reaching new heights. In this same year, she was appointed headmistress of Twickenham County School for Girls by Middlesex County Council. For her work, she was to be awarded an extremely generous commencing salary of £600 per annum. And her run of good fortune was not over yet.

On Saturday 4 August 1923, Soar married Charles James Turnadge. Turnadge was a member of the Aristotelian Society, and was sometime editor of South Place Magazine, the organ of the South Place Ethical Society. Soar took her husband’s name, and they soon departed on their ‘ostentatious’ honeymoon: a six-week motor tour of Devon, Cornwall, Somerset, and Wales.

Life seemed to be going well for Isabel Soar: academically, professionally, and personally. Unfortunately, it was not to last. In November 1926, in what should have been a happy time in her life, Soar, now Dr. Turnadge, was in the newspapers again.

In May 1926, she gave birth to Peter James Turnadge. As a result, she was fired. The Twickenham Higher Education Committee beseeched the Middlesex Education Committee to terminate her employment. They argued that ‘the responsibilities of motherhood are incompatible with her school duties.’

The Chair, and Twickenham’s Mayor, Dr. J. Leeson, defended his actions to the press: ‘with characteristic male impertinence,’ according to the feminist weekly Vote. He asserted that he had warned her, spluttering that it ‘was against my advice that Dr. Turnadge, holding the position she did, ever married… We pay her a good salary, and we want her undivided interests.’

Turnadge’s argument that her being a mother would be an asset to her work was given short shrift. In an interview with the Middlesex County Times, she explained that she was ‘even bold enough to hold the view that, as a mother, I might be better qualified to teach. May not maternal sympathy… be something of a help in training the young?’ She even later argued that ‘single women are not normal, they are emotionally starved.’ Accordingly, large numbers of single women teachers posed ‘a grave menace to the pupils.’  She made the further point that it was ‘absurd to pretend that it would be impossible for me to make adequate arrangements for Peter’ during the day, given her salary. This, similarly, did nothing to move the Committee from its position either.

Her arguments fell on deaf ears. Charles’s birth was the pretence they had been searching for since the wedding. Middlesex Education Committee had a policy that the marriage of an elementary school teacher would void their contract and terminate their employment. At the time of Soar’s wedding, however, this did not cover the marriage of secondary school teachers. The loophole was promptly closed afterwards, and although they could not act retrospectively, Soar became an exception in a fragile position, with a hostile employer.

Turnadge’s case added fuel to a debate which was already raging about the state’s employment of married women. Clearly, not everyone was in favour. Upon hearing of Turnadge’s dismissal, author James Money Kyrle Lupton sent his opinions into the West London Observer. ‘This position ought to be held in all cases by a single woman, who can devote all their time to the position,’ Lupton opined, continuing that besides a ‘married woman with any family cannot do her duty to the school and her home at the same time – this is self-evident.’

Others were appalled by the decision. Bernard Shaw quipped that ‘Twickenham is not very far from the river, and the sooner the people of Twickenham put their Higher Education Committee in the river, the better.’ Vote declared the incident ‘sufficient indication of the necessity for further vindication of the important principle of the freedom of the married woman.’

As for Dr. Turnadge herself, the bar imposed on married women teachers became the next target of her fiery determination and indefatigable work ethic. On 7 February 1927, Turnadge delivered a lecture entitled “Marriage or Career?” to the Six Point Group, a feminist organisation founded by Lady Rhondda in 1921. In Turnadge’s lecture, she decried the ‘present position of women’ as ‘most unsatisfactory, because we are not chattels, yet we are not regarded as responsible individuals who should be allowed to choose our own paths in life.’ For her, this was an issue of state interference in private life, and along undeniably unequal lines. Some women wanted ‘to continue their work after marriage, and I do not see why anyone should interfere with them,’ she asserted. It was not the work of education authorities to regulate household economies. If they were economically minded, she stressed, they would realise the folly of expending public money on teaching scholarships, only then to dismiss married women outright.

By March, she was honoured at Vote’s annual spring sale, by giving the opening address whilst rubbing shoulders with veteran campaigners such as the president, Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence. Her focus had crystallised on equal suffrage, for both married and single women.

Her points were direct, brimming with a scientist’s rationality. A woman and her life must no more be interfered with than a man. Anything less than equality would rob the nation of talent. Women should be given the same rights of individual determination.  Her conviction was that possessing the vote at 21 was of the highest importance. This is when women were entering their professions, she determined, and so most needed the power to influence policy. Evidently, her experiences had left their mark on her, and she was determined no other woman should suffer the same fate.

When the Equal Franchise Act was passed a few months later in July 1928, the achievement of policy change through the exercise of the vote was in sight. For many women, their objectives had been achieved, their battles over. Lady Rhondda, a suffragette and life-long feminist, recalled some years later ‘that when, in 1928, the vote came on equal terms, one felt free to drop the business.’ For her at least, it ‘was a blessed relief to feel that one had not got to trouble with things of that sort anymore.’

As indomitable as ever, Turnadge’s years of campaigning were only just beginning. As the international organiser for the Six Point Group, we last catch a glimpse of her busy organising a conference in Geneva to lobby for an Equal Rights Treaty. With the confidence equality was well on the way in Britain, her sights were set on the League of Nations.

Today, Birkbeck awards over 100 PhDs a year; quite the difference to a century ago. Yet, it seems that Birkbeck’s students retain the same qualities. Isabel worked consistently, with perseverance and dedication, to follow her passion. She took her fate into her own hands, sacrificing her evenings to better her prospects. And although she faced it in spades, adversity never triumphed over her. She cannot help but remind us of our peers and colleagues in these current days of difficulty, and thankfully Isabel’s virtues seem set to live on in Birkbeckians for another hundred years.

 

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Bringing our ‘whole selves to work’

Last year we spoke to Richard Morely, an MSc Computer Science student who took part in Birkbeck Future’s Ability Programme, a scheme that helps students and alumni with a disability, neurodiverse or long-term health condition connect with a disability-confident employer. Richard undertook a placement at, the insurance company, Azur where he was tasked with improving the company’s interface.

Richard Morley, a Birkbeck student who took part in the Ability Programme

Richard Morely

Richard Morley, an MSc Computer Science student with a hearing disability, applied to the Ability Programme and was given a place at digital insurance company Azur. Richard had been in contact with Birkbeck Futures before joining the scheme and applied to take part in the programme because he had been out of the job market for a while and doubted his ability after a few unsuccessful interviews. He wanted the opportunity to improve his existing skill-set and boost his wavering confidence in the job market.

At Azur, Richard was given the role of Software Development Intern and tasked with improving the interface of the company’s application called Magic. This entailed improving the colour scheme using the brand guidelines and working on developing animated features for the app. In a previous company, Richard had felt very pressured which he did not find conducive to progression. The positive atmosphere at Azur, by contrast, allowed him to develop his skills and confidence. He developed a good relationship with his team and said that: “I found the work challenging because I was doing things that I hadn’t done in previous positions, such as programming and creating animation on the app.”

One of Richard’s biggest challenges at Azur was delivering a presentation about his project. He noted that in previous roles, “I never did presentations. Even if I was given the opportunity, I would be reluctant to do it.” But after receiving support from a colleague in the preparation and delivery, he found it contributed to improved confidence around his skill-set and employability prospects.

Reflecting on the importance of the work placements for people with disabilities, Richard said: “It’s good because lots of employers think that people with disabilities might not be able to get things done because they have certain problems that get in the way of work.” Being given placements such as these “demonstrates that people with disabilities are hardworking and for me personally, that I can adapt to any situation despite my hearing disability.”

Richard’s placement culminated in a job offer which he will take up after he graduates. “It made me feel like there are more opportunities out there for me. It’s created more connections and made me feel more confident in my abilities. I have a bright future ahead of me.”

Many of the employers that took part said that the scheme was important in opening their eyes to the way they could attract and accommodate employees with disabilities or neurodiverse conditions, and encourage an open dialogue about the individual needs of the employees. Tom Armitage, Head of Talent and Performance at the Telegraph commented; “we were able to craft work experience placements that were really meaningful” and said that it challenged his team’s way of thinking.

It is the experience of Richard and students like him that show why schemes like the Ability Programme are necessary to break down stigmas attached to people with disabilities and in turn allow people to bring their “whole selves to work.”

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Getting prospective students talking

Dave Lewis, from Birkbeck’s Widening Access team, talks about the College’s new mentoring scheme which pairs prospective students with alumni for an informal chat. If you’re interested in taking part, contact gettalking@bbk.ac.uk.gettalking

Taking the plunge into higher education can be both exhilarating and daunting. Whether changing career, leaving school or coming back to education, students inevitably have questions about the years ahead. Navigating this transition with the support of a recent graduate can make all the difference, which is why we run Get Talking.

Get Talking is a one-to-one mentoring scheme which pairs prospective students with alumni for an informal chat. After an evening of training, our dedicated alumni draw on their own experiences to provide insight into both life at Birkbeck and higher education more broadly. In turn, students are given the opportunity to talk through any queries or concerns ahead of enrolment. Students are matched with their mentor based on what they hope to gain from the scheme and as such will often receive advice specific to their chosen field.

Meetings take place in a number of coffee shops close to campus, allowing participants to familiarise themselves with the Bloomsbury area and picture life as a student here.  Once students have enrolled at Birkbeck there is a wealth of continued support (including further mentoring opportunities) throughout their time at the college.

This type of pre-entry support is integral to ensuring university is accessible to all. Get Talking is one of many Birkbeck programmes that supports students from widening participation backgrounds. The scheme really is working too, with up to 75% of students who take part going on to enrol at Birkbeck. Deon, one student who took part in the scheme this year, said:

“The meeting with Dimitrios was very beneficial to me and l hope he feels the same. I am happy to say that these programs can only be an advantage to new and prospective students starting out as l feel no one knows better than those whom have experienced the task of completing an undergraduate whilst working. Dimitrios is a very helpful and understanding young man and l can only say l am honored that l was able to draw from his experience.”

This year Get Talking also began supporting applicants to the college’s Compass Project, a fund supporting forced migrants through scholarships to Birkbeck and information, advice and guidance on higher education in the UK. One of the applicants who took part this year said: “It was great to speak to someone who was as passionate about my subject as I was”.

Finally, Get Talking speaks of how closely connected Birkbeck’s alumni remain to the college. Our alumni mentors volunteer their time to support new entrants. Prospective students are supported in their decision making and begin networking before setting foot in the lecture theatre.

Would you like to get involved? If you’re thinking about studying with us or are a Birkbeck alum we’d love to hear from you at gettalking@bbk.ac.uk.

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