Emily Penrose

(1858-1942) – Principal of Somerville 1907-1926

Emily Penrose went to school in London before moving to Athens with her family. She came to Somerville in 1889 to study Literae Humaniores (Classics), learning Latin and ancient Greek from scratch. At the time she was studying, the first examinations in her degree (Honour Moderations) were not open to women, so Penrose moved straight on to Finals without taking any other examinations. In 1892 she became the first woman to achieve First class honours in the subject, although Oxford did not yet allow women to take degrees.

On finishing her studies, Penrose was offered a combined post as tutor, librarian and secretary by the then Principal, Agnes Maitland. Penrose did not accept the post, moving instead to London and working as a lecturer for a time before being appointed Principal of Bedford College in 1893. In 1904, she was also appointed to the post of Professor of Ancient History there (though at no extra stipend). In 1898 she moved to Royal Holloway College, and she returned to Somerville as Principal in 1907.

Under Penrose’s leadership, Somerville began to admit only women who would read for full degree courses even though they could not yet take the actual degree. In 1908 she introduced an entrance examination for the college. She was also responsible for the appointment of more tutors, and for their integration into Somerville’s governing Council. During the First World War, she oversaw Somerville’s temporary move to Oriel College. Penrose was involved in establishing a group to work towards the admission of women to full membership of the University, and she was instrumental in ensuring that in 1920 the University of Oxford granted women the right to matriculation and to all degrees. She also worked for the cause of education outside Oxford, serving on the Advisory Committee on University Grants (the body which advised on the distribution of funding to British universities) and as the only female member of the Royal Commission on University Education in Wales in 1916. On her retirement in 1926, Penrose became the second women to receive an honorary Doctorate of Civil Law (DCL) from Oxford (the first had been Queen Mary in 1921) and in 1927 she was made a Dame of the British Empire (DBE) for services to education.

Did you know? One Somervillian, the medievalist Helen Waddell, expressed the view of many when she said to Penrose, ‘We feel it was you who made it inevitable that women should be recognised by the University.’

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