PhDs in History: the first four women

Manon Williams
Saturday 24 July 2021

The first PhD in History at St Andrews was awarded to T.F.G Dexter in 1922. Perhaps remarkably, it was only a few years later before two women followed suit: Edith MacQueen and Edith Thomson were awarded their PhDs in 1926 and 1928, respectively. But another quarter century would pass before Elizabeth Menzies and Edith Johnston graduated in 1954 and 1956. This blog post will explore and compare some of the experiences of these women, such as their educational experiences, the nature of their research, the funding available to these women and what we know of their later careers.

The idea of a PhD as an essential qualification for those wishing to embark on a career in academia is a very recent phenomenon. The idea of doctoral degrees for postgraduate research originated in Germany in the early nineteenth century, but it was not until the early twentieth century that British universities began to offer PhDs. St Andrews (and Oxford) began offering them in 1920. They were not, however, immediately seen as stepping stones to an academic career (or at least, not outside the natural sciences). Right up to the 1970s, only a handful of academic historians had PhDs.

[For a list of all the women awarded History PhDs at St Andrews before 1970, follow this link.]

In terms of their education, these women shared similar paths despite their generational gap. All four women completed their undergraduate degrees at St. Andrews before going on to complete their PhDs at the university. This was not unusual. An analysis of PhD theses shows that, of all the St. Andrews History PhD candidates between 1922-1956, a majority also completed their undergraduate degrees at the institution. All four women did exceptionally well in their undergraduate degrees with MacQueen, Thomson and Johnston graduating with first class honours and Menzies with second class honours. Their degree classifications were on a par, if not, by proportion, higher than their male counterparts.  Johnston was the only one to graduate in the equivalent of single honours History, whereas MacQueen, Thomson and Menzies all graduated in History and English.   

In terms of their PhD research topics, all four women wrote on political history despite having different supervisors.  MacQueen, Thomson and Menzies specialised in early-modern Scottish political history, while Johnston worked on Irish political history. The focus on political history is unsurprising, as this was reflective of undergraduate teaching and contemporary historiography. Johnston’s decision to study Irish political history is perhaps more unusual, but in the acknowledgements of several of her books she notes the importance of her supervisor Norman Gash in steering her towards Irish history. Johnston’s Irish heritage may have also contributed to this decision.  

 As with PhDs today, accessing funding was vital to ensuring that these women were able to pursue their studies. While we are currently unsure of how Edith Johnston funded her PhD, an examination of the three other women highlights some similarities. Edith MacQueen and Edith Thomson, who completed their theses in 1926 and 1928 respectively, utilised almost identical sources of funding. Both held Berry research scholarships, Carnegie research fellowships and won the Hume Brown Essay Prize which had a monetary reward. Elizabeth Menzies, who completed her PhD in 1954, also held a Carnegie research scholarship and a University Fellowship of the Institute of Historical Research. Alongside these sources of funding Menzies was a temporary lecturer in the history department at University College Dundee during her PhD. Menzies was seemingly the only one in her cohort of PhD candidates to hold a teaching position while undertaking her PhD.  

It is far more difficult to track these women after their PhDs given limited paper trails once they left the institution. Both MacQueen and Thomson received Commonwealth visiting fund fellowships to Yale, and so spent at least two years at the institution. Edith MacQueen married the MP Leslie Haden Guest in 1944 and went on to produce some historical programmes for BBC radio. After her time at Yale, little information has been found of Edith Thomson. It is interesting to note that while it appears that neither of these women went on to academic careers, almost all of the male PhD candidates at St. Andrews in the 1920s went on to either publish or hold academic careers, perhaps highlighting the difficulties and prejudices that these women faced.  

In the 1950s cohort, Elizabeth Menzies went on to marry Dr John Alfred Johnson, a member of the foreign office staff, in 1956 after years of teaching during her PhD. The St. Andrews Citizen stated that the couple went on to live in Cheltenham, but it is not yet known what Elizabeth did after her move. 

As far as we know, Edith Johnston was the first female St. Andrews PhD candidate to go on to an academic career. She taught at Sheffield for over twenty years, becoming a senior lecturer in 1965. Johnston taught at institutions across the globe, including Queens university and the University of Michigan. In 1976, she took up a post at Macquarie University, where she retired from her teaching career as a professor. Over her lifetime she published extensively on Irish history and produced a monumental six-volume work on the History of the Irish parliament. Edith Johnston did not marry until later in her career, which may have played a decisive role in her ability to pursue a career in academia in contrast to her peers  

Despite the thirty years between them, these four women followed similar paths and had many parallels in their experiences. While they may have been the first four women to complete their history PhDs, they were certainly not the last and they certainly helped to pave the way for future female historians. 

This blog post was written by Isla Cartney, as part of the STEP2021 project. She was then about to go into her fourth year studying for an MA in History.  

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