Edith MacQueen and the Challenges of Academic Job-Hunting, 1930s-1960s

Aileen Fyfe
Friday 7 July 2023

The career trajectory of Edith MacQueen – the first woman to obtain a PhD in History at the University of St. Andrews – poses a certain paradox: a woman of high academic standing, she possessed the right credentials and awards for a successful career in academia. She completed her PhD in 1927, and then a fellowship from the Commonwealth Fund enabled her to spend three years undertaking postdoctoral research at Yale University (1927-1930). Yet despite her goal to become a university lecturer, she was rejected from at least nine academic posts during her career. She spent the majority of her working life as a BBC Assistant Education officer, before eventually working as an archivist at the University of Glasgow in the 1960s.

This blog post will use archived correspondence between MacQueen and the Commonwealth Fund (CF) to examine MacQueen’s efforts to pursue an academic career. It turns out that the Commonwealth Fund not only provided her with new academic opportunities, but also a considerable amount of practical job-hunting assistance, that continued for over thirty years after her fellowship. Macqueen relied on the Fund as a point of information and enquiry, her sustained correspondence with the CF reflecting the broader challenges facing female historians entering academia in the 1930s.

The Fellowship: An Opportunity for Academic and Professional Development

During her tenure as a CF scholar, MacQueen was able to expand her academic and professional interests. Researching ‘Scottish Influence on American History in the Eighteen Century’, she was given access to a wide range of exciting new sources that were ‘available only in America’.[1] These sources enabled her to write articles on American colonial history, and she was apparently close to publishing a book.[2] Her hard work meant her fellowship was extended for an additional year, outside of the standard two year timeframe. Descriptions of MacQueen’s work reported on her academic competency: she was described by one CF staff member as having ‘explored the field thoroughly and [showing] great enterprise’, and being ‘a person of first rate ability’.[3]  As her fellowship came to an end, Richard Simpson, the Secretary of the CF’s London office, assured her of the Fund’s intentions to support her professional ambitions: ‘we shall be glad to do our best to keep you from adding to the problem of unemployment in the British Isles’.[4]

Job-Hunting from the 1930s: Networking, Opportunities and Challenges

During her job-hunt, MacQueen used the CF for two main purposes: as a source of information, and for the provision of practical help. To find out about postings, MacQueen kept in close correspondence with Mr. Simpson, who informed her of formal and prospective opportunities in the UK. MacQueen’s responses to his letters indicate one of the main challenges she faced: accessing information about new posts and openings; ‘I know nothing of the proposed scheme [an opening at University College London] beyond its announcement in the News Bulletin…I should be very glad to have any information you can give me’.[5] She writes in another letter; ‘have you been able to obtain any further information about the American History Department in London University or is it still very much a dark secret?…I am feeling rather desperate!’[6]

On a practical level, MacQueen relied on the Fund to provide her with references, and to act as a conduit between herself and various academic institutions while she was still in the US. Interestingly, she requested references from the CF’s staff rather than her academic tutors at St Andrews or Yale. Mr. Simpson wrote references to institutions including Nottingham, Southampton, Birkbeck College and Exeter. He also arranged interviews, requested application forms, and corresponded with universities regarding MacQueen’s intentions to apply.

The frustrations MacQueen experienced reflect the host of short and long-term challenges scholars in her position faced. On one level, her challenges were logistical, associated with poor timing and delays in communication. She summarises these challenges in one report; ‘Notices of vacancies arrive in America often too late for any action to be taken. Would it not be possible for the Universities…to send advance notice…?’[7] Even when she was back in Britain, the challenge remained, and she complained that universities tended to ‘give…the shortest possible notice’.[8]

MacQueen’s reliance on the Commonwealth Fund office for information about new posts implies an absence of good connections within British academia, leading her to fall back on staff at the Fund for potential leads and connections. This spoke to the importance of being in the correct academic job circles, otherwise facing significant barriers to entering the field.

MacQueen’s position as a female historian could have also been a potential barrier, as contemporary attitudes saw female academics as the ‘exception’ rather than the norm. In reference letters, MacQueen was described as ‘unusually clear-minded’,[9] and as a ‘good sort of candidate, not a femme savante in the bad sense’.[10] When MacQueen was applying for the fellowship, vice-chancellor of St Andrews, James Irvine, wrote: ‘although several women graduates have applied to me for nomination…, I have selected miss Macqueen’,[11] implying that only a limited number of women should receive a fellowship at once. One 1930 job advertisement exclusively using male pronouns in its description of their ideal candidate, suggesting a strong preference for male academics.

Exploring Academia in Alternate Ways

Despite these challenges, MacQueen found other ways to explore her interests beyond her aspiration for a permanent academic job. She enjoyed sharing articles she wrote with the CF, and updated them on various independent projects she was working on. These included projects on Scottish emigration, and a detective novel!

MacQueen continued to correspond with the CF throughout her time at the BBC, suggesting that she was not entirely satisfied with her job. By the 1960s, she had finally held one position adjacent to academia (a one year stint at the Institute of Historical Research), but she continued to express grievances over her lack of a permanent academic position; ‘I should very much like to have a talk with [the Fund] about any possible jobs for me…I have still no prospects and…I am becoming more than a little apprehensive’.[12] The following year, she announced; ‘I shall be in London over Christmas…I wish you would think up some highly paid job for me in London!’.[13]

Her connection to the Commonwealth Fund never did get MacQueen a job, but keeping in touch did enable her to carry out some forms of lecturing; in 1953, she was invited to speak at ‘Harkness Tuesdays’, a lecture series named after the founder of the Fund. She continually advocated for her place in academia, even enquiring whether her fellowship could be renewed in order to give a series of lectures at Flora MacDonald College, North Carolina in 1946. This reflected her ambition to explore academia through alternate routes outside of a formalised job opportunity.

MacQueen thus never ceased to give up her academic aspirations, despite the disappointing outcome of her job-hunting efforts in the early 1930s. Maintaining networks within the CF was a way to enquire about openings while sharing her professional interests, to keep in contact with former fellows and tangentially develop friendships with the CF staff.

This blog was written by May Lutyens-Humfrey, who was a research intern on the ‘Women Historians’ project in spring 2023. May graduated with an MA in International Relations and Modern History  in June 2023.

[1] 8 February 1927, MacQueen’s Commonwealth Fund Fellowship Form. All items cited are from the Commonwealth Fund archives, held at the Rockefeller Archive Center, New York (series 20.2, box 133, folder 1019).

[2] 3 April 1935, Mr. Reed to Gertrude Elles (Newnham College).

[3] ibid.

[4] 27 January 1930, R.H. Simpson to MacQueen.

[5] 2 February 1930, MacQueen to R.H. Simpson.

[6] 11 July 1930, Macqueen to Simpson.

[7] c.1930, ‘Excerpt from Final Report of Miss Edith MacQueen, 1927-1930, Yale’.

[8] 23 June 1932, MacQueen to Simpson.

[9] 6 April 1927, J.H. Baxter to Simpson.

[10] 3 March 1927, Professor J.D. Mackie to Simson.

[11] 8 February 1927, Memorandum: MacQueen’s ‘Proposed Scheme of Research to be pursued in America’.

[12] 18 March 1961, Edith Haden Guest to ‘Lanse’ (Mr. Hammond).

[13] c.1962, Edith Haden Guest to Gorley Putt.

Posted in

Related topics

Leave a reply

By using this form you agree with the storage and handling of your data by this website.