A brief history of women historians at St Andrews

Aileen Fyfe
Monday 23 October 2023

From 1877 onwards, the innovative St Andrews LLA qualification  enabled women from across the UK (and beyond) to be examined and certified to degree level, at a time when few universities were willing to award degrees to women. History was one of the subjects available, which meant that women could be examined and certified in History at St Andrews before their male counterparts, who were studying for general M.A. degrees, could be!

Women were first admitted to the University as degree students in 1892, and in 1895, Agnes Forbes Blackadder became the first woman to graduate with an M.A. You can read more about trailblazing women at St Andrews on the Special Collections blog

The admission of women was part of a wider series of reforms to Scottish universities in the 1890s. Among them were changes to the degree regulations for the Faculty of Arts, and the introduction of new subjects in which Honours degrees might be taken. One of those new subjects was History, and a new University Lectureship in History was filled in 1896.

In 1900, the first two students graduated with Honours in History; and in 1903, the five Honours M.A. historians included our first two women: Elizabeth Peddie Steele Hutton and Helen Douglas-Irvine.

In 1920, St Andrews began awarding the Ph.D. degree, for postgraduate research. In 1927 and 1928, Edith Macqueen and Edith Thomson became the first women to be granted the Ph.D. in History (both for research into early-modern Scotland). No other women historians gained PhDs at St Andrews till the 1950s.

It took longer for any women to be appointed to lectureships in HistoryJanet Isabella Low had served briefly as a Lecturer and Assistant in Modern History towards the end of the First World War, followed, even more briefly, by Elizabeth Hewat. We believe Doris Ketelbey was the first woman appointed to a long-term lectureship, in Modern History: she began as assistant lecturer in 1935, retiring in 1958 as senior lecturer.

In 1955, the broad-ranging ‘Modern History’ at St Andrews was replaced by two separate departments: Mediaeval History and Modern History. For a brief moment in the late 1950s, the newly-defined department of Modern History had two women historians on the staff, when Ketelbey was joined by Dr Margaret Lambert (who held a lectureship in Modern European History) – but then Ketelbey retired, and Lambert herself resigned in 1960.

The 1960s, however, would see a small group of women historians appointed: Lorna Walker, Ann Kettle and Barbara Crawford in Mediaeval History, and Anne Wright (d.1981) in Modern History.

Over the following decades, women would also come to hold research fellowships, tutorial positions and lectureships in the departments of history. But it would be 2009 before a woman became a professor, with the promotion of Frances Andrews.

So far, our research has been focusing on women who held formal appointments, but we recognise that other women historians have been temporarily or informally associated with the University. We look forward to learning more about them.

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