A history of women in St Andrews: the Lady Literate in Arts scheme

The University of St Andrews may be over 600 years old, but women have only been allowed to study here for just over 100 years! MUSA blogger, Heather Taylor, tells us about the scheme that first allowed women to study at St Andrews.

Currently, around 60% of students at the University of St Andrews are female, and we have a strong female role-model in our Principal and Vice-Chancellor, Sally Mapstone. However, accessing higher education has not always been easy for women, and it wasn’t until the mid-late nineteenth century that the struggle for equal access to education really began. Up until this point, the idea of educating women past school-age faced strong disapproval from the clergy and medical professionals, who argued that women could simply not cope with serious study and could actually suffer serious damage to their health by following study regimes that were designed for men.


In any case, the University of St Andrews was somewhat of a trailblazer in terms of women gaining equal access to education. In fact, St Andrews became the first university in Scotland to admit women undergraduate students on the same level as men when Agnes Forbes Blackadder matriculated in 1892. She was also the first female to graduate from St Andrews with an M.A. in 1984. Blackadder went on to complete a postgraduate qualification at the University of Glasgow and later made a successful career for herself in London as a consultant in dermatology, as well as being a well-respected member of the Women’s Rights movement. Indeed, Blackadder proved that not only could women cope with higher education, they could also excel in their chosen field, just like men could.

Prior to women being allowed to matriculate on the same level as men, from 1876, St Andrews offered an alternative: the Lady Literate in Arts (L.L.A.) diploma, a type of external degree that women could complete via distance learning. The qualification covered a wide range of subjects, including moral philosophy, mathematics, chemistry, geography, and fine art, as well as various ancient and modern languages.

By 1881, William Angus Knight, a Professor of Moral Philosophy and the then convener of the L.L.A. committee, decided to make the qualification as close as possible to the M.A. for men, by setting the same standard papers, and even going as far as providing identical examinations on the same day for subjects taught within the University. Also, the number of subjects required for the L.L.A. was gradually increased, and special importance was attached to the seven subjects required for the M.A., with the offer of a prize of £20 for the first woman to pass them all.

By 1883, the scheme was so well established that there was a demand from holders of the diploma for a special academic dress. This was agreed and a special sash was designed, composed of the same fabric and colour as the M.A. hood, as well as a silver badge that featured Saint Andrew and his cross, the letters ‘L.L.A.’ and an engraved inscription that read ‘University of St Andrews, 1877.’

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This was also the same year that the first overseas L.L.A. candidates took the examination. What was most unique about the qualification is that the scheme did not confine itself to the immediate area of the university, to Scotland, or even to Britain. As long as a candidate could arrange for an appropriate supervisor in their area, such as a clergyman or school headmaster, then it was possible for them to study for the diploma. Indeed, over 1500 candidates from overseas completed the L.L.A. in this way.

Essentially, by 1886 the women were assessed at M.A. degree standard and it was a degree in all but name. By this time, subjects were divided into five groups, and it was recommended that candidates select at least one subject to study from each group. Successful candidates were also separated into three classes, A for a pass above 80%, B for a pass between 60% and 80%, and C for a pass between 50% and 60%. In 1887, the number of subjects a candidate had to pass to gain the diploma was raised to seven, or six with one at honours level.

While the 1889 Universities (Scotland) Act made it possible to admit women on the same level as men, the L.L.A. continued to be popular with women who wanted to study for an arts degree but could not or did not want to commit to attending the institution in person for up to four years. However, once women began to matriculate, the Senatus no longer felt comfortable in claiming that the L.L.A. was equivalent to the M.A., and subsequently it became more difficult for the university to define its status. Despite this, the number of L.L.A. candidates continued to rise until 1910, after which it declined.

Ultimately, the L.L.A was an important step in women gaining recognition in higher education and the right to fully matriculate as a St Andrews undergraduate student. Thousands of women received an L.L.A. before it was eventually discontinued in the 1930s. The scheme was no longer a useful money-making asset to the University, and became less appealing to candidates now that studying for an M.A. was possible.


Womens students 1896
Women graduates of the M.A. 1896

If you come to MUSA, you can see the L.L.A. diploma sash, as well as other objects relating to the scheme, such as a real exam paper that the students would have taken.


by Heather Taylor


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