Women and the dictionary, Part I: Assistants and volunteers

Our initial selection of edited letters, published online in July 2022, featured 43 of Murray’s named correspondents, 35 of whom were male and eight female. This proportion of women, small though it was, was still unrepresentative of the archive as a whole: as more letters are published, the ratio of female letter-writers to male will continue to decrease. This is because by far the majority of Murray’s correspondents were men, whether colleagues, contributors, friends, or the many members of the public not directly connected with the dictionary who wrote to him to ask questions about words and language. Women were much less likely than men to have received the education necessary to be an effective dictionary volunteer reader or staff member, and women above the labouring classes were in general raised not for employment or intellectual activities but to support husbands, children, and family in the domestic sphere. This approach to women’s education is exemplified by Lucy Soulsby, the headmistress of Oxford High School (attended by Murray’s own daughters), who opposed women’s access to university degrees and prioritized ‘character-building’ over academic matters in order to ‘make fine women who will be fine wives and fine mothers’ (ODNB). Conceivably this was the reason that Soulsby suggested to Murray that his eldest daughter Hilda should take elocution lessons (891022A), though as it happened, Hilda never married but pursued a distinguished academic career, ending up (in an entirely unusual trajectory through life for a woman) as Vice-Mistress of Girton College, Cambridge.

Women played an important role in the making of the dictionary nevertheless, beginning with Ada Murray, who in 1878 persuaded her husband James to take on the editorship of the revolutionary new dictionary project that became the OED on the grounds that it was better to ‘do one big thing instead of a number of small ones’ (Murray 1977: 155). From then onwards, until James Murray’s death in 1915, Ada Murray managed all his dictionary-related correspondence and papers, often assisting him in making copies of his letters. Their five daughters (and six sons) all sorted slips for the dictionary from a young age, in return for pocket money. Hilda continued her dictionary work while reading Modern Languages as an Oxford Home Student in 1896–1899, investigating etymologies as well as providing statistics for the published Introductions appearing over this period (Murray 1977: 180; Gilliver 2016: 283 n. 26). Two of the other Murray daughters, Elsie and Rosfrith, committed substantial portions of their adult lives to the dictionary, becoming full-time paid assistants on their father’s staff on leaving school in 1899 and 1903 respectively. Both continued working on the dictionary after James Murray’s death, Elsie staying on till 1921, when she emigrated to South Africa, and Rosfrith (who never married) seeing the first edition through to completion then resigning in 1929 (Brewer 2007: 34, 43).

When Murray took over editorship of the dictionary in 1879, he employed two young women, Miss Ellen Skipper and a Miss Scott, to help sort the Philological Society materials he had received from the retiring editor Frederick J. Furnivall (see letter 801200B n. 1). Their presence on the staff was exceptional, however, and it was not until 1895 that the first woman assistant, Mary Dormer Harris, was appointed to work on the content of the dictionary, though she seems not to have stayed for any length of time.1

It is not clear why appointing women to work on the dictionary took so long. Ten years earlier, Murray’s friend Edward Arber had ‘strongly’ advised him ‘to employ women’, on the ground that they were ‘more conscientious, and cheaper’ (841202A; he particularly urged him to consider Lucy Toulmin Smith, who perhaps turned Murray down).2 In 1886, Walter W. Skeat had suggested a possible female candidate to Murray (860304A); and in 1889, the Secretary to the Delegates of OUP, Philip Lyttelton Gell, responding positively to Murray’s ‘idea of engaging a little feminine assistance in that department’, expressed the wish that ‘we could enlist a few thoroughly competent & qualified women in the work [on the dictionary]. There are many philologists among them nowadays’ (890107B). In November 1894 Murray was searching unsuccessfully among ‘the Ladies who took a First Class in English and Philology here’—and hoping also to get ‘a girl as senior clerkly assistant’ (941127A); the following month, he appears to have mentioned his hope of ‘new employment for women’ to the Headmistress of the High School for Girls in Sheffield, Eliza Woodhouse, who replied to say how much she regretted she was too busy to help, while envying ‘the chance of being in your Scriptorium’ (941218A).

Notwithstanding these views on women’s eligibility, there seem to have been only two other established female staff members during Murray’s lifetime (i.e. apart from Dormer Harris and Murray’s two daughters already mentioned), compared with a much larger number of men. These were Eleanor Bradley (also unmarried), the daughter of his co-editor Henry Bradley, who worked on her father’s staff from 1897, and Ethelwyn Steane (later Mrs Powell), the daughter of a local wine merchant, who joined Murray’s staff in 1901. Both ceased working for the dictionary in 1932 after completion of the Supplement, though Eleanor Bradley continued sending in slips at piece-rates (Brewer 2007: 80).3 Photographs of the four main women staff members, taken just before and after Murray’s death in 1915 and grouped by editorial team, can be seen in the gallery, here and here.

As was the norm over this period, all women employees were paid substantially less than men (Brewer 2007: 34–35). Women’s status was also considerably lower in the workplace and in other professional contexts, a fact strikingly illustrated by the exclusion of all women (whether dictionary employees or not) from the dinner held to celebrate the completion of the OED in 1928 in Goldsmiths’ Hall in London. A small number were instead permitted to observe the proceedings from the minstrels’ gallery (280518A). In the late 1920s, one of the publishers used to refer to female dictionary staff as ‘rabbits’ (Brewer 2007: 39).

It seems that Murray himself was relatively free from such bias and a strong supporter of female intellectual endeavour, if accepting of the gender conventions of his time. This can be seen in his support of Lucy Toulmin Smith’s non-dictionary-related scholarly ambitions (see below) and in his warm encouragement of the young Elizabeth Lea in 1893 to pursue a PhD—something women were unable to do at Oxford until 1920 (931014A)—though instead, Lea married Joseph Wright and thereafter devoted herself to his English Dialect Dictionary, rendering Wright a service not unlike that given to James Murray by Ada Murray.

Voluntary unpaid work, however, was essential for the completion both of Wright’s work and especially the OED. It extended far beyond wives and families: the OED could not have been produced without the vast quantities of quotation slips, the dictionary’s primary source material, sent in by volunteer readers in the UK and beyond. Here women also played an important role, if in smaller numbers. Edith Thompson was one of the most stalwart and long-term contributors to the OED in its history. In common with several female scholars of the time—almost all of whom necessarily pursued their academic calling outside university and other institutional structures—she was lucky in having a male patron or sponsor early in her career, without whom a woman’s entry into the scholarly world was prohibitively difficult. Thompson’s initial sponsor was the historian Edward Augustus Freeman, whom she met in the late 1860s and who asked her to write a school textbook, History of England (1872), for the publishers Macmillan. This work, many times revised and reissued, was used by generations of pupils up to and beyond the First World War in the US and Canada as well as Britain. It established her as a widely published (if often anonymous) reviewer and historian. One of the first respondents to James Murray’s Appeal for volunteer readers (Murray 1879), Thompson was among those he thanked in 1884 for ‘filling up gaps in our quotations, and completing the literary history of words’ (Murray 1884: 517); four years later she and her younger sister, Ellen Perronet Thompson, had already contributed 15,000 quotations, putting them in the first rank of volunteer readers (Murray 1888: xv). She helped sub-edit the letter C, read dictionary proofs from the letter D onwards, and sent in streams of information from her researches in the British Library and elsewhere.

Two letters written one after another (820625A, 820626A) show how early Thompson established a close epistolary friendship with Murray, joking with him about the hard-line linguistic views of Freeman (in whose house she was staying at the time), sympathizing with Murray’s labours, delighted to have her own grandfather included as a quotation source, probing dictionary conventions on representing quotation sources, and moving easily between references to an English translation of French fairy tales (collected by a woman, Baroness d’Aulnoy), Cobbett’s English Grammar, and military dictionaries. A later letter (900324A), enclosing ‘another little collection of slips’, gives a snapshot of their ongoing conversations—commiseration over the Murray family’s recent flu, ‘h’ words and quotations, the Paston Letters, ‘Mr Gladstone’, and a recently published review of Part V of the dictionary. Edith Thompson corresponded regularly with Murray up until his death in 1915, and she and her sister continued to do dictionary work up to the completion of the OED in 1928.

The affectionate, familial, and sometimes teasing quality in Thompson’s letters, side-by-side with learned reference lightly worn, characterizes those of another staunch dictionary correspondent and adviser, Lucy Toulmin Smith (the potential dictionary employee suggested by Arber). It is noticeable that female correspondents were more likely than men to exchange news on families, while the social and domestic responsibilities borne disproportionately by women consumed time that might otherwise have been available for research (see 870609A). Toulmin Smith had taken up scholarly activities early, assisting her father, Joshua Toulmin Smith, with his work on English local history. When he died in 1869 she was well placed to prepare his unfinished book, English Gilds, for publication in 1870, following this up with many other publications and extensive scholarly work on both English and French medieval manuscripts, in many cases with and for male colleagues who were also closely connected with research for the new dictionary and with bodies such as the Philological Society and its offshoot the Early English Text Society (e.g. Furnivall, Skeat, Paul Meyer, Richard Morris). From the early 1880s to the mid-1890s, Toulmin Smith verified quotations in the British Library for the dictionary, wrote reviews of the early fascicles, and read and gave advice on a range of topics, while in 1882 Murray in return played a crucial role in helping her secure a contract for her major edition of the York Mystery Plays for the Clarendon Press (1885), the standard version of these plays for the following century (820103A).

Neither Edith Thompson nor Toulmin Smith appear to have been troubled by money matters, but many women contributors would have found it difficult to make a living out of their literary pursuits. Jennett Humphreys, another prolific reader for the OED, wrote in anguish to Murray after she was summarily dismissed from her paid work writing entries for female as well as male subjects (98 altogether) for the Dictionary of National Biography, which effectively ‘cut [her] off from [her] British Museum visits, from the foothold [she] was proud to have attained after 30 years’ struggle with authorship, from, in short, the one spot where [she] was in touch with the literary world’ (870518A).

(Continued in ‘Women and the Dictionary, Part II: Authors’.)

Further reading

Malkiel, Nancy Weiss. (2016). “Keep the Damned Women Out”: The Struggle for Coeducation. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Percy, Carol. (2020). ‘British Women’s Roles in the Standardization and Study of English’. In Wendy Ayres-Bennett and Helena Sanson (Eds.), Women in the History of Linguistics (pp. 279–303). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Russell, Lindsay Rose. (2018). Women and Dictionary Making: Gender, Genre, and English Language Lexicography. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

1. Records on Dormer Harris are scarce; see Gilliver (2016: 238) and Field (2002: 34–39). Dormer Harris had studied English at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, worked also for Joseph Wright’s English Dialect Dictionary, and later devoted herself to the publication of works on local English history. Gilliver notes that Murray had offered a post to another woman candidate a few months earlier who had proved unable to take it up.
2. Notably, while advocating female employment, Arber also thought there were limits to what women should be asked to do: see further ‘Defining Obscenity’.
3. Mrs Powell told the then Secretary to the Delegates, ‘I shall at first feel rather strange after so long a spell of work—after 31 years of one sort of life, there must needs be a complete readjustment of proceedings! No doubt I shall settle down to a home life—anyhow I must. My husband is frankly delighted to have me always at home.’ E. R. Powell to R. W. Chapman, 28 December 1932 (unpublished, OUP Archives, OED/B/3/2/21).