Skip to content

Ladies of Learning: A Brief History of the Lady Literate in Arts diploma

Graduation and the acknowledgement of academic achievements has not always been something that has happened as a united school body, on the same day, or with the same appearances. 130 years ago, female St Andrews students who completed their Lady Literate in Arts (LLA) diploma were not included in traditional graduations, but rather they received a distinctive graduation sash and certificate at their homes. These sashes represented the hard work, perseverance, and intelligence of these women from locations across the world. However, the sashes were only the beginning, as many of the students who acquired them went on to lead vibrant, productive lives.

The Lady Literate in Arts Sash. Image courtesy of the Museum of the University of St Andrews

Begun in 1872, the Lady Literate in Arts program was a formal effort to educate women at St Andrews. The university had previously been sympathetic to female applications to study since Elizabeth Garrett had illegally studied at the university in the 1860s. However, like many academic institutions, the university had not yet become convinced that equal matriculation was a possibility. Luckily, through the efforts of William Angus Knight who was Professor of Moral Philosophy, the scheme was created to be as similar to a Master of Arts degree (MA) as possible by setting the candidates studying for the LLA the same standard exam papers as were set for the MA degree. Those desiring to achieve the LLA also had to pass in the same number of subjects as those studying for the MA.

This external degree was completed remotely, allowing for women around the United Kingdom and later the globe to advance their academic training. The qualification covered many subjects including moral philosophy, mathematics, chemistry, geography, fine art, as well as ancient and modern languages. The program allowed for women to study at their local colleges or with tutors, then sit for exams and submit papers the same as male students. The scheme benefited students who could not journey to St Andrews and provided a much-needed boost to the university through funds and international engagement. For many women, this diploma illustrated their qualifications for teaching positions at schools or large households and served as a springboard for later degrees.

Testing sites were available throughout the United Kingdom and international students participated from France, Barbados, Germany, Bermuda, Belgium, Romania, South Africa, Turkey, Moldavia, Switzerland, Portugal, India, the United States, and Austria. The most popular subjects included English, French, Education and History, while only a handful of students studied Hygiene or Hebrew. Due to the variety of testing locations, this made higher education available for women from cities as well as rural settings. While the cost of the courses was prohibitive for women from the lower levels of society, for women from agricultural, industrial and skilled craft backgrounds it opened more avenues for advancement through new positions. Women who also came from families of clergy, teachers, and clerks also were more likely to pursue education through the LLA scheme.

Almond-shaped badge with a relief of St Andrews.
A LLA Silver badge depicting in relief St Andrews on the cross, with ‘UNIVERSITY OF ST ANDREWS 1877’ inscribed around the edge. Image courtesy of the Museum of the University of St Andrews.

By 1883, the scheme was so popular that the women demanded special academic dress. Considering many factors, it was settled to design a special sash, composed of the same fabric and colour of the MA hood. The crimson and black sash was adorned with a silver badge featuring Saint Andrew and his cross, the initials LLA, and an engraved inscription that read “University of St Andrews, 1877.”

While many women completed courses to allow them to teach, a few students had a great variety of experiences after receiving their diplomas.

Portrait of a woman with a graduate hat and gown.
Marion Gilchrist in her graduation attire. She graduated with a MB CM from Queen Margaret College, Glasgow. in 1894 Photograph of Marion Gilchrist Image credit: University of Glasgow Archives & Special Collections, University photograph collection, GB248 UP1/264/1.

Marie Imandt, who studied German, English Literature and French, went on to be a journalist who travelled the world reporting on the genuine condition of women globally back to Scotland. Marion Gilchrist went on to be the first female to achieve a medical degree at a Scottish university. May Cornwall Legh was a missionary, teacher, and nurse in Japan and was honoured for her work by receiving the “6th Order of the Sacred Treasure.” Helen Brodie Cowan Bannerman reflected on her overseas experiences in India when she wrote, “The Story of Little Black Sambo” to entertain her children. Margaret Nevinson became a teacher and prominent suffragist, who later was the first female Justice of the Peace in London.

Not to be outdone, Violetta Thurstan, who studied Modern Languages and Fine Arts, became a nurse with the Red Cross during World War I, where she was wounded while evacuating patients, then proceeded to write multiple accounts of her wartime experiences. Later she studied weaving and contributed a silk cot cover to the Victoria and Albert museum collection, then when World War II broke out she aided prisoners of war and children refugees, earning her acclaim from even the Vatican.

A woman with a white cloth over her head, wearing a large tunic.
Portrait of Violetta Thurstan in her Russian Red Cross uniform, Image Credit: Christine E. Hallett, ‘The War Nurse as Free Agent’ in Nurse Writers of the Great War, (Manchester University Press, 2017), Ebook, Creative Commons CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

Women who pursued academic achievement through the LLA continued to defy expectations and used their learning to benefit not only their families, pupils, or readers, but eventually, the world.

In 1892, female students could matriculate and slowly the need for the LLA scheme waned. Times had moved on, and the university adapted once again to embrace this new part of the student body. Over the 50 years that the scheme was active, more than 36,000 women participated from around the globe, with over 27,000 of them passing one or more subjects. It was an elite 5,000 who gained the full LLA diploma. The creation of the sashes, like the creation of the LLA diploma, reflected a time period that was about adapting to best meet the needs of a changing world.

A woman with a graduate hat, gown, and sash
Margaret Nevinson in 1910, photograph taken by photographer and British suffragette, Lena Connell. Image credit: Wiki commons,

Today, the Wardlaw Museum holds several original sashes donated by recipients over the years, and one of them is on display along with a certificate in the Museum. These sashes connect students from many different times and places and speak to their determined effort “ever to excel,” no matter the conditions.

This is article has been inspired and informed by the PhD thesis, “To walk upon the grass: the impact of the University of St Andrews’ Lady Literate in Arts, 1877-1892 by Dr Elisabeth Margaret Smith.

Written by Stephanie Williams.