Series 2: Nora MacMunn (1875 – 1967)

Nora MacMunn was a geographer and the second woman to be appointed to an academic post at the University of Oxford.  She also campaigned for women’s suffrage, and is the only Oxford woman known to have belonged to the militant branch of the suffrage movement.

Nora MacMunn was born on 25 June 1875 into a church and army family.  Her father was Principal Medical Officer at the Royal Hospital, Chelsea (where the scarlet-coated Chelsea pensioners live), and her mother was daughter of the Chaplain to the Royal Hospital and later Chaplain to Queen Victoria. The family lived at the hospital until 1896 when they moved to St Leonards. MacMunn was educated privately and then read history at the University of Oxford, as a member of the Society of Home Students (what became St Anne’s College).  MacMunn sat her final examinations in 1903 but as a woman was unable to graduate. She stayed at the Society of Home students to take the diploma in geography – a qualification open to men and women.  In 1906 she was appointed demonstrator in the University’s School of Geography, making her the only second woman to be employed by the University in a teaching post.   She remained on the staff of the School of Geography until 1935, as demonstrator, senior demonstrator, assistant lecturer, and finally lecturer in regional geography.  Alongside her university posts she taught at the Society for Home Students.  In 1920 Oxford degrees were finally open to women and MacMunn graduated MA by decree.

Nora MacMunn in group
Students for the Diploma in Geography with their tutors (middle row) Nora MacMunn, Mr. H. O. Beckit and Mr. Kendrew, 1916. Photo credit to University of Oxford Archives.

MacMunn published in history and geography.  True to her social class and family background, her writing could not be caricatured as ‘feminine’, but instead shows a ready grasp of military history and strategy, willingness to write on imperial matters, and brisk style.  Her co-authored Guide to Geographical Books and Appliances (1909) contains a rare glimpse in print of her lifelong radical feminism, as she recommends Olive Schreiner’s feminist Story of an African Farm (1883) for those wanting to find out more about South Africa (I wonder if her male co-authors knew quite what recommendations they were lending their names to!). With her mother and sister MacMunn was active in the Hastings and St Leonards Women’s Suffrage Propaganda League and, as a member of the Oxford University Women’s Suffrage Society, she marched in the University contingent of the big London suffrage rally in 1908.  More remarkably, she was a member of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU)’s Tax Resistance League.  The WSPU was the militant suffrage organisation, and Tax Resistance League members refused to pay tax while they were denied the vote:  no taxation without representation.  Joining the league made MacMunn the only militant suffragette in University circles that we know of.  She was no stranger to risk taking, having previously taken part in a suffrage street protest after which she spent hours dodging the police to avoid arrest.  By good fortune, Halford Mackinder, a vocal antisuffragist, who had been head of the school of geography, left Oxford in 1905 – just before MacMunn was appointed!

Although long serving and obviously intelligent, MacMunn did not progress as far in her career as some of her male contemporaries.   Integration into the life of the university took longer for women dons than for women undergraduates – not helped by the fact that degrees and fellowship of professional bodies were often denied women so that they were less well qualified than some of their male colleagues.  At least two men were promoted over MacMunn at Oxford, but she did outrank the school’s first two junior demonstrators, both men, and her salary, which started at a scant £15 in 1906, rose to £60 in 1916 when she was the second highest salaried staff member in the school.

MacMunn retired in 1935 leaving Oxford’s School of Geography staff once more an all-male preserve (it was not until 1939 that another woman was appointed).  Warm comments by colleagues and students from the Society of Home Students suggest that the all-women institution was very important to her, as does the fact that at some point she shared a country house with Ivy Williams, first woman barrister in England, who also studied and then taught at the Society for Home Students.  MacMunn died unmarried on 14 May 1967 at Eastbourne, East Sussex, and her death was marked by no obituaries in the geographical press.  Her radicalism has until now escaped the notice of geographers but was brought to light by Janet Howarth in her study of women at Oxford, and memoir of her will be published in 2019 in an article about early women geographers at Oxford (by present women geographers at Oxford!).

Dr. Elizabeth Baigent is the University Reader in the History of Geography at the University of Oxford.

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