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Finding a Dissertation Topic with Edward Perry Warren

When I applied for the NACBS Pre-Dissertation Grant last year, I wrote that I hoped the research I would undertake would help me to settle on a coherent topic for my dissertation. Indeed it did—though it wasn't until I returned home, stepped back, and took stock of my research, that a clear line of inquiry emerged. I realized I'd been working on this project all along, though I hadn't known it at the time.

Five years ago, I started a master's thesis about a classics teacher at Oxford in the late nineteenth century, and since then I've been grubbing about in the personal papers of British academics, trying to figure out what story might tie together these people and the world they inhabited. I tried intellectual developments, politics, professionalization. But as I extended my network of actors, pushed my chronology into the first couple decades of the twentieth century, turned my master's thesis into an article, and read new sources, a clearer way to make sense of these people's lives emerged.

My dissertation is a new history of coeducation in British universities between 1860 and 1930. It seeks to understand how coeducation happened and what logics spurred it at different institutions, and how individuals within universities negotiated, impelled, or resisted the professional and personal shifts it demanded. As I investigate further, I hope to find out more about the ideas and the professional and personal lives of the students, teachers, administrators, donors, and politicians who were invested both in maintaining and in challenging the norm of gender segregation, how they did this, and what happened to homosocial cultures as this change was taking place.

Through the research I did last year, I became interested in both men and women who maintained an investment in single-sex higher education even after the First World War (relatively late in the game), and the extent to which homoeroticism was a part of how they conceived of their commitment to single-sex educational communities. Take, for example, E.P. Warren, a wealthy American art collector respected for his knowledge of sexually explicit ancient art, some of which depicted sex between men. His collecting, and the efforts (spurred partly by his own sexuality) that he made to understand the objects he was collecting, gave visual evidence a role alongside the literary evidence scholars used to understand sex between men in antiquity.

When Warren's relationship with his long-term romantic and business partner John Marshall ended in 1907, he folded up his collecting business and sought another outlet for his expenditure. He lighted upon Oxford: a place where he had been happy as an undergraduate, and whose colleges offered a ready-made intimate all-male community. He got in touch with an old friend—Thomas Case, the president of Corpus Christi College, Oxford—to offer Case's college a major bequest. Negotiations about this went on for some time, but in a draft will codicil of 1927, one year before his death, Warren left £30,000 (about a quarter of a million US dollars today) to endow a "praelectorship" at Corpus, "[b]ecause the Founder of Corpus Christi College desired that Greek should be studied therein and the College has distinguished itself in the study of Greek and in the defense thereof…." The Praelector was to teach Greek and Latin, with a preference for Greek; he was only to teach students from Corpus, and never to do so "in the presence of any woman"; he was only to teach within the physical walls of the college, and must live within them as well, "it being my special desire that the Praelector… and the members of the college receiving his instruction shall as far as possible be in close contact and associate together." Needless to say, "No woman shall at any time be eligible for the Praelectorship" (Corpus Christi College Archives, B/12/4/1).

The college were thrilled by Warren's generosity, and no one seems to have been concerned about women's exclusion from the bequest. But Case's successor as president, P.S. Allen, was concerned about another aspect. Warren had proposed an additional fund for the construction of an underground passage, linking the original sixteenth-century quad to buildings that the college had recently built on the opposite side of the street. This would have been costly and complicated, and Allen struggled to understand why it was important to Warren that students should be able to access the Praelector even in the middle of the night when the college gates were shut. But Warren made clear that his goodwill—and perhaps the future of the entire bequest—rested on the college beginning construction of the passage.

Knowing that Warren believed sex between older and younger men to be a key part of the high culture of the classical world, it is difficult not to impute insalubrious motives to his efforts to see the passage built—and indeed to his bequest altogether, and its insistence on the exclusion of women from the increasingly outmoded form of classical learning it attempted to enshrine. Allen accepted the fund, assuring Warren that he would pursue the building project. But Warren was the ultimate loser in this story. The tunnel was never built—a river runs under the road in question, and the council refused planning permission. When it decided to admit women in the 1970s, Corpus went to court to have the gender-exclusionary terms of the bequest invalidated, and today the Praelectorship is held by its first woman occupant.

I'm still working out what I think of Warren's story, and how it will fit into my dissertation. But it's partly what led me to my dissertation topic: Corpus's records about the donation are rich with detail about why and how someone might have been a reactionary against the tide of coeducation, the ways that a discourse about classical antiquity shaped the terms of the coeducation debate, and the ways that conflicts over gender relations occurred in physical space (within buildings and on campuses) and were shaped by the vagaries of institutional politics. These are the sorts of issues which my project will continue to explore. They tell us a great deal about gender and universities at the turn of the twentieth century, and continue to resonate today. 

Emily Rutherford is a Ph.D. candidate in History at Columbia University

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