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This paper emerges from research for my recent monograph on the pioneering Cambridge-based socialist feminist, Clara Dorothea Rackham. I address the voluntary activism of a cohort of women with progressive social attitudes and strong connections to the Cambridge women’s colleges (Girton, Newnham and Homerton), whose politics were shaped in the crucible of the women’s suffrage movement. My subjects include Florence Ada Keynes, Eva Hartree, Leah Manning and Rackham herself. I show how these women were able to work collaboratively on many anti-poverty and child protection initiatives in, for example, in the Women’s Co-operative Guild, the National Council of Women, the Magistrates Association and the Workers’ Educational Association, and were instrumental in bringing about reforms as magistrates, councillors, Poor Law Guardians, school governors and in local government. 

I show how their long commitment of voluntary activism challenges the ‘town and gown’ division in which the history of Cambridge is often framed. I discuss voluntary activism in working-class areas of Cambridge, for instance the construction of the Romsey Labour Club built in ‘Red Romsey’ by ASLEF and NUR members and volunteer bricklayers, carpenters and stone masons in the 1920s.  Finally, l focus on the work of Rackham, Hartree, Keynes and others in accepting successive waves of refugees from Basque children in the Spanish Civil War, intellectuals fleeing Fascist occupied Europe in the 1930s and Hungary in the 1950s establishing the reputation of early twentieth-century Cambridge as a city of scholars and of sanctuary welcoming more refugees than any city  except London until after the Second World War.

Mary Joannou is Emerita Professor of Literary History and Women’s Writing at Anglia Ruskin University attached to the Labour History Research Unit. She has published ten monographs and edited or co-edited volumes and over 40 essays in books and peer-reviewed journals. Her latest publication is The Life and Turbulent Times of Clara Dorothea Rackham: Suffragist, Socialist and Social Reformer (Routledge, 2022).         

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