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To celebrate International Women’s Day, we explore women’s journey into the Press and their changing roles.
Until the 1970s, Oxford’s printing mostly excluded women. One exception to this was Anne Lichfield, widow of the university’s main printer in the late 17th century. She took on the printing demands of a classically educated academy, whose senior members were ordained Anglican clergymen, and who held her in contempt.
Women remained largely absent from the printing works, hardly breaching its walls until the 1890s when the Press established its own bindery—or ‘stitchery’. Since this involved needles and thread, it was viewed as decidedly ‘women’s work’. By the First World War, the bindery employed more than 90 women, with others filling gaps left by Press men on active service. Secretary Charles Cannan divided emergency office duties between his three daughters, one of whom (poet May Wedderburn Cannan) drafted Oxford’s first General Catalogue in 1916.
Still, the Press remained overwhelmingly male—Dame Helen Gardner served as its sole female Delegate, attending meetings between 1959 and 1975. But this situation began to shift by the 1960s. The bindery’s ‘Wantage Contingent’ dealt with booming orders, and increasingly women proved more than a match for the laddish humour of the printers. Equal rights legislation finally led women onto the shop floor in 1979. Since the print shop closed in 1989, women’s role at OUP has expanded out of all recognition and our workforce is now overwhelmingly female.
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