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Feminist ‘Cross-Dressing’ Former Head

Professor Ged Martin looks at the career of Mary Benton, the cross-dressing headmistress called “the brigadier-general.”

In 1875, Mary Benton enrolled in Newnham College, one of two women’s colleges at Cambridge University. The principal of Newnham, the kindly but muddle-headed Miss Clough, depended upon a handful of sympathetic male dons. They supported female education but didn’t want to rock the gender boat. Newnhamites should be discreet and feminine.

Mary Benton was a challenge. She adopted masculine attire, despite Miss Clough’s pleas that Victorian opinion was shocked by cross-dressing.

Mary Benton’s attempt to organise a cricket match – a men’s sport – was vetoed by a flustered Miss Clough, who claimed it would injure the grass.

After one year, Mary left to become a teacher. New independent schools were springing up, providing academic training for girls. One of them, South Hampstead High School… It needed a headmistress who could supply firm leadership. In 1886, Mary Benton got the job. She filled the role – for 32 years.

Short, thickset and determined, she wore a tailored trouser suit, with shirt, collar and tie. Younger girls were scared of “the brigadier general”, but older pupils found her a lifelong friend.

Her standards were high. Insisting that there were no ‘girls’ subjects’, she encouraged her students to study science.

Many went on to take science degrees, something revolutionary a century ago.

The headmistress reserved a chair in every classroom, so she could drop in and intimidate staff and students alike. She taught scripture – probably a legacy of Sunday services in Wennington church – but her main subject was geography.  A familiar sight in the corridors was this small woman carrying a huge globe.

Naturally, Mary Benton supported wider feminist campaigns. In 1909, she signed a memorial from 200 headmistresses asking prime minister Asquith to give the right to vote to “properly qualified women”. Officially a Liberal but actually a male chauvinist, Asquith refused even to meet the signatories.

She backed one of her teachers who was imprisoned in Holloway for violent suffragette activities.

Read the full article, which appeared in the Romford Recorder on 10th January 2020. Miss Benton was Head of South Hampstead High School from 1886 to 1918. 

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