International Women’s Day: Dora Esther Yates (1879-1973)

This blog post is part of our International Women’s Day celebrations. Follow us on Twitter @LivUniSCA, for more!

View of Dora Yates standing near a wall.
Photograph of an image of Dora Yates taken by Marjorie T. Johnson in 1937. Archival reference: DY/1/2/3.

In 1900, Dora Esther Yates (1879-1973) became the first Jewish woman to graduate with an MA (in English Language and Literature) from a British University. Yates was born and grew up in Liverpool, attending Dr T. Lund’s private school in Croxteth Road. She is reported to have taught herself to read English and Hebrew before the age of five, and she enrolled in University College Liverpool (a branch of the Victoria University, Manchester) aged just 16. She was one of just 70 women amongst the 600 full-time students enrolled at the College at that time.

During her undergraduate career, Yates not only excelled academically – graduating with a first-class degree in English, Latin, German and Anglo-Saxon – she was also an important contributor on the hockey pitch and Secretary of the Women’s Athletic Society, Vice President of the Women’s Debating Society, and Honorary Treasurer of the Student Guild.

Yates’ connection to the University of Liverpool (as it became in 1903) did not end there. After a brief spell teaching in local private schools, she returned to the English Department as a tutor in 1906, before moving to work in the Class (i.e. Departmental) Libraries – first as library assistant, then Class Librarian, Supervisor of the (23) Class Libraries, and finally Honorary Lecturer in Bibliography and Curator of Special Collections from 1938, to her official retirement in 1945.

Even retirement was not enough to sever Yates’ ties to the university completely however, and she continued to be involved with Special Collections as Honorary Curator of the Scott Macfie Collection of Books on Gypsy Lore.

Newspaper article "Expert on Gipsey lore "fit as a fiddle" and still working at 90.
Newspaper article to mark Dora’s 90th birthday. Archival reference: DY/1/1/232

Indeed, the Romani way of life – and particularly Romani lore and language – was Yates’ primary and lifelong interest, sparked in childhood by reading the works of George Borrow (1803-1881). Yates was a prominent figure in the Gypsy Lore Society, and a regular contributor to the Journal of the Gypsy Lore Society. Other notable publications include a Book of Gypsy Folk-Tales (1948), and the autobiographical account, My Gypsy Days, published in 1953. She regularly visited encampments and fairs, and in the 1930s purchased her own caravan and horse, in an attempt to enter more fully into “true Gypsy ways”.

Front cover of Dora Yate's "A book of Gypsy folk-tales"
University of Liverpool SPEC Scott Macfie A.6.13

During her long affiliation with the University of Liverpool, she also served as secretary of the University Refugees Committee, and in 1963 was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Literature, in recognition of her services to the University and her outstanding academic achievements.

You can find a list of references and further reading here on the University of Liverpool Special Collections and Archives website.