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Still Rising… Women at Cambridge

Ben Griffin and Lucy Delap

150 years ago Cambridge saw the establishment of the first of its college for women, with Girton rapidly followed by Newnham two years later. This was a revolutionary moment: these were the first institutions in the country to offer women the same residential university education that was available to men. They also provided the first jobs for women within British academia. Two more women’s colleges, Murray Edwards (founded as New Hall) and Lucy Cavendish, attempted to remedy the still dismally small numbers of places for women when they were founded in 1954 and 1965 respectively. A major exhibition at the University Library called The Rising Tide, curated by Lucy Delap and Ben Griffin, tells the story of women at Cambridge University, and also explores the astonishingly slow process of opening up the privileges of university life to women.

Riot 1897
Voting at Senate House sparked a full scale riot in 1897. The result went against women’s admission to full degrees

The early pioneers had to fight for even the most basic elements of a university education. Until 1881, for example, female students could only take university examinations with the special permission of the examiner; and until 1923 women had no formal rights to attend university lectures, or to use university laboratories or the University Library. Most egregiously, Cambridge was the last established university in the country to grant women degrees. It held out until 1948 – twenty years after Oxford had admitted women. Even then, Cambridge remained, as the 1922 Royal Commission put it, ‘a men’s university, though of a mixed type’: full integration would require the men’s colleges to go mixed, which proved too radical a thought for many. In 1958, when Winston Churchill gave mild support to the idea of women studying at the new college being set up in his honour, his advisor Jock Colville told him that proposing a co-educational college ‘would be like detonating a hydrogen bomb in the middle of the University’. Churchill College eventually went co-educational in 1972, joining King’s and Clare Colleges in the first wave of change which was to end with Magdalene College abandoning its men-only status in 1988.

Making sense of these stories has required us to think about the dramatic changes that have reshaped the university over the last 150 years. When Emily Davies first set about creating a college for women in the 1860s, the university was fundamentally unlike the institution we know today. In 1850, only members of the Church of England could graduate; membership of the Senate and college fellowships were restricted to members of the Church; most teaching was done not by university lecturers but by coaches privately hired by the students; and the only subjects that could be studied for an honours degree were Mathematics and Classics. It is striking to remember that Girton is six years older than the History Tripos, which was created in 1875.

Since the creation of the women’s colleges, the nature of teaching and research has been transformed, as have the nature of academic careers, and ideas about what a university is for. Each of these changes has redrawn the patterns of inclusion and exclusion that have characterised women’s experiences of Cambridge. This is nowhere more apparent than in the changing history of women’s academic careers as the university created new professional career structures. The exhibition features the informal degree certificates issued to students whose achievements went unrecognised by the university; the first thesis submitted by a woman after Cambridge introduced the PhD in 1919 (Katherine Wilson’s 1924 thesis on ‘Music and English poetry’); and the official announcement of the first women hired as University Lecturers in 1926 – they were hired to teach at the university 22 years before women were granted degrees.

We also feature biographies of 56 women who have been nominated by various Cambridge departments as having made a major contribution to their subjects in the university, and filmed interviews with some of the women who have worked here. In this way, exploring the story of women at Cambridge has allowed us to chart the making of the modern university.

The reaction to these stories from our exhibition visitors has been astonishment at the depth of opposition, and at the recent nature of some changes. The tours we have been conducting have included school children who are visibly shocked when told that it was only in 2015 that the women’s boat club was allowed to row on the same course as men for the Varsity Boat Race. Visitors are equally astonished to learn that the first women’s boat race, rowed in 1927 between Oxford and Newnham College because Cambridge University did not have a women’s boat club until 1941, was judged on speed and style, in an attempt to limit the ‘unladylike’ competitiveness of getting over the finishing line first. Nor were the boats allowed to row alongside each other, but were timed, to damp down women’s competitive enthusiasms.

boat race
A hand-drawn poster advertising the Women’s Varsity Boat Race in 1975, in contrast to the professional resources and national media available to the men’s equivalent race.

Our exhibition also tells the story of the women who worked in the university and colleges in roles such as bedmakers, porters, gardeners and cooks. Their working lives, their relationships with students and academic staff, and their hard labour, were summed up in the notes from an anonymous Trinity College bedmaker to the famous economist Piero Sraffa, to whom she wrote in the mid-twentieth century: Mr Sraffa, I think you are just being awkward in not letting me in to make your bed once you are up. Very sorry, am unable to wait any longer today.’ In the moral economy of colleges, the bedmaker knew her rights. But her fondness for Sraffa was also clear in her note wishing him a merry Christmas, and reminding him not to eat too much.

One quite moving result of the exhibition has been the number of visitors wanting to share their own experiences during their time at Cambridge. For some, the exhibition has brought back bad memories of discrimination they faced; others have written about the inspiration that they have taken from the women featured in the exhibition. Equality, of course, remains some way off; but the curators hope that the message of the exhibition is a hopeful one, because it offers a case study of how institutions can change for the better. It is our belief that a better understanding of the past can help us imagine and campaign for the changes still to come.