Women at Cambridge: A Men's University, Though of a Mixed Type

The University of Cambridge was but a microcosm of the seismic social struggle for the emancipation of women

Citation Information

Bender, Robert 2016. Women at Cambridge: A Men's University, Though of a Mixed Type, URL = <>.

Publication Information

McWilliams-Tullberg, Rita, Women at Cambridge: A Men's University, Though of a Mixed Type, London: Gollancz, 1975, pp. 255, (hardcover).

Great Gate main entrance to Trinity College, Cambridge University

Published on the centenary of the first admission of women students in the 1870s, Women at Cambridge: A Men's University, Though of a Mixed Type tells the story of the long and fierce resistance by conservatives to giving women equality with men as students and teachers.

The 1830s concept of Woman as frail, adorable, subject to authority of parents or husband, confined to home and family, ever chaperoned out-of-doors and with all real work done by servants reduced middle-class women to trivial pastimes. Assuming women moved from parents' care to husband's was always untrue, as when parents left unmarried daughters or husbands absconded, women were left destitute, 30 per cent remained unmarried, and most were unfitted for the only acceptable occupation of governess.

Three mid-century Royal Commissions reformed the education of middle-class boys, stimulating emancipationists' hope for improving women's education. This hope was led by Emily Davies (pictured below-right), who proposed opening university exams to women. Objectors were against many things, including congregating women whose parents had not been introduced, mixing genders in exam rooms, loading academics with more assessments and overtaxing women's limited mental ability. There was no teacher education, teachers in girls' schools were substandard, all due to parental indifference. Girls' schools improved markedly by 1890, but ongoing prejudice about unmarried girls in public stymied efforts to set up women's university colleges.

Henry Sidgwick's efforts at reforming Cambridge's hidebound traditions of poor quality pass degrees and insistence on Latin and Greek persisted unavailing for decades. Cambridge conducted exams for female teachers from 1868. Sidgwick organized Newnham College, led by Ann Clough, to focus girls on the Tripos and Higher Local exams. Davies set up Girton college in 1873 with five initial students. He had to agitate for exam entry rights annually for a decade, imposing restrictions on female students' social and sporting life in order to avoid any whiff of impropriety.

Women knew they were unmarriageable if educated. Early high-achievers led the Senate to grant a right to undertake exams (but not to attend lectures), use the library and be awarded degrees. By 1887, Davies was keen to push for women's degrees, starting decades of conservative anxiety about women having voting rights over men's education. Conservatives, expecting further claims for MA and voting rights for Cambridge MPs, pushed to stop it early. With little support then for women in public life, the degree proposal was easily defeated. Other British universities granted degrees to women by 1900, but the push for reform at Cambridge faltered.

Emily Davies portrait by Rudolph Lehmann, 1880

In 1895, female students wanted some progress towards equality. They formed committees and circulated petitions, stimulating the usual conservative opposition to women having any role outside the home. The opposition proposed separate women's institutions or courses modified to suit "women's special needs" (always undefined). Anxiety about competition for jobs elicited campaign flysheets urging total exclusion of women from Cambridge. A Syndicate appointed to consider the issue received submissions from women about library restrictions, ineligibility for prizes and scholarships, lecturers' rights to refuse women entry and denial of degrees. Failure of the Syndicate to agree led to two reports; one favouring degrees but no other rights, the other proposing a separate women's university, prompted by fear of loss of control. The governing Senate debate was paternalistic, accusing women of power-hunger and expressing anxiety of a mass exodus of male students. A large influx of voting graduates outvoted the women three to one.

By 1919 (which marked the 50th anniversary of the first female Cambridge students), many other universities granted women degrees. Women now made up 25 per cent of the student body. Suffragettes were about to win the vote (if aged 28 or over), Oxford granted membership and the push for Cambridge degrees started again, stirring up more heated opposition. The Oxbridge universities, financed by endowments for centuries, had to beg government support–an opportunity for trading off more equality and recognising the greater independence of women and their workforce participation. Another Syndicate again split, one report proposing full equality, the other a separate women's university. Fears of a flood of women aroused male anxieties, with medical men determined to keep women out of medicine. The equalisation proposal was defeated 60:40.

A Royal Commission into education received many submissions about women's unsatisfactory position. To avoid political interference in university affairs, a staff faction proposed degrees only, with no other rights. Defenders of male exclusiveness conducted a scare campaign. The 1920 vote squashed the equality bid, strongly favouring exclusion. The Senate opted for minimalist reform, the Royal Commission issued a weak report and the battle moved to Parliament, where lack of wide support for women's equality doomed it. But reorganization of teaching into faculties gave female teachers equal rights with men by the mid-1920s.

Post-1945, in a different world, removing the last disabilities of women was seen as overdue. By then, women were professors and department heads. Another Syndicate quickly reported favouring recognition of Girton and Newnham as official Cambridge colleges, but limiting women to 20 per cent of students. An Ordinance enacted this in 1948, with the quota being quietly removed in 1960. By the 1970s co-educational colleges emerged, but women still only comprised 17 per cent of student numbers and only seven per cent of university appointments.

In this book, there is a fine bibliography and index, 20 pages of endnotes and nine black and white photos of Emily Davies and Anne Clough, the first students in 1869, and the first graduates in 1948. This is a beautifully written book.

Copyright © 2016

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