Girton College – “That Infidel Place…”

3 December 2012

Jack Pulman-Slater on women’s long struggle for acceptance at Cambridge and the unique history of Girton College…

Whilst many Cantabs delight in a spot of Girton bashing (‘How did you get to Sidgwick this morning, by plane?’, ‘it isn’t even in Cambridge’ and so on), it’s important to remember that the drafty, sprawling, redbrick Victorian castle on Huntingdon Road has a very special and significant place in the history of this university.

Girton was originally founded as the College for Women in Benslow House, Hitchin in 1869. Lecturers from the town colleges volunteered to repeat their lectures to the Hitchin students in their spare time, and the women’s days were largely dictated by the railway timetables.

At Benslow House the Cambridge College system was emulated as much as possible, with a High Table for two and a separate table for the five students. Edythe Lloyd’s book A Memoir gives the account of a priest on a railway carriage approaching Hitchin declaring “Ha! This is Hitchin, and that, I believe is the house where the College for Women is: that infidel place!”

Prior to 1948, women at Cambridge were not given degrees, despite attending lectures and sitting the Tripos exams. Essays and exams were marked voluntarily by good-willed Fellows in the town Colleges. The Council of the Senate declined permission for women to sit exams and be awarded degrees but did not object to examiners looking over papers in their spare time. Personal applications had to be made by women in order to gain access to exams and have them marked.

In 1880, Girtonian Charlotte A. Scott achieved the rank of Eighth Wrangler in the first part of the Mathematics Tripos. However, the University made no formal recognition of her achievement. Scott had achieved something great, and yet was never awarded the degree for which she had worked so hard.

Cambridge by this point was already behind the times as the University of London was now awarding degrees to its female students. Whilst women could attend some lectures (though only with a chaperone to begin with), Girton had to have its own laboratory built as women were still banned from the town labs.

One of Girton’s College Songs, ‘The Girton Pioneers’ (to the tune of ‘the British Grenadiers’) celebrates the first women to take Tripos exams in Cambridge; Rachael Cook, Sarah Woodhead and Louisa Lumsden: “Some talk of Senior Wranglers, And some of Double Firsts, And truly of their species These are not the worst; But of all the Cambridge heroes There’s none that can compare With Woodhead, Cook and Lumsden, The Girton Pioneers!”

Woodhead went on to become Mathematics mistress at the Manchester High School for Girls and Cook devoted her time to arranging lectures for Owens College, Manchester. She continued her work for women’s education at Victoria University of Manchester when it was established in 1880. Lumsden returned to Girton as a classical tutor.

It’s reported that when news of the women’s success reached Benslow House three flags were raised from the roof and the students rang the alarm bells loudly, causing the Hitchin Fire Brigade to come out.

Girton founder, Emily Davies, was something of a conservative revolutionary, forbidding the girls to play football or perform in plays dressed as men. She considered everything except Classics and Mathematics a ‘soft option’. The stern Miss Davies ploughed ahead with her campaigns to drastically expand the College’s new buildings in Girton, building a chapel, a large dining hall (only a few square feet smaller than Trinity’s) and several miles of corridor – and leaving the College with a sizable debt.

Her letters to Newnham’s founder Henry Sidgwick in 1881, at the time of their applications to the Senate for women to be admitted to examinations and degrees, show that she was a determined person who it was evidently best to keep on the right side of. She railed against Sidgwick’s suggestion that Girton and Newnham present a united front to the University Senate and submit a diluted application, requesting certificates instead of degrees for women, by saying “you evidently have no conception of what we have gone through”.

Sidgwick was cautious in his attempts to integrate the women’s Colleges into the University; the Senate couldn’t ignore Girton and Newnham any more, but Sidgwick wanted to avoid stalling the campaign by being too radical.

His overly cautious attitude comes out at times, for example when he writes that women “might even be allowed to attend my lecture course in one of the ordinary lecture rooms provided they were fixed at times where there would be no overcrowding on the staircase”. Things have clearly changed a great deal since the days of Davies and Sidgwick, though Cambridge remains the only higher education institution in the United Kingdom with colleges which refuse to admit men.

Girton became the first Cambridge women’s college to admit men in 1976, though even today visitors would be hard pressed to find a picture of men hanging on walls of the long corridors, and the College is always presided over by a Mistress.

Girton changed the face of Cambridge forever, and the efforts of the founders of Girton and Newnham served as an example of change to women’s education and rights throughout Britain. Girton stands now as a monument to the difficulties surmounted by the original Girton Pioneers, and its stones are inscribed with the story of how this University was changed for the better.

The journey towards equality is far from complete in the University as a whole, however. As the University enters its 804th year there is still perhaps a lot that we can learn from the original ‘Girton Pioneers’.

Ladies Who Learn…

1869: ‘College for Women’ is established in Hitchin.

1871: Newnham College established by Henry Sidgwick.

1873: ‘College for Women’ renamed Girton College.

1878: the University of London begins to award women degrees.

1881: Emily Davies and Henry Sidgwick petition the Senate to grant degrees to women; they are refused.

1885: Hughes Hall founded.

1887: Girtonian Agnata Frances Ramsey achieves a First in the Classical Tripos.

1897: Cambridge officially rejects the admission of women.

1928: Three Girton Students become the first women to officially sit Exams.

1948: Formal admission of women to Cambridge. Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, receives the honorary degree of LL.D.

1954: Murray Edwards College founded as New Hall.

1965: Lucy Cavendish College established.

2008: St Hilda’s College, Oxford admits men for the first time meaning all Oxford Colleges now take men and women.