Women making history in Cambridge

Caithlin Ng 24 October 2017

In light of Murray Edwards College’s recent decision to unconditionally admit transgender women, we are looking back at the history of female students at University of Cambridge. As most will know, it was centuries between the university’s establishment and the admission of its first female students, and even then, it would only be 79 years until women were officially granted full membership of the university. 

While ‘distance’ might now be the first thing that comes to mind when Girton College is mentioned, the college actually has the distinction of being the first established for women. 

Founded in 1869 by Emily Davies, Barbara Bodichon and Lady Stanley of Alderley, its first term in October of 1869 saw five students embark on their studies. The college’s first location was in Hitchin, 30 miles away from Cambridge – a decision made in order not to stir up controversy with the existing university population.

Amongst Girton’s first five women students was Adelaide Manning, who went on to found the London branch of the National Indian Association, an organisation which focused on the needs and education of women in India. She would later be awarded the Kaisar-i-Hind Medal, first class, by the monarchy in 1904 for her work.

Another of these students was Louisa Lumsden, whow as amongst the first three female students to sit the Tripos exams in 1873. Lumsden continued to pioneer education for women throughout her life, briefly becoming a tutor at Girton and later the first warden of University Hall, University of St Andrews.

Philosopher and economist Henry Sidgwick – also of Sidgwick Site fame – was another notable champion of women’s education, and went on to help Anne Clough establish Newnham College in 1871. Newnham College was founded in part in response to demand from women who wished to attend Cambridge’s Lectures for Ladies (started in 1869), but were unable to travel to and from the university on a daily basis.

Three more women colleges, Hughes Hall,Murray Edwards College and Lucy Cavendish, were eventually established in 1885, 1954 and 1965 respectively. 

However, it was not until 1948 that women were granted full membership of the university – this was the third, and finally successful, time that  the university had voted on the issue. Prior to this, women were only granted the “Title of the Degree of Bachelor of Arts”. The move came 28 years after Oxford had made the same decision to grant female students full memberships and legitimate degrees, despite Cambridge having admitted  women slightly earlier.  

Of the existing all-male undergraduate colleges, Churchill College was the first to admit women in 1972. It was followed by Clare and King’s Colleges, with the last to do so being Magdalene College in 1988. 

Since Oxford’s last all-female college, St Hilda’s College, made the decision to end its ban on men in 2008, Cambridge has remained the only United Kingdom university with colleges committed to all-female education.  

But while the official admittance of women as full members of the university may have been a long and arduous process, the achievements of the women before were recognised by Cambridge in 1998. 

At a ceremony attended by 700 women, the university marked the fiftieth anniversary of the first official graduates – women who had worked equally as hard alongside their male counterparts, and who were now receiving the recognition they deserved.