Historically, women have only had a formal presence in the university setting for the last 150 years, and female scholars faced constant discrimination at educational institutions such as the University of Cambridge.
Female students could attend Cambridge university from 1869 (although they were confined to “women-only” colleges such as Girton or Newnham), but they could not receive degrees until 1948, almost eighty years later. This shocking fact alone can help us start to understand Cambridge’s complicated relationship with gender and misogyny in education.
This article will consider Cambridge’s uncomfortable gender relations during this time, discussing the historic protests that took place when women tried to gain access to their degrees. It will also look at how the University of Cambridge compares to other institutions at this time, to draw key conclusions about why these patriarchal attitudes were maintained at Cambridge in particular.
Women at Cambridge
In 1868, the University of London allowed women to attend their institution for the first time: the first university in Britain to do so. In the following year, feminist pioneer Emily Davis managed to establish Girton College, creating a place for women to study at the University of Cambridge. From then on, women could study most of the same classes and subjects as men, but the university found other ways to limit their progress.
Most notably, women could still not receive their degrees, meaning they were unable to graduate on the same terms as their male counterparts. Many men at Cambridge believed that, if women were awarded degrees, it would lessen the achievements of male students, especially when heading out into the workforce. In fact, this was a driving factor for the tension and unrest that was to come.
Despite the apparent tolerance of female students at the University of Cambridge since the mid-nineteenth century, the university’s uncomfortable connection to misogyny in education cannot be denied.
Protest and education
In 1897, the University of Cambridge finally attempted to allow women to receive recognition for their degrees. Following the precedent of other educational institutions such as Durham and Oxford, a proposal was very carefully worded, giving women limited rights. Women would receive access to their degrees, but they would still not graduate with the same rights as men, and they would have no say in university proceedings.
In reaction to this big step forward, huge crowds gathered at the university to protest the vote and even try to convince voters to decide against the rights of female scholars. These crowds were primarily made up of men, gathering outside the vote location and stretching all the way down King’s Parade. This incredible, unprecedented number of people turned up to protest women’s education in an overt show of misogyny.
However, this protest was not an isolated incident at the University of Cambridge. In 1896, a University Syndicate had discussed the case for female students to receive their degrees. This was such a difficult subject that the university academics first discussed their views in private. However, this topic soon became subject to public debate, with male students continuing to believe that recognising women’s achievements would lessen the importance of theirs.
The men in the crowd were not just local men, but students and even academics from the university. Alfred Marshall, a professor of Political Economy at the university, encouraged his students to protest women’s rights. These protesters even suspended an effigy of a woman riding a bicycle from a window, decapitating and maiming the effigy when the resolution failed. This contentious backdrop to the vote, coupled with property damage and violent chanting, shows the true significance and influence of this protest at Cambridge.
In the end, the University voted to reject the motion by 1713 to 662, and women continued to work for their degrees without receiving any recognition.
In fact, after the protest, women were no longer as vocal about their rights at the university.
This vote, which should have been a step forward for women, led many female academics to realise their precarious situation in academia.
Although this vote can be seen as an attempt to give women their rights, the success of violent protests in defeating the proposed change set an ominous precedent for future reforms.
Another defeat and the attack on Newnham
The cause of women’s equality at Cambridge suffered another serious setback in 1921, and this time the consequences were even more dangerous. After the First World War and the granting of women’s suffrage, the momentum seemed to be in favour of equal rights, and in 1921 a new vote was held on granting degrees to female Cambridge students. The reformers remained cautious, and continued to propose that female degree-holders should be denied various rights reserved for male university members, such as participation in the university’s governing senate.
Nonetheless, this modest change again proved a step too far, and the motion was once more met with vehement resistance. Protesters marched down King’s Parade bearing a mock effigy of the Last Male Undergaduate, and crowds chanted “we don’t want women” at female passers-by. On 20 October 1921, the vote duly went in favour of an even more thoroughly watered-down compromise, whereby women would receive only tokenistic ‘titular degrees’ instead of full qualifications.
Buoyed by their success in defeating the proposal, a crowd of male undergraduates then took things to a new level. Following one heckler’s suggestion that they bring the news of the result to the women-only institutions of Cambridge, a mob of some 1,400 students marched on Newnham College and placed it under violent siege. Gates were battered and forced, windows were smashed, and only the intervention of proctors prevented more serious harm being done.
Afterwards, there was outrage in the national press, and the other colleges raised money to pay for the damages caused at Newnham. However, many of the rioters remained unrepentant, claiming that it was female students who were trying to invade them by seeking equal status, which might one day allow them to claim a place in the formerly male-only colleges. The result of the vote also stood unchallenged for years to come.
Victory for the women of Cambridge
After the Second World War, women were liberated in many sectors of life. From education to the workplace, women were realising that they could do everything that men could do.
However, when the soldiers returned from the war front, women were expected to return to their “proper” place again, and this caused a lot of tension between the genders across society.
It was in the wake of this female liberation that the University of Cambridge organised another vote, to decide if women should be awarded degrees. Unlike in 1897 and 1921, women were finally successful in receiving the right to earn their degrees in 1948. Cambridge was the last university in the UK to withhold this right.
Gender relations at other UK universities
Female scholars were not present in higher education until centuries after male scholars, and this is a universal fact for institutions across the UK. However, unlike Cambridge, many other institutions took steps during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to give women similar rights to men within the education sector. In 1878, the University of London allowed female students to receive their degrees. Durham University followed suit in 1895, and St. Andrew’s allowed women to graduate in 1892.
When the University of Cambridge tried to give women the same rights in 1897, however, they experienced uproar from men at the university, and women were once again left without their rights. In 1920, women at the University of Oxford were allowed to receive their degrees for the first time. Despite this, female scholars at Cambridge would not be allowed the same rights until 28 years later.
While women would still face discrimination during their studies, they could at least graduate on the same terms as men at large universities across the UK. This highlights the inherent misogyny present at Cambridge University at this time, as compared to other universities. Although patriarchal attitudes were a constant everywhere across the country, what makes Cambridge’s decision in 1897 so significant is the sheer influence and magnitude of the male protest.
Understanding misogyny and protest at the University of Cambridge
The University of Cambridge’s reluctance to give women their educational rights can help us go some way to understand the university’s uncomfortable relationship with gender.
In fact, as the last university in the country to give women their degrees, the inherent misogyny at the University of Cambridge at this time is evident. Unlike at other universities, such as Durham and London, the role of protest within this history of patriarchy at Cambridge is hugely significant.
When men took to the streets to protest the university’s potential decision in 1897 and 1921, their ability to influence the vote represented a blatant show of misogyny and gender discrimination. Men from all corners of the university showed up to protest these votes, including through verbal and physical violence towards female students, something no other institution experienced at this time.
Looking forward, we can recognise the important role of women at Cambridge. From incredible scientific discoveries to leading positions in academia, female scholars have not been deterred by the university’s tense and uncomfortable history.
Written by Eleanor Jones
Sian Collins, ‘Digitising the fight for women’s equality at Cambridge‘, (Times Higher Education, 2 September 2018)
Newnham College, ‘‘The Storming of the Gates’ – marking the 1921 vote on women’s membership of Cambridge University‘ (21 October 2021)
Stuart Roberts, ‘The Rising Tide: Women at Cambridge‘ (2019)
Ann Kennedy Smith, ‘‘No Women at Cambridge’: The 1897 protests’, (13 January 2022)
University of London, ‘Leading women 1868-2018‘, (2018)
University of Oxford, ‘Timeline: 100 years of women’s history at Oxford‘, (2020)
University of St Andews, ‘Trailblazing women at the university of St Andrews: a celebration for International Women’s Day‘, (7 March 2017)
Sarah Watling, ‘The gender riots which rocked Cambridge University in the 1920s‘ (4 July 2019)