The Thin End Of The Wedge: How The Door Was Opened To Women At Cambridge

In the centenary of the year when some women first gained the right to vote in elections to Parliament, History Society member Felicity Cooke took us through the seemingly even more convoluted process which finally enabled women to receive degrees from Cambridge University 30 years later (and 60 years after London University).

Support for girls’ education gathered momentum in the second half of the nineteenth century, partly in recognition of the fact that many would need to earn their living rather than fulfilling primarily domestic roles.  With more girls going to school, there needed to be more women qualified to teach them.  Two groups of social reformers took the lead in securing access to degree-level education at Cambridge, founding Girton College in 1869 and Newnham College in 1871.

Both colleges relied initially on teaching provided informally by sympathetic Cambridge dons.  At Girton the emphasis was on matching the requirements that applied to male undergraduates; at Newnham the focus was more on getting young women into contact with university study and achieving as much as was practical.  Felicity’s photos reminded us how these two philosophies are reflected in the colleges’ architecture, austere at Girton and joyous at Newnham.

Gradually the teaching for women students merged with that for men, and in 1881 the University allowed the women to sit the same exams.  Women were soon achieving high marks, sometimes topping the male undergraduates.  But they did not have access to facilities such as the University Library or the science labs: Newnham and Girton had to invest in their own.

These tensions were debated over three days in the Senate in 1897.  Special trains ran from London to enable Cambridge graduates to attend.  The result was an overwhelming rejection of admitting women to degrees.  One concern was that women with degrees could become MAs and then would have a vote in the Senate, giving them a role in the governance of the University – the ‘thin end of the wedge’ argument.  Attitudes changed in the light of women’s contribution in the first world war, but another attempt in 1920 was voted down, the nostalgic cohorts of alumni again overwhelming those currently engaged in teaching, who were largely in favour.  Rampaging undergraduates campaigned to keep women at a distance: otherwise they would need to pull their socks up academically and socially.  Meanwhile the University was appointing women to lectureships and chairs, though they still could not vote in the Senate.

Finally the decision was taken in 1947 to admit women to full membership of the University, including its degrees.  There was no vote against in the Senate.  In 1948 the first degrees were awarded.  A regulation limiting women to 20% of the undergraduate population was lifted in 1960.  Now they slightly outnumber male undergraduates.  And, looking back, it’s simply mystifying to wonder what all the fuss was about.

John Street