Cambridge firsts

Women at Cambridge
April 2, 1999

In 1869, women first came as students to Cambridge, or rather to Hitchen in Hertfordshire, conveniently close to London, should Cambridge turn out to be too unwelcoming. (There had been women students in London since the 1840s.) There were just five students. In 1873, their more numerous successors moved to Girton College, built by the astonishing fund-raising energy of Emily Davies; and at about the same time a hostel was set up for girls to live in while attending the Ladies' Lectures, established by Anne Jemima Clough. The hostel eventually evolved into Newnham College. However, though women were first allowed, unofficially, to sit the Cambridge Tripos papers, and then, in 1881, to sit them officially, it was not until 1948 that they were awarded degrees. Starkly stated, it is an almost unbelievable story.

Rita McWilliams Tullberg's book was first published in 1975, and was reissued in 1998 as part of the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the awarding of degrees. It has been brought up to date, and there is a new introduction by Gillian Sutherland. It was well worth doing.

McWilliams Tullberg is a judicious historian, not given to over-excitement. But the plain way in which she sets out the arguments, both those originally used by people hostile to higher education for women and those used by men in Cambridge, even between the wars, makes chilling reading.

One of the most fascinating threads in the narrative is the long-lived hostility between Girton and Newnham. It would be easy to dismiss this as the kind of mock hostility to be found between different schools that compete with one another on the games field. Of course there was an element of this, still celebrated, incongruously, in the famous Girton Hockey Song, now sung even more enthusiastically by men than by female undergraduates once a year. But the cause of dissent was real, and, in a way, still a live issue, though the colleges are no longer at war.

Davies was obstinately determined from the start that women should take the same examinations as men, even the notoriously unsatisfactory and educationally worthless Previous Examinations, a hurdle they had to surmount before embarking on their Tripos work. This was extremely daunting for virtually uneducated girls; and they were not allowed longer time for completion. Henry Sidgwick, however, at first a supporter of Davies and an enthusiast for the higher education of women, differed from her on this. He, with Jemima Clough and others, believed that an insistence on the same course as the men followed would cut off numbers of intelligent girls from Cambridge and that it would be better, at least at first, to have a separate women's curriculum and women's examinations. (Sidgwick was at the same time fighting a battle against anyone, of either sex, being compelled to sit the Previous, and this partly confused the issue.) Later there were suggestions that there should be a separate Women's University.

Davies would have none of this. Her feminism, if such it could be called, was the feminism of equality, not of difference. I am sure she was right. It would have taken a very long time for women to reach the recognition they have more or less achieved, as the intellectual equals of men, if Sidgwick's way had been followed. But the battle is not over. There are still those who hold that even such subjects as mathematics and philosophy should be distinguished into the masculine and the feminine. It is not difficult to imagine which would be held in greater esteem.

Baroness Warnock was formerly mistress, Girton College, Cambridge.

Women at Cambridge

Author - Rita McWilliams Tullberg
ISBN - 0 521 64464 X
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £12.95
Pages - 230

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