By Lexi Covalsen 

It was a May day – 21 May 1897, to be exact – when Cambridge University held a historic poll. Open to all faculties, students, and alumni, it would decide once and for all if women were to be granted full degrees from the university. Although female students had been attending lectures and sitting exams for over twenty years, the official rule still forbade them from attaining degrees. 

The poll held that spring afternoon earned its place in history after a riot broke out along the Senate House gates. The male throng’s mass anger quickly turned into celebration as it was announced that the notion had been defeated, 1713-662. The crowds that had been burning effigies of female students on their bikes were now tossing confetti in the air and setting off handheld rockets all along King’s Parade – a striking moment from which only a single brown paper cone remains. 

‘S.E. EMMERSON’ is the name emblazoned on this cone: ‘Baker & Confectioner, Market Hill, Cambridge’. Inside are the remnants of age-old confetti, eggshells, dirt, and rocks, collected by a staff member of the University Library, alongside the wasted rockets. The fact that these fragments of history have stood the test of time amazes me. I can’t help but wonder who the man who purchased them was, whose hand once set the rockets alight and watched them shoot across the daylit May sky. 

Recently, I attended an evening talk with Heather Hancock, Master of St. John’s, hosted by the college’s Feminist Society. Hearing that it had only been forty years since women graced the halls of my own college made me curious about the history of women at Cambridge as a whole. If the university has so famously been a ‘boys’ club’, how is it that myself, and countless other women, are now able to enjoy full academic lives here? Where did it all begin? 

It can be easy to look back on women’s history at Cambridge as a struggle to convince the right old man to sign the right piece of paper. The reality was much messier, fraught with stops and starts, and brimming with unsung female rock stars who led the charge and refused to wait for permission to be brilliant: 

1869: Emily Davies makes national history as she establishes Girton College – not only the first Cambridge women’s college but the first university college in England to accept female students. Davies didn’t stop there; she refused to accept the university’s position that women were not allowed to sit exams and continued to train her students for them unofficially.

1871: The trend catches on when an organising group called Lectures for Ladies establishes Newnham College, the second at Cambridge to accept women. Once more, these students remained suppressed by the wider university, which demanded that they attend lectures accompanied by a chaperone and visit the library within reduced female-only hours.

1890: Philippa Fawcett tops the Mathematics Tripos, defeating the previous male Senior Wrangler. She became a lecturer at Newnham after graduating, with one student recalling her “concentration, speed, and infectious delight in what she was teaching… My deepest debt to her is a sense of the unity of all truth, from the smallest detail to the highest that we know.”

1945: Gloria Carpenter becomes the first black woman to matriculate at Cambridge. She studied Law at Girton, becoming the first black female law graduate in Britain. After graduating, she founded the University of West Indies’ Law department and remained an outspoken advocate for women’s education. 

1948: Finally, after decades of protests, petitions, and riots, Cambridge University bestows its first degree to a woman – an honorary degree to the Queen Mother.

1964: Newnham student Dorothy Hodgkins wins the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for her breakthrough discovery of the atomic structure of molecules such as penicillin and insulin, using X-ray crystallography. To date she remains the only British woman recognized as a Nobel laureate. 

1988: The first class of women matriculate at Magdalene, the last Cambridge college to accept female students. Even then, 91 years after the infamous 1897 riot, male students protested the decision by donning black armbands and flying the college flag at half-mast in a show of ‘grief’.

1998: A graduation ceremony is held for female alumni who completed their degrees before 1948, and thus were only allowed to receive ‘titular’ degrees. The class was made up of 900 women who had traveled from as far as Indonesia, Israel, and Zimbabwe. When asked to reflect on the atmosphere of those early days, English graduate Helen Fowler says, “At the time there were all kinds of theories saying that women were incapable of learning, that they had different kinds of brains from men.” Fowler would go on to become a wartime intelligence officer after leaving Cambridge. 

2019: Sonita Alleyne becomes the first female Master of Jesus College since it was established in 1496. Her appointment marks a record high of women in senior leadership roles across the university.

2021: That leaves us here, in November 2021. Only a few generations ago women were being locked out of the library and taunted by male students in the street; today, there are 16 female Masters across all of Cambridge. 

Let us end with none other than S.E. Emmerson, the name which has long been linked to one of the darkest days in Cambridge women’s history. Typed on the paper cone which held the rioters’ confetti, it was a symbol of the male intimidation and misogyny which defined those years of segregated learning. However, when the University Library opened an exhibition chronicling the history of women at Cambridge in 2019, they found that the initials belonged to a Susan Elizabeth Emmerson: female business owner, thriving right here in the heart of the city.

From S.E. to the countless other women who have worked as gardeners, bedmakers, cooks, and more, women have always been a part of Cambridge’s history, even if they have been obscured by the official record. Likewise, academic-minded women like Davies, Fawcett, and Carpenter have always prevailed and shone in their intellectual fields. Let us remember these pioneers and foremothers who came before us and gifted us this powerful history of resilience.

Featured image: Students studying in the McMorran Library, courtesy of Girton College, Cambridge.  

3 responses to “A Brief History of Women at Cambridge”

  1. NeilfromMK Avatar

    Fascinating article. I really enjoyed reading that – many thanks.


  2. Dr Toni Collins Avatar
    Dr Toni Collins

    Thank you for highlighting the brave struggle of academic women.


  3. Sal Calvin Avatar
    Sal Calvin

    I am researching the history of my great aunt, Rachel Ellison, who studied at Cambridge c.1924-1928 and after reading this article, I am interested in how I can commemorate her degree qualification posthumously. Could you direct me in the right direction of someone who can advise on this please


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