Girton College

In the 19th century it was very difficult for women to obtain a university education. In the early 1870s, two leaders of the feminist movement, Emily Davies and Barbara Bodichon, began raising money to establish a women's college in Cambridge. Eventually they raised enough money to purchase Benslow, a house two miles outside the town. In 1873 Benslow House was opened as Girton College.

The two women held different views on women's education. Emily Davies believed that the students should concentrate on traditional subjects such as classics and mathematics whereas Barbara Bodichon wanted a more radical approach to the curriculum. The two women also disagreed on student discipline. Davies favoured a strict regime compared to Barbara's more liberal approach. Emily also insisted that the new college must be affiliated to the Church of England. Students at Girton included Helena Swanwick, Eileen Power, Dora Russell, Margaret Llewelyn Davies, Margaret Cole and Dorothy Jewson.

© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) In 1896 Emily Davies wrote a pamphlet Women in the Universities of England and Scotland where she explained the need for growth in women's higher education.

Let it be distinctly understood that the choice is not between a life wholly given up to study, and a life spent in active domestic duty. The dilemma thus stated is untrue on both sides; for while on the one hand, giving to women the opportunity of a complete education does not mean that they will thereupon spend all their lives in reading, so, on the other, denying them education does not mean that they will occupy themselves in household affairs… The aim of these new colleges will not be directed towards changing the occupations of women, but rather towards securing that whatever they do shall be done well. Whether as mistresses of households, mothers, teachers, or as labourers in art, science, literature… their work suffers from the want of training.

(2) Dora Russell, The Tamarisk Tree (1975)

I accordingly went up to Girton College, Cambridge. Architecturally rather hideous, Girton was commodious and also, in its way, homely. At study of your own and an adjoining bedroom separated either by doors or a curtain, gave you a feeling of privacy and the dignity of being grown-up. Girton, even more than Newnham, was like a large girls' boarding school. Intellectually we were reckoned to be adult, but as young inexperienced women we had to be guarded with care. You could not receive a young man in your room; you might be permitted to have him to tea in one of the public reception rooms, but you could accept no invitation from young men to tea or other entertainment without a chaperone from the College.

Miss Jex Blake, a classics don, who was thoroughly robust and rather like a horse; this is not unkindly meant, for I liked and respected her. She had a great sense of humour.

Eileen Power dealt with history. She became distinguished for her fine scholarship and her utter charm, which captivated many of both sexes. We always found it a pleasure to watch her, tall and placid and very much a personality, as she came in to take her place for dinner at high table. She had very beautiful, candid blue-grey eyes.

(3) Margaret Cole, Growing Up Into Revolution (1949)

I can never be sufficiently grateful to Girton College and the University of Cambridge for the part they played in transforming an unpresentable tadpole into a moderately decent sort of frog. The carping can, of course, find things to criticize in Girton. The mile-and-a-quarter which separates it from the centre of Cambridge is a bit of a nuisance, and was more nuisance in the days before 1914, when there were no buses and we had to cycle to and fro.

We were not allowed to go to meetings unchaperoned, so that before the closing of the debate or whatever it might be we had to rise and go home with our nurse, as it were, in order to get in before the Lodge gates closed. The most unintentionally dangerous chaperone was our junior mathematical don, Miss Cave-Brown-Cave, who was both an enthusiastic stargazer and an indifferent cyclist, and if she caught sight of a pet constellation while climbing Castle Hill would curvet wildly about, head in air, to the great peril of her charges.