Women & University Education

At the beginning of the 20th century it was very difficult for women to obtain a university education. In 1870 Emily Davies and Barbara Bodichon helped to set up Girton College, the first university college for women, but it was not recognised by the university authorities. In 1880 Newnham College was established at Cambridge University. By 1910 there were just over a thousand women students at Oxford and Cambridge. However, they had to obtain permission to attend lectures and were not allowed to take degrees.

Without a university degree it was very difficult for women to enter the professions. After a long struggle the medical profession had allowed women to become doctors. Even so, by 1900 there were only 200 women doctors. It was not until 1910 that women were allowed to become accountants and bankers. However, there were still no women diplomats, barristers or judges.

© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) Anne Clough approached George and Josephine Butler and asked them to help support her scheme to promote Higher Education for Women. In 1903, Anne Clough's sister wrote an account of how the Butler's responded to this idea.

The visit of Anne Clough to the Butlers in 1867 led to the formation of the 'North of England Council for Promoting the Higher Education for Women', a body representing associations of school-mistresses in several large northern towns. Josephine Butler was President of this Council from 1867 to 1873, and Anne Clough was Secretary for the three first strenuous years of its existence. The first work of the Council was to organise lectures for women, which had already been begun by Mr. Stuart, to whose genius the inception of the University Extension Movement was due. Mr. Stuart's first course on astronomy was given, in the autumn of 1867, in Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds and Sheffield, and was attended together by 550 women. These lectures were followed by other similar courses organised by the Council, and the idea rapidly spread.

(2) 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.

(3) In her article, Women's Liberty and Man's Fear, written in 1907, Teresa Billington Greig attempted to explain why men tried to deny women equal educational opportunities.

Man is afraid of women. He proves it every day. History proves it for him - the history of politics, the history of industry, the history of social life. An examination of women's present position and of men's attitude towards the women's movement shows evidence of fear at every turn. Yes, it is quite true. Man is afraid of women because he has oppressed her… There is always for him the fear that the end may come, and rebellion carries with it not merely the throwing off the yoke but alongside of it the dread of such vengeful retaliation as corresponds to the oppressor's tyranny.

Two children are about to run a race. Says one to the other; 'You cannot run so well as I can so I will bind your legs with a cord.' Then as the race proceeds he cries, 'You can't run - you can't run. I am cleverer and stronger than you are.' 'Unbind my legs' is the answer, 'that I may have a chance.' But the free-limbed child capers about and says. 'unbind you? No, indeed. You have not come as far as I have. You do not know how to run. But when you catch me I will unbind your legs.'

In all essentials this little fable is analogous with the facts in the life of woman. On the ground that she is less able than man she is penalised in the struggle, and denied the opportunity, which she most needs. Her demand for liberty is met by the reply that when she, with her additional burdens, has shown herself man's equal according to his standard of judgement, her claim will be considered… If women really were incapable the arbitrary and artificial ring-fence which men have erected, and which they so carefully preserve, would not be needed. The fact of its erection and preservation is an acknowledgment by men that they fear women's equal competition.

(4) In 1889 Selina Cooper joined the Burnley Women's Co-operative Guild where she attended adult education classes. Mary Brown later recalled how men at the Burnley Co-operative Guild reacted when it was first suggested that a women's section should be formed.

Towards the end of the meeting came our proposal 'that a Women's Guild be formed for the benefit of the women's co-operators, with similar educational advantages to those given to men'. There was a stir and a hubbub. 'Education for women!' Let them sit at home!' 'Who's to mind the children?' etc. The chairman quieted the audience, and I rose and faced the lot. There was a lull, a scuffle of clogs, a few remarks, but I spoke out… I pointed out the injustice; said women did the actual buying… and on them depended the profits made by the stores… In spite of the interruptions I held my ground. In spite of some dissension more than half the audience voted for us.

(5) Henry and Eleanor Sidgwick set up Newnham College, Cambridge, in 1880. Mary Hamilton wrote about her experience at Newnham College in the early 1900s in her book, Remembering Good Friends.

Eleanor Sidgwick and Henry Sidgwick had, throughout their life together, chosen to give their time to college. She had renounced mathematical research of a very high order in order to come and assist Miss Clough in the early days. Early in their married life, which was a perfect partnership, they gave up their own home to come and live in Newnham… They enjoyed the triumph of 1881 in the passing of the Senate of the Graces admitting women to the right of sitting for Tripos examinations and being placed on the lists, the struggle for full recognition - the granting of degrees, and admission to membership of the University was entering on a long, slow phase, with no end in sight. (It was in fact to take forty years and a world war to persuade the authorities to grant degrees to women.)

Eleanor Sidgwick was principal of Newnham College in my time at Cambridge (Henry Sidgwick died in 1900). A tall, slightly bent, emaciated figure; tenuous, yet not fragile.

A white face, with snowy hair covered by a delicate fragment of lace. Then, as she passed, she smiled; the eyes went blue and the face was, suddenly, changed to a poignant beauty. How could anyone take Newnham and the fact of being there for granted, while she was there, who had helped to wring its being out of such resistance.

Newnham College was still on trial, and the authorities were uneasily conscious of the fact. Hence total separation from the masculine undergraduate population, which most of us did not feel or resent at the time, but any contemporary student must find odd, even inexplicable. Hence the timid restrictions that irked and offended students.