As the second quarter of the twenty-first-century approaches, are women’s colleges the remnant of an educational atmosphere which no longer exists, or do they offer something unique that ought to be protected?

The history of women’s education at Cambridge is riddled with superlatives. Some depict the University as radical. Girton, for example, was the first residential higher education college for women in Britain, opening in 1869. Others portray a real resistance to the cause and an affinity for tradition. The University was the last in the UK to offer full degrees to women. Since 2008, all Oxford colleges have admitted men, leaving Cambridge the only higher education institution that has clung to its women’s spaces. This begs the question, is the survival of Newnham and Murray Edwards in their single-sex form the result of traditionalist sentiment waiting to be overturned, or of a radical reinterpretation of their importance in the modern day one would only expect to find at Cambridge?

In 2009, Varsity published a defence of women’s colleges a year after St Hilda’s moved to coeducation in 2008. The Oxford college essentially had its hand forced as university funding required staff appointments to be open to both sexes. Cantabrigians sought to protect their women’s colleges from a similar fate. This article emerging from the Oxbridge depicted in Saltburn argues that the importance of women’s colleges is establishing a culture which “is curious about women,” and which “allow[s] that curiosity to form the basis for research and analysis”.

This point holds today, but it is not as if the defenders of women’s colleges have not had to face new challenges. In 2021, Lucy Cavendish became mixed-gender. Luke, Lucy Cavendish’s JCR President in 2022 called this the “next step” in the “founding vision of the college”. Lucy Cavendish’s mission had never been about women in particular but rather providing opportunities to those from under-represented backgrounds and as such this move made sense. The reality is, now that just as many women populate the student body as men, I’ve heard people suggest that the presence of Newnham and Murray Edwards lets colleges like Trinity off the hook when it so disproportionately accepts the latter.

Speaking to students at mixed colleges with experiences of an all-girls secondary education, I have been told of a sense of relief to discover they had not been pooled to Newnham or Murray Edwards. Many people do choose to make these colleges their first choice, a particularly important option for those from certain religious communities, but the pooled experience is that of many. In 2023, only 34% of Murray Edwards offers went to students who had applied ‘directly’ to the college, but more than half of these individuals had also made an open application. These statistics don’t seem to be a case in and of themselves against the colleges: below, Poppy explains how being pooled to Newnham was an incredibly positive experience for her.

Likewise, these students who described this sense of relief tend to think the value of the option outweighs the costs that come with being pooled to a women’s college against one’s personal preference. One student at Murray Edwards, Megan, credits her college with allowing her “to experience real sisterhood for the first time”, a sentiment echoed by an article mourning the changes to Lucy Cavendish in 2021. In this sense, then, women’s colleges provide a unique and valuable opportunity to exist in an academic environment that celebrates womanhood and specifically pursues women’s issues in its research agenda. Surely, this can only be a good thing? If pooling creates a problem, perhaps having two women’s colleges outweighs their demand but the connection many feel to Cambridge’s rich history of educating women certainly suggests we shouldn’t do away with them all together.

The newest argument Newnham and Murray Edwards must contend with is that of the experience of trans and non-binary individuals in these spaces. While I have been told that women’s colleges make every effort to be inclusive to those who aren’t cisgender, Stevie writes below that this doesn’t always make the experience comfortable. It seems that this is the sticking point over which the discussion might be reframed in the coming years. That said, if Newnham and Murray Edwards can continue to demonstrate at least a commitment to trying to get this right, then all the points in their favour are such that they likely won’t be going anywhere anytime soon.

Stevie Harding, Murray Edwards

My college doesn’t get a whole lot of direct applicants so like most people I was pooled. Murray Edwards had already had an established Trans and Non-Binary Officer JCR role for a couple of years before I got there and having that role definitely helped to spread acceptance around college, but I don’t think that always helps with feeling comfortable as a trans person if you fundamentally feel that you’re in the wrong environment. You can get accepted to an all-women’s college as long as you’re legally female and for trans and non-binary people that can be very strange regardless of how accepting the people in that environment are. For trans women it also means that to be accepted into an all-women’s college you either must be legally female or you have to have ‘sufficient evidence’ that you’ve been living as a woman, which is vague and can be very subjective. Being a transmasculine person I don’t want to speak over women, I do know people in my college who appreciate having an all-female environment, but I think in a time where we’re (hopefully) working towards viewing gender as not so binary and sex-based that women’s colleges could become a little redundant.

“As we’re (hopefully) working towards viewing gender as not so binary, women’s colleges could become a little redundant”

Molly Scales, Newnham

When I told my home friends that I was applying not just to Cambridge, but to a women’s (and other genders’) college, they pretty much all had one response: calling me a hopeless lesbian. In all honesty, that wasn’t a huge factor in my decision (not insignificant, admittedly, but it wasn’t my sole reason). However, since coming to college, the sense of queer community created by a ‘women’s’ college like Newnham has been one of the best things about my uni experience. It’s something that I feel so lucky to be a part of, has really widened my idea of what queerness looks like, means you rarely have to explain yourself or your identity, and is something the likes of which I know I’ll never experience again. That being said, I believe there’s a desire from Newnham staff for the college not to be seen (and certainly not marketed) as a queer college - understandable, since there are also lots of non-queer students, and other reasons for coming to Newnham. Additionally, the title of ‘women’s’ college seems like it might need re-examining, given the large population of trans/non-binary students in college, though I absolutely don’t think going co-ed is the solution.

"Newnham has really widened my idea of what queerness looks like"

Grace Cobb, Magdalene

After planning to dodge choosing a college with an open application, I quickly changed my mind after realising I could be shipped off to a ‘women’s’ college. Spending seven years in an all-girls’ school and deciding it was finally time to make some friends among the rest of society, I ironically ended up (unwittingly) applying to the last Oxbridge college to accept women. Thankfully, Magdalene men no longer display their animosity by donning black armbands and carrying academia in a coffin to its grave (still the most dramatic act of misogyny ever). Yet punters asking tourists “guess when this college let women in?” as they glide past every day - queue gawking at female students in their unnatural habitat as they’re hit with “1988” as the punchline - isn’t the only time I’m reminded that any guarantee that women will receive the quality of education as men is far too recent, and still not universally accepted. The College’s history still makes itself felt, traceable in the sexism behind spiteful Magdfess comments, horror stories casually shared between friends, petty society politics, and the lack of female alumni (ensuring our netball team, one of Magdalene’s highest performing sports clubs, suffers from receiving far fewer donations than its male counterparts). Not only do girls in single-sex schools perform better in exams, take more risks, become better leaders and access better careers, but being immersed in an environment in which my right to pursue higher education was never questioned, only emphatically encouraged, is something I certainly took for granted. Even if expressions of overt misogyny now predominantly occur anonymously, the alarmingly recent memory of Magdalene students’ resistance to accepting women, and the remnants of such attitudes which lurk around academia today, are powerful reminders that carving out spaces just for women to live, socialise and, most importantly, learn, must remain an option. While I’m relieved I didn’t end up at Newnham or Medwards, I’m even more relieved that they still exist for those who wish to choose them.

"I speak on behalf of many Newnham students in saying I feel very proud to be a Newnham girl."

Poppy Sugden, Newnham

Having been at an all girls school for seven years I was certain I wanted a change, and so receiving an offer from Newnham was very bitter-sweet for me. The gender aspect really discouraged me and I seriously considered going to my insurance university instead. It seems so silly to me now that I even considered colleges’ gender policies as a factor, and I would encourage anyone to accept a Newnham offer regardless; being at uni makes it so easy to make friends of every gender, and so it is not a barrier to socialising in mixed groups at all. I do think Newnham has a different feel, as all colleges do to one another, but a very positive one. The college creates an extremely liberal and open environment which I think is largely a result of the strong role the college played, and still does play, in women’s education at Cambridge; a history of which we are very proud. I speak on behalf of many Newnham students in saying I feel very proud to be a Newnham girl.

"Another three years in single sex educational institutions wasn’t right for me"

Alice Mainwood, Gonville & Caius


Mountain View

Can Cambridge get International Women’s Day right?

14 years spent surrounded exclusively by women from 8am to 3pm, 5 days a week, teaches you many things, and affords you many graces. Until I was 18, I’d never been the only woman in a room, nor had I ever had to think about speaking louder to be heard, or toning down any aspect of my Feminism to be tolerated by uncomfortable men. I spent the most formative years of my childhood surrounded by women who inspired me and loved education, and it is those women, and the educational spaces that fostered that environment that gave me much of the confidence I tackled moving to university with. That being said, that enduring confidence and comfort is not natural, and whilst I loved the atmosphere it nurtured, I knew that when choosing a college, another three years in single sex educational institutions wasn’t going to be right for me. I’m glad I attend a mixed-sex college now, but I wouldn’t change my childhood spent learning, growing, and maturing around women for anything.