Deborah La Gorce Kramer was among the first female students at Trinity College. She arrived by prior arrangement three weeks before the start of Term, but when she presented herself at the Great Gate, the Porters assured her that Trinity did not take women – they hadn’t even been told – and it was a while before they took yes for an answer.

In the history of female access to Cambridge, 2019 is a year of landmarks and milestones. This month, Trinity is celebrating 40 years of women; the very first women arrived at Cambridge 150 years ago; 70 years ago, Girton College was granted full college status by the university and women could finally graduate with full degrees. 40 year’s on from Kramer’s arrival, we should take a moment to celebrate just how far Cambridge has come in terms of the struggle to allow women to study here.

It is true that, on the surface, all of this progress does not seem spectacular. Because of course all the colleges should admit women. Of course there should be an even balance of male and female students at Cambridge. Of course women should be awarded full degrees. Other universities have achieved that and far more. Cambridge should have finally caught up with the modern world, and it is true that much of this change is long overdue.

Moreover, there is still more to be done, and we must think critically – we cannot ignore the fact that women from nontraditional backgrounds and women of colour still face significant barriers. Cambridge must boost the number of women doing STEM degrees, do more to remove the barriers that women of colour and working-class women face, and discourage implicitly and explicitly sexist attitudes in drinking society culture.

However, what we have to remember that Cambridge is swimming against eight centuries of history. It has been something of an uphill struggle to improve female access at Cambridge. There has never been any shortage of campaigners – professors and students alike – fighting relentlessly for gender equality at Cambridge. But what they are pushing against is something very powerful: tradition. There has always been an underlying fear that by modernising and letting go of age-old traditions, Cambridge will lose some of what makes it Cambridge.

“There has never been any shortage of campaigners fighting relentlessly for gender equality at Cambridge”

For over 600 years, Cambridge admitted only men. The first women at Cambridge arrived in 1869. They lived on the outskirts of town away from the central colleges – their world scarcely touched that of the men. A women’s college was established at Hitchin, and moved to Cambridge in 1873 as Girton: the first college in England to educate women. This is a fact easily forgotten, but it represents an important turning point in the history of female education in Britain.

Emily Davies was one of the founders of Girton. She was a tireless, pioneering campaigner for women’s rights to university access, despite facing opposition. She campaigned to get women admitted to university examinations, believing passionately that women should be educated on exactly the same terms as men, a view which even some of the co-founders of Girton did not endorse.


Mountain View

Breaking into the boys' club of Cambridge

Many of Girton’s earliest scholars followed in Emily’s footsteps as campaigners for female education: Constance Maynard, for example, was proud to be Cambridge’s first female philosophy graduate, and she then went on to co-found Westfield College, one of the first higher education institutions at which women could gain full degrees. It merged with Queen Mary College in 1989, before it became Queen Mary University of London in 2013.

However, further progress in the twentieth century was slow and bumpy. Newnham was established in 1871 and, much later, Murray Edwards in 1954, then Lucy Cavendish in 1965. But women couldn’t even graduate as full members of the University until 1948, despite Oxford having set the precedent nearly three decades before. They could sit the examinations from 1882 but were only able to gain titular degrees, mailed to them in the post, and their names did not make the degree ceremony list.

It was not until 1945 that the first black woman matriculated at Cambridge. Gloria Carpenter moved to England at the age of thirteen to study at a grammar school in London. She went on to study Law at Cambridge, becoming Britain’s first female black law graduate. She, like so many of Cambridge’s earliest female students, became a pioneer for women’s education. She went on to help establish the University of West Indies Law department, opening up opportunities for Jamaican women to study Law and follow in her footsteps.

“Discrimination was so ingrained at Cambridge that it was almost erased by the distance between men’s and women’s colleges”

I interviewed Joyce Reynolds, former Director of Studies in Classics at Newnham College – who last month celebrated her 100th birthday – to gain a more personal insight into what it was like for women at Cambridge in the 1950s and 1960s, before the men’s colleges started admitting women.

I got a definite sense of how isolating it would have been. She told me – rather wryly – “well… the men were over there.” This did mean, however, that the women at Cambridge were in a way sheltered from the male discrimination; although Reynolds stressed that prejudice against women was a serious problem at Cambridge in the 1960s, she also pointed out it didn’t really affect her job at Newnham. Discrimination was so ingrained at Cambridge that it was almost erased by the distance between men’s and women’s colleges.

Interestingly, as Reynolds told it, the women’s colleges had always been considerably more progressive then the men’s. Reynolds said: “From the first, at least from the first in my experience, we tried to get the best girls from anywhere. We set an entrance exam for the women, nothing to do with the men.”

When I asked her what she thought about the idea that Cambridge professors and admissions tutors have always been reluctant to admit students from nontraditional backgrounds, she told me that “as far as the women’s colleges were concerned… It was never like that.” In Reynold’s experience, then, the women’s colleges were more geared towards enhancing social equality from their inception.

And from 1972 the formerly all-male colleges started admitting women: in Reynold’s eyes, this was the biggest milestone in the history of women’s access to Cambridge. Churchill, Clare and King’s Colleges were the first, setting a precedent for the other colleges to follow. And really, this change was all that was needed to give women equal access to men: now, the male-female ratio is close to fifty-fifty.

“It can be easy to lose sight of the battles fought and won for us to get to this point where female access to education is an unquestioned norm”

In 1998, a graduation ceremony took place in Cambridge. The only graduating students were female. But these were not the graduates of 1998. Those women who graduated before 1948 - before the university awarded them degrees for studying at Cambridge - were not forgotten. This ceremony was put on to honour their achievements, even if it was 40 years late. Nine hundred women attended from all over the world, and the oldest there was 97 years old.

In the fast-paced and ever-changing modern world we live in, it can be easy to lose sight of the battles fought and won for us to get to this point where female access to education is an unquestioned norm. It seems like it shouldn’t be necessary to celebrate something so basic and fundamental as female access.

Yet it is important to look back at the progress that has been made, if only to honour the women who campaigned for gender equality at Cambridge. Because we wouldn’t be here without the incredible work of women like Deborah, Constance, Emily, Gloria and Joyce, who managed to flourish in a very male-dominated world, laying the foundations for the future of female access. We wouldn’t be here without their resilience and bravery. We wouldn’t be here without their willingness to push back against the tide of tradition and prejudice. Let’s take a moment to thank them.