The 2020 Girton Spring Ball aims to celebrate the college's legacy of female education MIHNEA MAFTEI (FLICKR)

It is 2020 and impressive, efficient and highly intelligent women are part of the Cambridge landscape as we know it. Against a backdrop of female excellence, the existence of an almost all-female Spring Ball committee could be easily disregarded as something so commonplace as to be barely worthy of note. 

To overlook the true significance of women at Girton and in Cambridge today, however, is to ignore the tumultuous, turbulent history of those who have struggled at this university to get us to where we are today. 2019 marked 150 years of Girton College as an institution: that is 150 years of women in higher education in the UK. It is to this remarkable feat that the Arthouse Spring Ball pays homage.

The 150 year Girtonian legacy is one of the most poignant in history for the trajectory of females in education

When Emily Davies, Barbara Bodichon and Lady Stanley founded Girton in 1869, female excellence was not just abnormal in Cambridge, but unheard of. Not only were Girtonians kept far from the city centre - out of sight, out of mind - but they were barred from library access and denied the right to take part in Tripos examinations. Emily Davies bitterly opposed these injustices at every opportunity, firmly rejecting the 'intermediate difficulty' of the 'Pass degree' for women as the insult it was.

Women became fully fledged members of the University on 27 April 1948, but the time before this was fraught with conflict as women strained to make their voices heard amidst the cacophony of masculine dominance. Twice the proposal for women's full admittance to Cambridge was voted on; twice Cambridge descended into misogynistic chaos as a result. In 1897, eggshells and fireworks littered King's Parade as men across the university were lit up with indignation at women's audacity. 'The varsity for men and men for the varsity' read banners brandished by Cambridge students en masse.

In 1921, Newnham was ransacked as the college was descended on in a sneering riot. Men did not just scoff, but were driven to violence at the suggestion of an infiltration by measly women into the heady heights of Cambridge academia. Never-mind 'The Pioneers'; a trio who, way back in 1873, had proven the intellectual legitimacy of women by being the first to sit and (unofficially) pass the Tripos exams. Never-mind Philippa Fawcett of Newnham, the woman who topped the Cambridge mathematics tripos in 1890 by a 20% margin. She was never awarded the title of Senior Wrangler: this special privilege was reserved for men alone.

A considerable backdrop of eye-watering injustice thus lends itself to appreciation anew for women in Cambridge 2020. Against all the odds, Girton has produced an exceptional stream of successful women for 150 years: Baroness Hale, Baroness Higgins, Sandi Toksvig and Arianna Huffingdon are but of view of the decorated Girtonians to become household names.

Meanwhile, March 13th edges ever closer. The Spring Ball Committee fly around in a whirlwind of activity to ensure that Arthouse 2020 will be a celebration worthy of 150 years of women in education at Girton. Absorbed in the negotiation of celebrity headliners, complex logistical challenges and luxury cocktail tasting sessions, it is possible to momentarily lose sight of how we got here at all. 


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Imagine if Emily Davies, with all her 'untiring energy and will of iron' (words of Ms Townshend, one of the first Girton students), had not fought quite so determinedly to loosen the tight grip of patriarchy woven around the heart of the Cambridge establishment. Would it be conceivable that a little over a hundred years later, a committee of powerful women could work with assured capability to deliver such a large celebration alongside their degrees? Perhaps not. 

Ultimately, the 150 year Girtonian legacy is one of the most poignant in history for the trajectory of females in education. The hopes, dreams and determination of the very first Girtonians will fuel the magic of the Arthouse Spring Ball 2020 as the Girton grounds are lit up in celebration of those who have come before us. Striding confidently towards the end of term, the Girton Spring Ball Committee is living proof that far off dreams of female power and equality in Cambridge verge ever closer on realisation.


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