Sex and the City: a history of women in Cambridge

The year 2023 marked the 75th anniversary of women undergraduates first being awarded full degrees at Cambridge University. In 1948, Queen Elizabeth (later the Queen Mother) became the first woman to be awarded a full (Honorary) Cambridge degree.

However, the story of women in Cambridge is much older than that, with the roles of women in society from the Middle Ages to the present day reflecting changing attitudes to their education and their capabilities.

Poster encouraging members of the university to vote against the awarding of degrees to women at Cambridge in 1897

Education in the early university was geared to producing priests who could also become state administrators. In this context it was inconceivable that women should gain an education at the university, although many aristocratic women received an ‘appropriate’ education at home. However, wealthy female benefactors, including Elizabeth de Clare, Margaret of Anjou, and Lady Margaret Beaufort, were crucial in establishing some of the early colleges, mainly as chantry colleges where prayers would be said daily for the souls of the founders and their families.

In 17th century Cambridge, two of the more outspoken women were publicly whipped for their audacity in preaching and discussing their religious views with male students. The radical Quaker Ann Docwra took to pen, writing a tract for the Justices of the Peace in which she argued, “There is no law to compel people to conform”. She was a brave advocate of the view that there should be freedom of belief and discussion of religion.

Girton College, Main Entrance, Cambridge. Public domain Cornell University Library

Despite the remarkable fact that women founded six of the 16 medieval colleges at Cambridge, women were barred from studying at the university until the late 19th century. The extraordinary views held about harmful effects of education on women’s fertility assisted in holding back the development of women’s education. However, by the 1860’s newly founded universities elsewhere were educating students of both sexes.

Emily Davis, portrait by Rudolph Lehmann, 1880

In Cambridge, at a time when walking in the street with a male student was punishable as a crime for young townswomen, Emily Davis founded Girton College and a committee headed by Eleanor and Henry Sidgwick founded Newnham College specifically to educate women undergraduates. Nonetheless, there were many women in the late 1800s, both university women and townswomen, whose achievements remain little known.

The young townswoman Daisy Hopkins played a seminal role in the late 1800s in toppling the university’s draconian policing of prostitution. Some early students from the women’s colleges continued to live in Cambridge and went on to take up civic roles.

Florence Ada Keynes (Image: Cambridgeshire Collection)

Eva Hartree became the first female mayor of Cambridge and Florence Ada Keynes became the first female alderman of Cambridge as early as 1914; she was an extraordinary woman who achieved more in one lifetime than most could achieve in three.

Only after the two World Wars, when women across the country successfully took on many of the men’s jobs, did women’s achievements start to become more recognised. Unsurprisingly, women students had started to outclass their male colleagues in important exams and Cambridge University had to adapt, albeit slowly, to the presence of women. Moreover, the endeavours of the unsung heroines of the city have helped to shape the way Cambridge has developed from a medieval inland port into today’s international city.

A small group of Green Badge guides offers tours on the history of women in Cambridge, giving further details of these and other stories of women’s struggles for equality. You can hear often discomforting but sometimes amusing stories of the achievements, against all the odds, that have resulted in a more equal place for women in Cambridge and its university in the 21st Century. This tour will entertain and inform both men and women and we look forward to welcoming you to this different tour round our delightful city.

You can find out more information and book tickets here.


About the Author

Ruth Meyer is a qualified City of Cambridge Green Badge Guide. She first came to Cambridge as a student, and then followed an eventful working life which included teaching English in Japan, and working for the United Nations as an elections adviser across many countries. She specialises in bespoke small-group walking tours taking in the main Cambridge sites and some of the colleges, including the magnificent Kings College and its world-famous Chapel. Ruth also offers specialist tours on Cambridge Spies; the history of women in Cambridge; the new district of Eddington; and stories of Cambridge ghosts, the gruesome and the macabre, best enjoyed on a winter evening! You can book one of Ruth’s tours here