75th anniversary celebration of degrees for women at Cambridge

Newnham celebrated the 75th anniversary of women being granted full membership of the University of Cambridge with a special Christmas formal hall this week, attended by the University’s Vice-Chancellor Professor Debbie Prentice.

The event was the brainchild of Newnham History student Molly O’Neill, working with Fellow Emerita Dr Gill Sutherland and Archivist Frieda Midgley. Molly happened across the 75th anniversary while reading for her research project, ‘Women in Cambridge 1900-1950,’ part of the second year History Tripos.

After a long struggle, in May 1948 Newnham and Girton became full colleges of the University – over 75 years after the first groups of women students gathered on its doorstep. The process was so long and contentious because full membership, symbolised by the award of degrees, brought with it involvement in university governance.

In October 1948, the first degrees were awarded to a woman, and the then Queen Elizabeth, later the Queen Mother, received an honorary degree. However, it was too late for celebrated mathematician Philippa Fawcett, who died that year before she could be awarded hers. She received the top first in Maths in her year in 1890, with a score 13% higher than the second highest.

“We are marking the 75th anniversary of a huge step forward for women in Cambridge: truly an occasion to celebrate,” said University Vice-Chancellor Debbie Prentice. “Among that first cohort to graduate from Newnham College was Aida Desta, Princess of Ethiopia, and women who went on to be doctors, teachers, academics, engineers, social workers, journalists, civil servants, librarians, scientists – and a nun.

“None of these achievements came without struggle, personal and corporate. Cambridge was the last English university to grant women degrees. Even as late as 1921, the defeat of an earlier proposal led to an infamous march on Newnham’s Pfeiffer gates by those who had opposed the proposal. But women persevered and in the end they triumphed.”

Debbie Prentice – the third female Vice-Chancellor in Cambridge’s 800 year history – noted other ‘firsts’ to celebrate since 1948, such as Newnham alumna, Dorothy Hodgkin, the first female member of Cambridge to win a Nobel Prize in Chemistry, and sociologist, Professor Manali Desai, a Professorial Fellow at Newnham, becoming the first woman of colour to head a Cambridge University department.

Molly O’Neill said: “It is easy to reflect on the Education of Women as something that showed consistent improvement. This was not the case. “In fact, conflict was more cyclical; failed votes and anti-women demonstrations in 1887, 1897 and 1921 were scarily alike in character.

“The breaking of the Newnham Gates and records of rhetorical abuse must have been both alarming in their physicality and violence, and frustrating in what they said about attitudinal stagnation in the University… It is the thought of the untapped potential and lack of proper recognition in so many brilliant students and staff that is most frustrating.

“Over 75 years on, living in Newnham keeps that frustration tangible, and I hope that we can use it productively, as motivation to ensure our voices are heard in group spaces and most importantly to pursue change in areas that still require it…

“The sources do not all tell a story of struggle, however. The most inspiring thing about accounts of life at Newnham is how much fun it was… Memories of climbing through windows into people’s bedrooms and walking on the grass suggest that some aspects of the Newnham experience truly never change…

“And in a diverse college full of different people living different lives, it is these moments universal to students at Newnham that are capable of bringing everybody together. We have been gifted by pioneering women a powerful and special home, and we have a duty to make it emanate with our vibrance.”

(Photos by Dasha Tenditna. Top photo left to right, Molly O’Neill, Principal Alison Rose, Vice-Chancellor Debbie Prentice and Archivist Frieda Midgley.  Bottom photo shows Honorary Fellow Hayat Sindi with Debbie Prentice).