‘The Storming of the Gates’ – marking the 1921 vote on women’s membership of Cambridge University

Ornate bronze gates with the lower panels missing and bent and the gap filled with barbed wire

Wednesday 20th October marks the centenary of the University’s 1921 vote on whether women should be awarded full membership of the University, or only the ‘titles of degrees’.

Despite many supporters in the University, the vote went against Newnham and Girton, and the day ended in a destructive demonstration by male undergraduates outside the gates of Newnham, known as the ‘storming of the gates’.

The atmosphere outside the Senate House was loud and male-dominated: Girton student Dorothy Marshall felt “small & forlorn & somehow in a hostile country”. Remarkably, the demonstrations were filmed and we can watch them now.

When the result was announced – no full degrees for women – the atmosphere turned threatening. Historian Sarah Watling (NC 2008) describes what happened next in a powerful blog:

“The principal of Newnham College, Blanche Athena Clough, was a veteran of the women’s movement and was expecting trouble. The entrances to her college were closed and barred against the 1,400 or so men now charging towards them … Between Blanche and the men stood the Clough Memorial Gates [in the Pfeiffer Arch]… Halted there, the students turned their attention to another set of gates leading to the yard outside Old Hall (where some of the Newnhamites’ bedrooms were). Smashing down the brick gatepost, they gained entrance to the yard and commandeered an old handcart, with which they returned to batter in the lower panels of the Memorial Gates. … On the other side of the college, a subsection of the rioters managed to force open the iron gates of Clough Hall, break windows and smash in a door leading to Peile Hall. Only by placing themselves in the doorway were Proctors able to prevent the young men from gaining entrance. They satisfied themselves by searching for undefended parts of the college, shouting and singing, for another hour. For ninety minutes that evening, the women of Newnham were under siege.”

The broken gates are shown in the image above, which is part of the online archival exhibition.

It was not until 1948 that the women of Cambridge would be entitled to full membership of the University – meaning that when Dorothy Garrod was appointed as the University’s first female Professor in 1939, she was not entitled to speak or vote on University matters.

Find out more

Frieda Midgley, College Archivist, has created a display in the Library, exploring the event through posters and documents from the time (in the corridor by the lifts), also also available online.

If you already have your copy of the Second Newnham Anthology, edited by Gill Sutherland and Kate Williams, (available to purchase here), you can read more about the 1921 Vote on page 221.

To discover the history of Newnham and Girton Colleges, visit the University Library’s The Rising Tide exhibition online.