It took Cambridge more than 600 years to allow the first women through its doors

Girton College opened its doors to women 150 years ago today. Olivia Campbell looks back at the battle waged by middle-class women to attend university, study the same courses as men, and finally be awarded a degree

Tuesday 15 October 2019 18:14 BST
1897: male undergraduates protest against the introduction of women into Cambridge
1897: male undergraduates protest against the introduction of women into Cambridge (Getty)

On 16 October 1869, the doors of Girton College, Cambridge, opened wide for the first time. Formidable feminist campaigners had fought, hustled and campaigned to establish the UK’s first residential college that allowed women through its gates. Five of them, possessing considerable intelligence, began their first term at university – and changed the very nature of women’s education. One hundred and fifty years later, it’s hard to imagine not being able to access a decent education simply because you were born the wrong sex.

In 2018, women were storming their way across university. Data shows that 57 per cent of all students in higher education were female. Statistics from Ucas revealed that 98,000 more women than men applied to university. However, this road has been long, complicated and defined by the unwavering resilience of the women who recognised their right to learn. “In a way, the opening of Girton changed everything,” says Professor Susan Smith, who has been the mistress of Girton since 2009: “It opened a doorway and was part of an unstoppable movement across the UK whereby women were seeking to improve their participation in wider society.”

Originally named the College for Women at Benslow House, Girton was an experiment in how far women with a desire for knowledge could go. The University of Cambridge, which had been founded more than 600 years earlier, was known for its prestige and renowned worldwide but remained woefully sexist. To get women into this institution had the potential to change women’s lives forever.

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