At last, a degree of honour for 900 Cambridge women

Suzanna Chambers
Saturday 30 May 1998 23:02 BST

WHEN Elizabeth Layton graduated from Cambridge University 62 years ago, she was so thrilled that she did not mind that her name was not on the degree ceremony list. After three years studying economics at Girton College, she felt honoured to be sent a certificate in the post - even though it was only a titular degree.

Women in the class of 1936 were not the first to be denied the honour of graduating with a full Cambridge degree that would make them members of the university.

From the first intake of female students in 1869, until 50 years ago, women had to make do, at best, with mailed university certificates. Now Cambridge is at last to recognise those women's achievements with a ceremony in July, to be attended by more than 900 of them.

The first female Cambridge students actually lived and studied in a college set up in Hitchin, Hertfordshire, 30 miles away. Its location was chosen so that male undergraduates would not feel intimidated by the five young ladies who studied there, and their worlds scarcely touched.

When, 79 years later, Cambridge finally admitted women to full membership, it was 28 years behind Oxford. Juliet Campbell, Mistress of Girton College and chair of the 50th Anniversary Committee, said the reasons for its tardiness were difficult to pinpoint.

When the first vote on the issue was taken, in 1897, there was a "tremendous wave" of anti-women feeling. A second vote was in 1921, when men were still reeling from the fact that women had done their jobs while they were fighting for their country; it, too, was lost. Finally, third time lucky, full membership was approved in December 1947, with no contrary votes.

A triumphant day in October 1948 saw the then Queen (now the Queen Mother) receive the first woman's honorary degree in the Senate House, the building where on 4 July more than 900 women who graduated from Girton and Newnham colleges up to 1948 will be honoured.

Carol Barker, spokeswoman for the university, said: "The oldest guest is 97. Women are coming from all over the world."

Mrs Layton, who lives in Bristol, will be among them. She says she feels no grievance. "I was very pleased that I got a certificate. There was no sense of feeling inferior, and being a woman was not a handicap in any way." She followed her mother to Girton in 1933. During her mother's time, in the 1890s, women were almost completely segregated. "Lecturers came to Girton and there were fairly strict rules which had relaxed by the time I got there. But we had to sign a book when we were going to a male student's room and be back by 10pm. There were five men to every girl so we had a rather splendid time. It was great fun, but we were very serious about our work."

Mrs Layton recalled one advantage women enjoyed: "Men had to wear gowns and we didn't. If they went out without them they were reprimanded. We didn't particularly want to wear them, because of the clumsiness of the thing."

Sitting a few rows away at the ceremony on 4 July will be Pam Thayer, who lives near Oxford. In 1948, she was one of the first women to receive a degree. "It was a marvellous occasion. I graduated in history and it made it even more wonderful, the fact that I was taking part in such a historical moment."

Miss Thayer said that when she applied to Cambridge she had thought that she too would be denied full membership to the university. "I wasn't worried that I wouldn't be given full membership, I just wanted to go to Girton."

She said she had not felt discriminated against in any way. "The men were very helpful and even allowed us to trade our bread coupons for clothes coupons during the war.

"We were only allowed three baths a week, but so was everyone, and we queued up with the dons.

"We felt so privileged that we were at Cambridge that we didn't mind."

The invitation to the degree ceremony in 1948 came as quite a surprise, Miss Thayer said. "It was talked about but I never expected my academic career at Cambridge to end in such a highlight."

She said she remembered the day very well: "It was a bright day in July. I remember putting the gown on. It felt marvellous. Everyone in my family came, including my aunt and uncle. They were so thrilled."

She is hoping for a similar kind of bright and sunny day on 4 July. "Most of my year will be going back, or the people I mixed with. We're hoping for a beautiful day, but I don't think even the weather will be able to quell our feelings of elation."

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