The ascent of women at Cambridge

9781107158863‘You will have heard of the triumph of the Ladies at Cambridge’, Charles Darwin, aged 72, wrote to his son George in February 1881.  ‘Horace was sent to the Lady’s [sic] College to communicate the success & was received with enthusiasm.’ Cambridge University had just voted to give women students at Newnham and Girton the right to take final examinations on the same terms as male students, and Emma and Charles Darwin in Kent rejoiced with them. Ida Darwin (married to their youngest son Horace) was a keen supporter of Newnham, the ‘Lady’s College’ that Darwin refers to, and a future daughter-in-law, Ellen Crofts Darwin, studied and lectured there.

Charles Darwin is not always known for his feminist sympathies. In his book The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex (1871) he stated that ‘the average standard of mental power in man must be above that of women’. As Dame Gillian Beer writesin regard to women Darwin ‘failed to observe in this one field the pressures of environment that were elsewhere fundamental to his arguments.’ She has contributed the foreword to Samantha Evans’s Darwin and Women  (CUP 2017). This fascinating selection of letters from the team behind the Cambridge Darwin Correspondence Project shines light on many of the remarkable women with whom Darwin corresponded with interest and intellectual involvement over his lifetime.

Many of the women scientists, journalists and writers who corresponded with him over the years were involved in the promotion of women’s education. Charles Darwin’s daughters Henrietta and Elizabeth (Bessy) attended lectures at London University and shared a keen interest in education with their friends. ‘Women in their circle, even without raising any particular banner, were extraordinarily active’, Evans notes, ‘they learnt mathematics and physics; they hired tutors; they took examinations; they watched debates in the House of Commons from the ladies’ gallery; they attended university lectures if they were open to women.’

Although the ‘triumph of the ladies’ in 1881 was welcomed by the Darwins, it did not mark the beginning of women’s imminent ascent to acceptance at Cambridge. There was to be no membership of the university, no degrees and not even the right to attend lectures for many years to come.


Many letters included in Samantha Evans’s book are reproduced in the invaluable online resource created by the Darwin Correspondence Project here. My review of Darwin and Women is in the Dublin Review of Books here.

4 thoughts on “The ascent of women at Cambridge

  1. Tamsin Wimhurst says:

    Thank you for highlighting this book and adding to our insight into it – it is a much needed addition to the Darwin history – congratulations to those who thought of the idea and put it together.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.