On the 19 February 1881 Ida Darwin sat down in her home in Hills Road, Cambridge to write an urgent letter to Henrietta Litchfield, her sister-in-law. They had been friends for years, long before Ida had married Henrietta’s brother Horace just over a year before, and often wrote to one another. But this letter was different. It was not about either of them, but about women’s rights in the future. ‘There is great excitement at Newnham & Girton about the voting which is to take place next Thursday’, Ida told her,
which will decide the fate of women up here for some time to come. I have sent a circular about it to Frank [Darwin] who says he will come up if he can. Could & would Richard come too? If the women do not get the certificate granted to them this time, their position will be worse than it has been, as they will lose the privilege of being examined by the University examiners.
Ida was referring to the Senate vote – about to take place on 24 February 1881 – on whether Cambridge University’s final year Tripos examinations should be opened to female students by right, not by favour as had been the case until then. Every M.A. (male graduate) who could attend the vote counted, so Ida was attempting to round up as many of the Darwins’ extended family as she could.
Since 1874 twenty-one women had been granted special permission to take the Tripos, and all had succeeded, with four being placed in the First Class. By 1881, even though there was still no question of female students being awarded degrees, pressure had been building on Cambridge to give some sort of formal recognition to its female students, particularly since London University had opened its degrees to women three years before. In 1880 a petition known as the Newcastle Memorial had obtained over eight thousand signatures from across Britain calling for Cambridge University to grant ‘to properly qualified women the right to admission to the Examinations for University Degrees’.
The Memorial had come as a surprise to the leaders of both of the women’s colleges, but Newnham College’s Henry and Eleanor Sidgwick and the college Principal Anne Clough felt that the time was right to move forward. Emily Davies at Girton argued that the proposal did not go far enough, but reluctantly accepted that Girton had to support it. She knew that if the vote was defeated it might mean the end of the women’s colleges’ tentative relationship with the University.
Ida Darwin had made many friends at Newnham, including Helen Gladstone, the Prime Minister’s daughter and Ellen Crofts, a young lecturer in English. Horace’s mother Emma Darwin knew Anne Clough well, and his sisters Henrietta and Bessy attended lectures at London University. Before she married, Ida had longed to study at the newly founded Somerville College at Oxford; now that she found herself in Cambridge as a wife, not a student, she wanted to help others, and was determined that more doors into higher education should be opened to women in the future.
On 24 February the Senate House was packed with about 400 M.A.s and Henry Sidgwick was pleasantly surprised when it dawned on him that almost everyone there was in favour of the women’s vote. ‘Ultimately, with great trouble, I discovered the enemy seated in a depressed manner on a couple of benches in one corner, about thirty in number,’ he later wrote. The Graces allowing women students to take the Tripos were passed by 366 votes to 32: Ida and others’ efforts to round up supporters had worked. In Kent, Charles and Emma Darwin rejoiced when they heard the news. ‘You will have heard of the triumph of the Ladies at Cambridge’, Charles told his son George. ‘Horace was sent to the Lady’s [sic] College to communicate the success & was received with enthusiasm.’
But in their celebrations of February 1881 neither the Darwins nor Ida and her Newnham friends could have known that rather than the beginning, this vote represented the end of something. The optimistic belief that women were slowly but surely making progress towards equal membership of the University did not last. From 1881 on, votes began to be blocked by ever more stubborn resistance by the forces of reaction in the Senate who feared that the status quo would be changed. The photograph on the cover of Rita McWilliams-Tullberg’s book above shows the thousands who gathered in 1897 to defeat the Senate’s vote to allow women degrees.
By then women at Cambridge, both in and outside the colleges, had discovered that they would have to rely on themselves, not votes at the Senate. From the 1880s on they formed women-led associations and societies to work together towards the better future that they all wanted.
© Ann Kennedy Smith 1 July 2019
Sources: Ida’s letter to H. Litchfield is Add.9864.1: 5977, C. Darwin’s letter is DAR 210.1:103, both from the Darwin Papers held at Cambridge University Library; other quotes are from Rita McWilliams-Tullberg’s chapter ‘1881 Admission to Examinations’ in her excellent Women At Cambridge (CUP, 1998) (pp 70-84). See also my post ‘The Ascent of Women at Cambridge’.