Cambridge’s first women students, lecturers, college workers & university wives

Cambridge University was an all-male institution for hundreds of years. Then the women arrived, and everything changed.

My blog tells the interconnected stories of some of the first women to ‘invade’ this ancient university town. Girton College was established in 1869, followed by Newnham College in 1871. These two ‘colleges for ladies’ gradually became established in the 1870s, then in 1882 there was a more dramatic change, when fellows were allowed to marry. Cambridge’s first female students, college associates, lecturers and university brides had to fight for their rightful place in a highly traditional male university world. From 1869 onwards the women formed close social networks, clubs and discussion groups, dissolving traditional barriers between ‘town and gown’ and enabling friendships and working relationships.

I also tell the stories of others who moved to Cambridge after these early pioneers, including Eileen Power and Lettice Ramsey. (There are also a few excellent guest posts by knowledgeable friends: see archives on the righthand side). Virginia Woolf once called Cambridge “that detestable place”, but these women helped to make it a better place, and their influence went far beyond college walls.

The Ladies’ Dining Society, 1890-1914

Twelve women who moved to Cambridge during this period – to study, to organize the first women’s colleges or to marry men associated with the university – formed their own intellectual discussion club, one of the first of its kind. From 1890 until the outbreak of war in 1914, the ‘Ladies Dining Society’ met regularly, once or twice a term, to have dinner and intellectual discussions in Cambridge and elsewhere.

It was ‘a remarkable group’ according to John Maynard Keynes. The club lasted for twenty-four years and had lasting importance. Its twelve members were Caroline Jebb, Mary Paley Marshall, Ida Darwin,Eleanor Sidgwick, Kathleen Lyttelton, Ellen Wordsworth Darwin, Mary Ward, Louise Creighton, Margaret Verrall, Maud Darwin, Fanny Prothero and Eliza Von Hügel. Over the years these women would contribute to women’s suffrage, higher education, journalism, social welfare and mental health reform.

See my entries on the Ladies’ Dining Society, Caroline Jebb and Mary Ward in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography  There is a good Wikipedia article about the group which is largely based on my research.

© Ann Kennedy Smith June 2020

All my blogposts are my copyright. You are welcome to cite or quote from an article, provided you request my permission first, and give full acknowledgement of my name, website and date of publication.

Select reading list:

Christopher Brooke, A History of the University of Cambridge (Cambridge University Press, 1993), volume 4: 1870-1990. A highly readable history of the period, impeccably researched

Elizabeth Crawford, The Women’s Suffrage Movement: A Reference Guide 1866-1928 (1999). An invaluable, impeccably researched resource.

Eleanor Fitzsimons Wilde’s Women (Duckworth Overlook, 2015). An insightful and beautifully written account of the women who were so significant in Wilde’s life.

Emily Midorikawa and Emma Claire Sweeney A Secret Sisterhood: The Hidden Friendships of Austen, Brontë, Eliot and Woolf (Aurum 2018). A thoroughly engaging and illuminating book about the little-known friendships of four women writers. I wrote a blogpost about it here.  

Clare Mulley The Woman Who Saved the Children (Oneworld, 2009). The fascinating life of Eglantyne Jebb, the socialite who became the great champion of children’s universal rights.

Gwen Raverat Period Piece (Faber and Faber, 2002)Charming, funny and deceptively clever, this best-selling memoir has never been out of print since its first publication in 1952. I wrote about it here.

Rita McWilliams Tullberg Women at Cambridge (Cambridge University Press, 1998). Tullberg’s groundbreaking study of the long struggle for women to be accepted as full members of the university: first published in 1975, it was re-issued as a paperback in 1998 to mark 50 years since women were awarded degrees at Cambridge. My blogpost about the 1881 Senate vote is here.