‘No women at Cambridge’: the 1897 protests

Part 1 The men in the photograph

On the morning of 21 May 1897, all along King’s Parade, thousands of men stand waiting. The view from a first-floor window shows a sea of straw boaters stretching into the distance. Most of the men in this photograph are Cambridge University undergraduates, some looking nonchalant with their hands in their pockets, others pressing against the railings that surround the Senate House. There are also serious-looking older men in dark suits and bowler hats in this vast crowd, and boys in flat caps who smile up at the camera. ‘The scene will never be forgotten’, one onlooker wrote, recalling ‘the excitement of the undergraduates who assembled in great numbers, the spectators at every window and on the tops of houses and St Mary’s Church, and fireworks in the Senate House Yard’. We can imagine the chatter and shouting to friends, the whistles and catcalls: a festive mood, that later would turn into ugly, anti-women violence.

The tensions had been building for months. The previous year, a special University Syndicate was appointed to discuss the case for Cambridge degrees to be awarded to suitably qualified women students. Since 1881, the two ‘ladies’ colleges’ of Newnham and Girton had awarded their own certificates to students who had fulfilled the University’s degree requirements and taken its final ‘Tripos’ exams. But by the 1890s many women were finding it difficult to compete in the professional workplace, where B.A.s and M.A.s were expected. Girton and Newnham students had already proved women’s intellectual ability, especially with the outstanding results of Agnata Frances Ramsay and Philippa Fawcett (see my ‘Locked out of the library’ post). The conferring of the title of degree would be ‘to the University at least unharmful’, the Principal of Newnham College Eleanor Sidgwick wrote, ‘and to women an unmixed gain’.

To begin with, the upcoming vote was discussed behind closed academic doors, with those in favour and against women’s degrees expressing their views in polite speeches. But soon the dons’ disagreements became a topic of polarised public debate, and daily newspapers ‘reported each thrust and counter-thrust in a fashion reminiscent of war-reporting’, the historian Rita McWilliams-Tullberg writes. The Times and the Morning Post did not need to give any reasons why women should be excluded from the responsibilities and benefits of the University: it was simply held to be self-evident, as shown by Oxford’s recent refusal to change its statutes. Many former Cambridge students (known as the M.A.s) suspected that giving women degrees would change the fundamental character of the ancient university and be ‘the thin end of the wedge’, leading to further invasions of male-held privilege.

The fact that the Cambridge vote was carefully worded to grant women the titles of degrees, and nothing more, made little difference to men like the Professor of Political Economy, Alfred Marshall. Despite his wife Mary Paley Marshall‘s ongoing teaching commitments at Newnham, and his own support for women’s education twenty years earlier, Marshall now wanted to have no women at Cambridge, and in 1897 he seized the chance to get excitable young men on his side. ‘Some opponents of the College used their influence with the undergraduates, and especially the athletic element,’ the historian Alice Gardner wrote in 1921, and ‘the voice of “sweet reasonableness” was drowned in angry clamour’. The views of undergraduates, athletic or otherwise, were not usually taken into account by their professors, but now male anger became a politically useful tool. Meetings were held and posters and daily flysheets printed and displayed around the town, with inflammatory slogans such as “Down with Girtonites! Non plus the Newnhamites!!”

Many Cambridge men in 1897 – undergraduates and professors, as well as the non-resident M.A.s – had convinced themselves that others were about to ‘steal’ something that rightfully belonged to them. When, in the afternoon of 21 May 1897, it was announced that the move to award women degrees had been defeated by a huge majority, 1,713 votes to 662, the huge roar of male voices could be heard for miles around. ‘Pandemonium broke loose’, the eye-witness recalls, and a hail of fireworks and rotten eggs were thrown at the dons in celebration, and crude effigies of women students were torn down and pulled apart. Students perching on the roof of Newnham College, waiting to hear the news, heard the shouting grow louder and more threatening as a mob ran towards Newnham and attempted to break down the gates of the college. Only the firm words of the Principal, Eleanor Sidgwick, as she and other women staff stood guarding the gates, stopped the men in their tracks.

In May 1897 most of the visible damage was done to property, with boards and shutters torn from shop windows to build a huge bonfire in Market Square. The damage done to the confidence of the women’s colleges was harder to repair. Although everything continued much the same as before, the Newnham and Girton college leaders could not forget the precariousness of their existence, and they became extra-vigilant about their students not giving offence or making any demands. It meant that for many more years the best women teachers, scholars and staff would continue to be excluded from research and participation in Cambridge University, at an ongoing cost to the university for another fifty years.

© Ann Kennedy Smith, January 2022, all rights reserved. Part 2, The women in the photograph, to follow shortly.

Sources

‘Crowds gather…’ : Cambridge University Library (UA Phot. 174/3) https://cudl.lib.cam.ac.uk/view/PH-UA-PHOT-00174-00003/1

Alice Gardner, A Short History of Newnham College Cambridge (1921)

Ann Kennedy Smith, ‘The Road to the Senate House, TLS October 2019: https://www.the-tls.co.uk/articles/road-senate-house-women-cambridge/

Rita McWilliams-Tullberg Women At Cambridge (CUP, 1998)

Gill Sutherland, ‘History of Newnham’, https://newn.cam.ac.uk/about/history/history-of-newnham/

‘The Rising Tide: Women At Cambridge’: https://www.cam.ac.uk/TheRisingTide

‘No Gowns for the Girtonites!’: Cambridge University Library https://cudl.lib.cam.ac.uk/view/PR-UA-01897-POSTER/1