In June 1958, plans were under way to build a new Cambridge college. It would be a memorial to Sir Winston Churchill, and promote teaching and research in science and technology. A campaigning group called the Women’s Freedom League wrote to Churchill directly with a proposal (“you may regard as revolutionary”) that he use his considerable influence to make it Cambridge’s first coeducational college. “You already know that great efforts are being made in all schools and colleges to increase the number of women scientists.” Churchill, 83, thought this sounded like a perfectly sensible suggestion. “I see no reason why women should not participate,” he told his friend, the civil servant Sir John Colville. But Colville, in charge of raising funds for the proposed college, was convinced that donors in British industry would withdraw their support if they heard that Churchill College was planning to admit female students. It would be, he told Churchill, “like dropping a hydrogen bomb in the middle of the University.”
Although women had finally won the right to Cambridge degrees in 1948, they were still very far from being represented equally at the University in the 1950s. Numbers were capped, and for every eleven males there was just one female student: Cambridge still had the lowest proportion of female undergraduates of any university in the UK. To help correct this, a third “foundation” for women students, originally called New Hall, was established in 1954, with just sixteen students in a house on Silver Street. In 1962 New Hall moved to its permanent home on Huntingdon Road, thanks to the generosity of Ida and Horace Darwin’s daughters, Ruth Rees Thomas and Nora Barlow who donated their former family home The Orchard and its grounds so that a college for 300 students could be built. The house had to be knocked down, and most of what Gwen Raverat described in Period Piece as Ida’s “poet’s garden” disappeared beneath the rubble, but it allowed this much-needed third college for women to come into existence, and Ida surely would have approved. The gardens of Murray Edwards College (as it is now called) are still imaginative and beautiful.
Churchill’s 1958 letter to Colville (on loan from the Churchill Archives Centre) is just one of the many fascinating items on display in the new exhibition, “The Rising Tide: Women at Cambridge” at the University Library, which uses letters, costumes and audio-visual material to tell the story of 150 years of women at Cambridge. Today, all the formerly male colleges are fully coeducational, and Churchill College’s website boasts that it was “in the vanguard of dramatically expanding female participation in Cambridge University” as the first college to vote to admit women in 1972 (the same year that King’s and Clare also became coeducational). In her excellent independent blog, the current Master, Professor Dame Athene Donald (the first woman to hold this post at Churchill College) asks “How many ‘Firsts’ does it take to change a system?’. She makes the point that, although in 2019 there is gender equality across the University in terms of students, women still hold only 20% of the professorships. “I am pleased to be part of the advancement of women in Cambridge”, Donald writes. “I am not pleased it is still so far from complete. Everyone – most definitely including male leaders – have a part to play in making the progression speed up.” One positive recent development is that out of Cambridge’s 31 colleges, there are now 15 female Heads of House, including the new Master of Jesus College, Sonita Alleyne, the first person of colour to head any college in Oxford or Cambridge. Hers is one of the 27 luminous portraits currently on view in the University Library’s Royal Corridor.
The “Rising Tide” curators Dr Lucy Delap and Dr Ben Griffin plan to add more archival items over the six months of the exhibition, which they describe as “a work in progress” – much like women at Cambridge, in fact. Professor Athene Donald will be speaking at the event closing the exhibition in March 2020, and my own talk “A club of their own: Cambridge women’s societies and associations 1883-1914” is on 5 December 2019 (tickets are free, but you’ll need to book here). And if you are in Cambridge visiting “The Rising Tide”, do go to Murray Edwards College to see the outstanding paintings and sculptures on view there; one of the world’s largest and most significant collections of contemporary art by women.