The History of the College
Results but no degrees
Many young women in mid-nineteenth century England had no access to
the kind of formal secondary schooling which would have enabled them to go straight into
the same university courses as the young men - Anne Jemima Clough herself was never a pupil
in a school. So Newnham's founders allowed the young women to work at and to a level which
suited their attainments and abilities. Some of them, with an extra year's preparation, did
indeed go on to degree-level work. And as girls' secondary schools were founded in the last
quarter of the nineteenth century, staffed often by those who had been to the women's
colleges of Cambridge, Oxford and London, the situation began to change. In 1890 the
Newnham student Philippa Fawcett was ranked above the Senior Wrangler i.e. top in the
Mathematical Tripos. By the first world war the vast majority of Newnham
students were going straight into degree level courses.
In tailoring the curriculum to the students Newnham found itself at odds with the other
Cambridge college for women, Girton, founded at the same time. Emily Davies, Girton's
founder, believed passionately that equality could only be expressed by women doing the
same courses as the men, on the same time-table. This meant that Girton attracted a much
smaller population in its early years. But the Newnham Council held its ground, reinforced
by the commitment of many of its members to educational reform generally and a wish to
change some of the courses Cambridge was offering to its men.
The University as an institution at first took no notice of these women and arrangements to sit examinations had to be negotiated with each examiner individually. In 1881, however, a general permission was negotiated. The next step was to try to secure for the women the titles of their degrees, not just a certificate from their colleges. A first attempt was rebuffed in 1887 and a second try in 1897 went down to even more spectacular defeat. Undergraduates demonstrating against the women and their supporters did hundreds of pounds worth of damage in the market square.
Last updated: 10 September 2004