Open Cambridge: Women’s education and their literary heritage

natacha-and-louise-blogThe 24 students at Downing College in the University of Cambridge spent their first weekend of the semester at the university and city-wide event called Open Cambridge. Open Cambridge is organized each year at the beginning of September, and participants have the chance to explore the many colleges within the University of Cambridge, and also the town and different aspects of its endless charm. Two of the students, Natacha Crémel and Louise Walryck, attended a lecture on the heritage of women’s education at Newnham College. Here, they share with us some of the historic knowledge they gained during their visit.


The first two buildings built in Newnham College

What has been the role of Newnham College in the evolution of women’s education in Cambridge?

In July 1998, the prestigious University of Cambridge finally recognized women’s achievements by inviting more than 900 women who graduated from Girton College and Newham up to 1948 to receive their certificate in the Senate House.

The historic evolution of women’s position

Before the 1880s, the women’s position in England regarding education and professional skills was barely existent. Two key events allowed women to slowly make the society aware of their potential: the creation of the Cambridge Local Examinations to Women in 1863 and the creation of the first college for women in 1869, which was located first close to Hitchin but moved to the current campus of Girton. Furthermore, a residence for women was opened in the 1870s which is now known under the name of Newnham College.

Even if a college was created especially for women in Cambridge, it was not directly linked to the prestigious university. The first time women were allowed to participate in an examination was in the 1880s but only in certain subjects such as mathematics. And what a surprise to learn that until 1948, even if women passed examinations, they didn’t receive any degree! Lectures of the University which were opened up to women were also the exception, not the rule.

Men strongly opposed the move. The first time was in 1897, when a possible evolution was at stake, they caused riots during the first vote. Women were denied another time during a second vote in 1921. While they were settled to finally receive their degrees, some men who belonged to the University of Cambridge destroyed with a handcart the entry gates of Newnham College.

Hopefully, third time lucky, in 1948, women were recognized as true memberships of the University of Cambridge including their competences and their degrees.

Who is Henry Sidgwick?

Henry Sidgwick (1838-1900) was a fellow of Trinity College who played an important role in the evolution of women’s situation. Indeed, when the first lectures were opened up to women in 1870, as a lecturer, Mr. Sidgwick bought a residence on Regent Street to host women. Then, he met Anne Clough, the director of the Lake District’s school and, with her help, he transformed the residence into a little boarding school specifically for women.

However, there was an increasing number of educated women who wanted to benefit from this revolution. The partisans of this change formed several associations in order to raise funds and find new buildings to host the women. Thus, Newnham Hall opened in 1875 and became the first building of the famous Newnham College, located close to the “Sidgwick Avenue”.

What is the history of Newnham College?


newnham Hall : a luminous room where students can have lunch or dinner

After Newnham Hall was erected, the other parts of the college were built in stages because the associations didn’t have lots of money. Also, three new buildings were erected until 1914: new rooms for the lessons, a laboratory and a library. During all this period, Basil Champneys was the only architect working on the site which explains the unity of the architecture.

This college has also some particularities. First, this is the oldest college run exclusively by women, for women. Then, the architects used corridors rather than courts to link the several parts of the buildings. The reason will certainly make you smile; it was a request of the ladies who wanted to avoid the wind or the rain. Thirdly, women have the right to walk on the grass whereas it seems like a sacrilege in the other colleges of the University of Cambridge. Finally, the library can be seen as a particularity, with a rather interesting history and architecture.


A group of attendees at the Open Cambridge lecture

Newnham College library:


A view of inside the library

“Newnham College Library is one of the best-stocked college libraries in Cambridge, with a strong collection of some 90,000 volumes, including approximately 6,000 rare books”[i]. By visiting the library, you will discover many treasures and a fantastic working place, haunted by the ghosts of Virginia Woolf or Rosalind Franklin. You can also enjoy the collection of rare books given by Henry Sidgwick as a donation when the library was founded. Without doubt, you will be amazed by the face molding of the French philosopher Pascal too!

Today, this place of history and women’s legacy houses the works of previous female students, now famous thanks to their achievement and not due to their gender, such as Emma Thompson, Lisa Jardine or Dorothy Hodgkin.

(By Natacha Crémel and Louise Walryck)




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