One hundred and fifty years since the first women were allowed to study at the University of Cambridge, Cambridge University Library will be sharing the unique stories of women who have studied, taught, worked and lived at the University, in its new exhibition The Rising Tide: Women at Cambridge.  

From the founding of the first women’s college to the present day, the experience of women at Cambridge has differed greatly from their male counterparts.

Lucy Delap

Opening to the public on Monday 14 October, and curated by Dr Lucy Delap and Dr Ben Griffin, the exhibition will focus on the lived experiences of women at the University, the ongoing fight for equal educational rights, recognition, and inclusion in university activities, and the careers of some of the women who shaped the institution – from leading academics to extraordinary domestic staff and influential fellows’ wives.

The exhibition will showcase the history of women at the University, the persistent marginalisation they were subject to, and the ongoing campaigns for gender justice and change since the establishment of Girton College in Cambridge in 1869, the first residential university establishment for women in the UK. Visitors will have the opportunity to explore rarely seen collections from across the University and colleges. Through a mix of costume, letters and audio-visual material, the fascinating and little-known stories of individual women will be illustrated.

Dr Lucy Delap, exhibition co-curator and Fellow of Murray Edwards College, said: “From the founding of the first women’s college to the present day, the experience of women at Cambridge has differed greatly from their male counterparts.

"Though Girton College was established especially to give women the opportunity to study at the University, there were still many barriers that women faced – the first female students were required to ask permission to attend lectures, were not allowed to take exams without special permission, and usually had to be accompanied by chaperones in public until after the First World War. It was still not until 1948 that Cambridge began to offer degrees to women – the last of the big institutions in the UK to do so.

“Through The Rising Tide we hope to illustrate an all-encompassing picture of the incredible fight for gender equality within the University, while portraying the fascinating journeys of some of the militant, cussed and determined women of our institution too.”

Visitors to the exhibition will learn of the deep opposition and oppression women faced, including the efforts made to keep women out of student societies, the organised campaigns to stop women getting degrees, and the hostility faced by women trying to establish careers as academics. Surviving fragments of eggshells and fireworks illustrate the violent opposition to giving women degrees during the vote on the subject in 1897, as does the note written by undergraduates apologising for the damage that had been done to Newnham College during the riot of 1921.

The exhibition will also reveal the creativity and courage of the women who defiantly resisted such opposition to establish lives and careers within the University. Resistance included: the signing of the 400 page petition demanding women’s degrees in 1880, which will be displayed over the walls of the exhibition; setting up new student societies for women; and finding opportunities for women to lecture.

Sometimes, resistance meant finding ways of avoiding the rules that discriminated against women – between 1904 and 1907, Trinity College Dublin offered women from Newnham and Girton the opportunity to travel to Dublin to graduate officially and receive a full degree. The robes of one of the graduates, which have been stored for many decades, will be displayed in the Women at Cambridge exhibition.

Dr Ben Griffin, exhibition co-curator and Lecturer in Modern British History at Girton College, added: “By telling the story of women at Cambridge, this exhibition also tells the story of how a nineteenth-century institution, which served mainly to educate young men for careers in the church, transformed itself into a recognisably modern university devoted to teaching and research.”

The Rising Tide is a culmination of exhibitions, events and displays exploring the past, present and future of women at the University of Cambridge. Curated by Cambridge University Library in collaboration with students and staff, the events programme, pop-up exhibitions and displays will run at the Library and across the city. Women at Cambridge is the centre-piece of the programme and will launch on Monday 14 October, and run until March 2020. Entry is free.

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