Women permitted at Oxford University
A glance at the story of the admittance of women to higher education in this country is a sharp reminder that we should not take what we see as equality in our own times for granted: that equality we have established is still partial, was very hard fought, and only gradually won.
Women got a toehold at Cambridge before Oxford, Girton being established in 1869, whereas Oxford had to wait another six years for Somerville and Lady Margaret Hall. These colleges were tolerated but not officially recognised. Special examinations for women had been set up for use outside the University of Oxford itself in 1875, and these had been embraced by female candidates living in the city using private tuition officially unconnected with the colleges.
Women had enormous prejudice to contend with in seeking to study: the famous paper “Sex in Mind and Education,” by Henry Maudsley put forward the idea that women’s brains could not cope with the higher thought required and would suffer in the attempt, arguing that their menstrual cycle was an insurmountable barrier to sustained intellectual effort. Even some of the women involved in promoting higher education for their sex gave credence to this theory.
But gradually things were changed, and by 1881 in Cambridge and 1884 in Oxford women were at last admitted to the same examinations as men, though initially at Oxford this was only in history, mathematics and natural sciences. Shamefully, stupidly and unbelievably however the women who succeeded in their final examinations thus becoming graduands were not allowed to receive their degrees in order to become graduates.
If this seems like distant history, it should be remembered that it was only in 1959 that Oxford’s five (one-time) women only colleges were finally given full collegiate status within the university.
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