How education has changed! There was a time when women only made up only 10% of the student body at tertiary institutions in Britain. Although women often aspired to professional careers most women were expected to teach or take secretarial classes after graduation and many employers were reluctant to take women and some even refused to accept them for employment if they were married.
Positions for women at universities were thus rare and were of course privileges that few got to enjoy. This small percentage of women found great freedom intellectually, but socially they were still carefully supervised – they could only visit a male with a suitable chaperone who would’ve been vetted by the college authorities.
In 1882 it was decided that women who completed their course would receive a certificate but would not be awarded the title of a degree. It took almost 50 years before they were allowed to actually receive a degree, but of course the certificate was different to the one the men received. The ladies were also not allowed to participate in graduation or any other university ceremonies; they were not allowed to wear academic gowns and were not given the opportunity to sit on any of the university’s governing bodies.
The University of Cambridge had in fact considered full female membership in 1897. The women would be awarded a B.Tit – a titular degree. This would be a degree in title only and the ladies would not enjoy the privileges of the qualification. This proposal was rejected and the Cambridge authorities reported that this vote was the largest “ever taken upon an academic subject with the history of the University”.
But that same year, all other British universities started to accept female students as equals in all aspects of university life (except Oxford and Cambridge). Seven years later Trinity College Dublin opened its doors to women for the first time.
It took Oxford University another 15 years to admit women, and a further 2 years before a Grace was passed at Cambridge admitting women to study as well as take up positions as lecturers.
Over the next 10 years and into the 1930s, female students made up a quarter of the student body at universities in England, except, Oxford and Cambridge, where females only made up 10% of the student numbers.
Finally in 1948, women were given full membership to study at the University of Cambridge, and they were given the opportunity to upgrade their degrees to full status. Many did so with pride and pleasure!