In their quest to open up the professions to women, the earliest pioneers found themselves up against a barrier of seemingly insurmountable stature: the ideological denial of a woman’s access to education. It is hard to believe that women were not accepted into Cambridge, one of the world’s most heralded academic institutions, on an equal basis to men until 1948. At Oxford, the arrival of women at Christ Church College was met with disdain, with the quip ‘A Woman’s Place is in the Home, not the House’ a popular one amongst the male students; testaments make clear that it was used maliciously, without a shred of the ‘irony’ that is often used to disguise more contemporary instances of sexism. And this was in 1980.
The fight for equal education began with the coming together of a group of likeminded, privileged women, Emily Davies and Elizabeth and Millicent Garrett, who decided that they themselves would have to do something about the problems facing women that they so often discussed. Calling themselves ‘the Langham Place group’ (after the Langham place headquarters of the English Women’s Journal) their primary aims were the enfranchisement of women, and the opening up of the professions. They soon came to realise that they could not force the door to their goals, and instead would have to pick the lock, the modus operandi for this undertaking being the acquisition of an equal education for women.
Emily Davies set up Girton College in 1869, with the help of Barbara Bodichon and Lady Stanley of Alderley. Davies was resolved not to teach a curriculum deliberately tailored to the perceived abilities (or lack thereof) of women, believing that this would concede inferiority. Despite this championing of educational equality, the premises of Girton were deliberately chosen for their distance from Cambridge, discouraging the mixing of the sexes. Newnham College, whose inception closely followed, seemed to hold opposite values; although it was situated in the town of Cambridge, its curriculum was very much tailored specifically to women. This paradigmatic opposition created a tension between the two colleges, with Girtonians believing themselves to be academically superior.
Given that these colleges were set up in the Victorian era, it is hard to believe that those women who attended them were not awarded their degrees for close to a century, with two world wars and 17 Prime Ministers in between these two landmarks. In 1948, women at Cambridge were finally granted degrees on an equal basis to men. Oxford was slightly ahead in this respect, allowing women to be full members of the University by 1920. However, the number of students coming through their women’s colleges was relatively small: by the time Somerville and Lady Margaret Colleges opened with twelve and nine students respectively, 300 women had already completed their Cambridge education.
In London, the attitude towards education seemed to be somewhat more forward-thinking, with the University of London opening its degrees to women on an equal basis as men in 1878. Its lack of residential requirement for pupils meant that many female Oxford and Cambridge ‘graduates’ took examinations there in order to gain the degree that they were owed. By 1900, 30% of graduates from the University of London were women – a startling statistic given the ideological climate of higher education at the time.
In terms of the legal profession, this created a new problem. Women were allowed to attend university, and may have passed their law examinations with flying colours, but were still prohibited from sitting the Law Society exams. It was only with the 1919 Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act that women were finally allowed to utilise their education, and to pursue a legal career. Without the vision of the Langham Place group, and the subsequent accomplishments of those women who had been educated within this vision, perhaps the struggle would have gone on far longer.