International Womens Day: Pioneering Women Who Studied At Cambridge

The History of Women at Cambridge

The 8th of March is International Womens Day, and what better way to celebrate then by looking at the pioneering women who studied at Cambridge.

The road to gender equality at Cambridge University was a bumpy one to say the least. It took women over 50 years of campaigning to get awarded degrees. During this time, riots took place, women were only allowed in the library for a certain number of hours a day, women had to get permission to go to lectures and often had to have a chaperone.

The prejudices against women stemmed from questions over a womens intellectual character prompting the argument ‘do women actually have the intellectual power to study at Cambridge?’.

As we know now, not just from the achievements of Cambridge’s incredible female graduates, but from quite simply just common sense, women certainly have the intellectual power to study at Cambridge. Frankly, there should never be a debate about someone’s right to education.

You can learn the history of Cambridge University in more detail during one of our punting tours. Our chauffeured 50-minute tours take you past seven colleges and nine bridges, including Magdalene College, the last Cambridge college to admit women.

A Brief History

16th of October 1869- Emily Davis establishes Girton College, the first Cambridge college to except women and the first university college in England to accept women.

A female effery hanging from the first floor of what is now the Cambridge University Bookshop. Credit: Cambridge University

21st of May 1897- Cambridge University held a poll to decide whether women would be granted full degrees from the university. Even though women had been attending lectures at Cambridge and taking exams for over 20 years, they weren’t allowed to obtain a degree. The suggestion caused a riot, with men burning female effergies. The notion was subsequently defeated by 1713 votes to 662, much to the delight of the men.

27th of April 1948- Women were finally admitted a full membership to the University of Cambridge, i.e. they could now be awarded a degree. The first was given to the Queen Mother as an honorary degree. Cambridge was the last university in England to give degrees to women.

1988- Magdalene College, known for its ‘traditional’ values, was the last Cambridge college to admit women. Shockingly even just 35 years ago, male students donned black armbands, held a protest with a coffin, referring to the event as the ‘death of education’ and flew the college flag at half mast whilst staging a funeral. Ironically the admission of women raised the grade average by 15%.

1998- A graduation ceremony was held for all the women who had completed their degrees before 1948. Over 900 women attended.

2019-  Sonita Alleyne became the 41st college master of Jesus College, the first since its establishment in 1496. In 2019 15 of the 31 colleges are headed by women.

Sonita Alleyne, the first women president of Jesus College. Credit: Nick Saffell

Pioneering Women- International Womens Day

Gloria Cumper (nee Carpenter) 1922-1995

The Jamaican barrister, educationalist and social reformer was the first black women to study at Cambridge (1945) and the first black female law graduate in the UK. She studied and MA in Law at Girton College.

Philippa Fawcett (1868-1948)

The English mathematician was the first women to obtain a top score in the Cambridge Mathematical Tripos in 1890. Her score was 13% higher than the second highest. Afterwards, she became a lecturer at Newnham College, which her mother co-founded.

Baroness Brenda Hale. Credit: The Mistress and Fellows, Girton College, Cambridge

Brenda Hale (b. 1945)

The former law student at Girton College became the first female president of the British Supreme Court in 2017. Prior to this she was the first woman to be appointed as Lord of Appeal in Ordinary in the House of Lords. She is one of four women to have been appointed to the Supreme Court.


Dorothy Hodgkin. Credit: Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery

Dorothy Hodgkin (1910-1994)

The chemist won the 1964 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, she is the only British woman to win a prize in the Nobel’s science categories. She has a plethora of discoveries under her belt including, determining the structure of insulin, solving the structure of penicillin and most notably advancing the technique of x-ray crystallography.


Priyanka Joshi 

The biochemist has produced groundbreaking Alzheimer’s research in finding drug-like molecules that target degenerative brain diseases.


Mary Paley Marshall (1850-1944)

The scientist was awarded a scholarship in 1871 to become one of the first five students at Newnham College. Although women were’t able to attain degrees until 1948, in 1974 she was one of the first two women to sit the Moral Science Tripos. Ironically, Mary’s husband was very opposed to women getting an education and actively protested against mixed universities.



Posted on March 8th, 2023, by the Traditional Punting Company Editor