Founded in the late 11th century as a centre for clerical and monastic scholars, Oxford University stood for hundreds of years as a bastion of higher education for privileged young males – an exclusivity that continued well into the 19th century.
One of the first challenges to this cosy enclave came from the Kensington Society, which was formed in London in 1865 by a group of women who, as part of the wider battle for women’s rights, were determined that women should have access to higher education and be eligible for obtaining degrees. Among its members was Dorothea Beale (1831-1906), who became Principal of Cheltenham Ladies College and later founded St Hilda’s College in Oxford as a residential teacher training college.
Dorothea was also a graduate of Queen’s College in Harley Street, London, which was founded in 1848 by theologian Frederick Denison Maurice (1805-1872) and was the first academic institution in the world to award qualifications to women. This pioneering college was an inspiration to members of the Kensington Society, who went on to establish women’s colleges in Oxford and Cambridge.
Oxford was slightly behind its great rival in this respect. Girton and Newnham were founded in Cambridge in 1869 and 1871 respectively, but it was another seven years before Oxford’s first women’s college, Lady Margaret Hall (LMH), was founded for ‘women desirous of availing themselves of the special advantages which Oxford offers for higher education’. This was followed in 1879 by Somerville and St Anne’s, and later by St Hugh’s (1886) and St Hilda’s (1893).
The drive to set up women’s colleges in Oxford was spearheaded by the Association for the Education of Women, which was established in June 1878. The original aim of the AEW was to create a single college for women in Oxford, but the committee failed to agree on whether the college should be Anglican or non-denominational. The result was the creation of two colleges – the Anglican Lady Margaret Hall and the non-denominational Somerville Hall (now College).
In 1879 the AEW also founded the Society of Oxford Home-Students, which gave female students access to lectures and tutorials but had no central site of is own. It was not until 1937 that the society acquired its own site. It changed its name to the St Anne’s Society in 1942, and became St Anne’s College a decade later.
Leading campaigners in the fight for higher education for women in Oxford included Clara Pater (1841-1910), sister of historian and writer Walter Pater; the novelist and social reformer Mary Ward (1851-1920); and Charlotte Green (1842-1929), wife of Balliol College tutor and moral philosopher Thomas Hill Green (1836-1882), who was also a keen advocate of women’s education. Of particular note was author Louise Creighton (1850-1936), who in 1873 formed the Committee of Oxford Lectures for Ladies, the forerunner of the AEW.
Together these ladies paved the way for several women-only halls of residence and increasing access to the full education rights enjoyed by men.
The fight for acceptance
The founding of women’s colleges in Oxford was just the beginning of a long battle. There was heated opposition to the idea of female students among university academics and male undergraduates, who resented this invasion of their exclusive domain. The eminent preacher Dr Henry Liddon, of Christ Church College, complained that the development of women’s education ran ‘counter to the wisdom and experience of all the centuries of Christendom’, while Dean John Burgon, during a sermon at New College in 1884, outrageously declaimed: ‘Inferior to us God made you, and inferior to the end of time you will remain.’
Meanwhile, librettist W.S. Gilbert weighed in with ‘A woman’s college! Maddest folly going!’ – a line from the second act of his 1884 operetta Princess Ida, generally regarded as a satire on the women’s rights movement.
Full acceptance into the university took several decades to achieve. Women were able to attend university lectures and sit exams from the 1870s, but full membership of the university, and the right to be awarded degrees, didn’t come about until 1920. Those who had passed exams before 1920 were able to collect degrees retrospectively, so university records show, rather bizarrely, some women matriculating (i.e. being formally admitted to the university) on one day and then having their degrees conferred on the next. Novelist Dorothy L. Sayers, a graduate of Somerville College, was among those who collected their degrees in this way.
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It was another four decades before women were finally given full equal status with men. The number of female undergraduates was officially limited to a quarter that of males until 1957, and women’s colleges were not given full collegiate status until 1959.
It took even longer for Oxford to embrace the idea of mixed-sex colleges. All the individual colleges remained steadfastly single-sex until 1974, when Brasenose, Jesus, Wadham, Hertford and St Catherine’s led the way in admitting female undergraduates for the first time. Other colleges slowly followed suit, with St Hilda’s College the last to become mixed-sex as recently as 2008.
Adams, Pauline, Somerville for Women: An Oxford College 1879-1993 (OUP, 1996)
Brittain, Vera, The Women at Oxford: A Fragment of History (Harrap, 1960)
Manley, Deborah, Oxford Town Trail: Women in Oxford (Heritage Tours Publications, revised edition 2010)