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Friday, July 3, 1998 Published at 18:39 GMT 19:39 UK


Cambridge women return for their rights

Newnham College will host a graduation postponed by 50 years

Women who sat their final exams at Cambridge University more than 50 years ago will finally get their full degrees.

Until 1948, women students took the same degree courses and sat the exams as men, but were not allowed to take part in the graduation ceremonies and only received what were known as a "titular" degrees.

[ image: Thirties Cambridge: most colleges were men only and women were barred from full degrees]
Thirties Cambridge: most colleges were men only and women were barred from full degrees
On Saturday more than 400 former Cambridge women students will return to Newnham College for a celebration and long-delayed graduation.

"It was a man's university and very much a man's club. They definitely didn't want that atmosphere disturbed," said pre-war student Edith Whetham who will be attending the reunion.

But such were the prevailing attitudes, she recalls, that women undergraduates were not resentful about the discrimination. "It didn't occur to us," she said.

[ image: Cambridge was a
Cambridge was a "man's club", remembers Edith Whetham
Helen Fowler, who studied English at Newnham and afterwards became a wartime intelligence officer, said that "At the time there were all kinds of theories saying that women were incapable of learning, that they had different kinds of brains from men."

Such attitudes, she suspected, were prompted by "the fear that if women became too clever they wouldn't become good mothers or mothers at all".

The recognition of the efforts of earlier generations of women students has generated much interest among the current undergraduates at Newnham College. "If it wasn't for their struggles we wouldn't be here," said Flora Gathorne-Hardy.

[ image: Helen Fowler believes that Cambridge men were afraid of clever women]
Helen Fowler believes that Cambridge men were afraid of clever women
Women were first admitted to the University of Cambridge in 1869, but without the full rights accorded to male students. Votes in 1897 and 1921 went against proposals to give women the same status as men.

The granting of equal academic status was followed in 1948 by the presenting of the then Queen Elizabeth with the first honorary degree for a woman.

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