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Saturday, July 4, 1998 Published at 12:17 GMT 13:17 UK


Cambridge women return for their rights

Newnham College: host to a graduation postponed by 50 years

Women who sat their final exams at Cambridge University more than half a century ago have finally received their full degrees.

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

More than 400 former Cambridge women students returned to Newnham College for a celebration and the long-delayed graduation.

They travelled from as far afield as Indonesia, Israel, New Zealand and Zimbabwe to take part.


[ image: Cambridge in the 30s: most colleges were for men only]
Cambridge in the 30s: most colleges were for men only
Professor Sir Alec Broers, the University's vice-chancellor, told the former students: "It is difficult today to understand why previous generations made reform so gradual, no matter how inevitable it now looks in principle, and no matter how such partial change seems to us indefensible intellectually.

"One has only to look at the lives led by the women whom we honour here today to see that they did not let themselves be daunted by recurrent refusals to recognise their academic achievements."

He also said that even today not enough women are reaching senior academic ranks at the university.

'Different brains'

[ image: Whetham: Cambridge was a
Whetham: Cambridge was a "man's club"
Pre-war student Edith Whetham said: "It was a man's university and very much a man's club. They definitely didn't want that atmosphere disturbed."

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.

Helen Fowler, who studied English at Newnham and afterwards became a wartime intelligence officer, said: "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."

[ image: Fowler: Cambridge men were afraid of clever women]
Fowler: Cambridge men were afraid of clever women
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.

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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