A relentless uphill struggle

Exhibition: The Rising Tide at Cambridge University; reviewed by Professor Catherine Loveday.

As someone whose mother, aunt, grandmother, and two great aunts had all studied at Cambridge, I was intrigued to visit ‘The Rising Tide’ – an exhibition that explores the experience of women at Cambridge. My mum has always spoken of how she was told that ‘every place awarded to a woman is a failed place for a man’, so maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised by some of what I saw. And yet I was.

For example, I had no idea how hard Emily Davies had to fight simply to get women admitted, and I was also oblivious to the fact that it was another 80 years before women were awarded degrees. Cambridge was the last university to concede – in 1948 – despite a very impressive petition of 8000 signatures collected as far back as 1880. Looking at the huge range of professions of the signatories (from coal merchants to school mistresses, and customs officers to ministers), I couldn’t help thinking how much dedication it must have taken to collect so many. A far cry from today’s easy click-on-the-link petitions that most of us are bombarded with on a regular basis!   

The exhibition is housed in a single room and initially looked very modest, but this was deceiving. I spent well over an hour poring over the fascinating stories and artefacts, which were arranged in themes rather than an overall timeline. I loved the ‘Ladder of academic success’ board game designed by Muriel Bradbrook in 1951, and was also particularly struck by an elaborate ankle-length lawn tennis outfit. Like all women’s sports clothing at the time, this was designed to leave no flesh on view for fear that it might distract the men from their studies.

This problem was not confined to the sporting field – the mere presence of a woman in the classroom was deemed immodest and off-putting. In a similar vein, the first female college was located in Hitchen, which was considered near enough for male lecturers to visit from Cambridge but far enough away to avoid accusations of impropriety.  

The relentless uphill struggle for equality was evident in everything from the quality of accommodation to the opportunities afforded and the access to resources. For example, women had no right to access science laboratories until 1923, meaning that the all-female colleges of Girton and Newnham were forced to build their own. I loved the success stories though. Philippa Fawcett, the only candidate to be placed in the first class of the Classics Tripos later outperformed all the men in the Mathematical Tripos. There were also posters of highly successful female scientists including the astronaut, Dr Bonnie Dunbar, and physicist Professor Kathy Sykes.

It is easy to forget how hard women have had to fight for a fair and equal education, but this exhibition left me full of appreciation and gratitude for those that came before me. To see photos of huge groups of men violently rioting in response to the women’s demands is a stark reminder of just how keen they were to protect their exalted status. The last exhibit included information on the gender pay gap over the years, along with systemic improvements, for example the Scientific Practice of Gender Equality. While we clearly still have some way to go, it is inspiring to see the lasting effects of those early pioneers. I was also fascinated to see the impact of wider events such as the absence of men during the world wars.  

My own background has meant that I have sometimes taken women’s academic success for granted, but I emerged with a new respect for how different things must have been for my grandmother and her two sisters, back in the 1920s. I left feeling inspired but also sad that they and so many of their contemporaries were never allowed the degrees they had rightfully earned.

Professor Catherine Loveday is at the University of Westminster, and is Chair of the Psychologist and Digest Editorial Advisory Committee.

For more information on the exhibition, see the excellent website www.cam.ac.uk/TheRisingTide

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