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UNIVERSITY LIBRARY - Dr Lucy Delap and Dr Ben Griffin


Dr Lucy Delap, Reader in Modern British and Gender History, and Dr Ben Griffin, Lecturer in Modern British History

In 1912, the Ladies Committee of the Cambridge University Music Society (CUMS) started a mini revolution. They had put forward a women’s suffrage resolution to the Society earlier in the year, which the minutes record, ‘met with a somewhat chilly reception.’ By the end of the year, the Ladies Committee protested that ‘their functions were so ill-defined and were necessarily so restricted that there seemed no need for such a committee to exist.’ They voted to dissolve themselves, and thus force women onto the core CUMS executive. These tensions, and women’s canny strategies of subversion, illustrate the determination of Cambridge University women to force change, as well as the obstacles they faced.

Unable to gain full degrees until 1948, and with numbers officially restricted until 1987, Cambridge was the slowest university in Britain to incorporate women as students. Cambridge women, however, had long contested their exclusion. 2019 sees a range of anniversaries of women’s campaigning – 150 years since the founding of Girton as Cambridge’s first women’s college; 100 years since the Sex Discrimination (Removal) Act made it possible to admit women to degrees (though it took Cambridge another 29 years to act); 20 years since the Athena Project and Women in Science, Engineering and Technology Initiative set out to find out why so few women were thriving in STEM subjects.

In Michaelmas 2019, the University Library will host an exhibition, The Rising Tide: Women at Cambridge University, to mark the experiences of women. The exhibition spans women students, lecturers, bedmakers, secretaries, heads of colleges, gardeners, librarians and many other roles. The 2019 Festival of Ideas includes events that celebrate women’s contributions within the university, ask why change was so slow, and showcase today’s campaigns.