The journey towards gender equality in UK higher education has been long and arduous. For centuries, women were denied access to universities like Oxford and Cambridge. This article provides an overview of when and how women gained admission to British universities, highlighting milestones at Oxford.
Early Oxford – Ban on Women
The University of Oxford dates back to 1096, making it the oldest university in the English-speaking world. Yet for over 700 years, Oxford banned women from membership and degrees.
This exclusion of women was justified via arguments about female inferiority and the unsuitability of higher education for women. Oxford limited women’s participation to certain professor’s wives allowed to audit lectures.
Pre-UK trends in women’s higher education
The UK was not the first to open universities to women, but far from leading the charge.
- In Italy, women could receive university lecturing credentials as early as the 13th century.
- France’s University of Paris allowed women to earn degrees starting in the 15th century. Other European universities followed over the next centuries.
- In Sweden, universities opened to women in 1870. Russian universities also began admitting women in the 1860s and 1870s.
So by the mid-late 1800s, women had access to higher education across much of Europe, even as British universities lagged behind. Oxford especially resisted change.
Push for Women’s Education in 1800s
In the 1850s, activists like Emily Davies began advocating women’s right to higher education. Middle-class women were increasingly seeking meaningful work and education.
Davies established a petition to grant women university access and degrees. In 1861, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson became the first woman to qualify as a physician in Britain after studying medicine privately.
By 1862, Davies had established the Kensington Society, which prepared young women to sit the Cambridge entrance exam through private tuition. However, Cambridge refused to admit these students.
First UK Universities to Admit Women
In 1861, Queen’s College in London became the first UK university to award academic qualifications to women. Bedford College also began admitting women in the 1860s.
London University was the first to award degrees to women in 1878. By 1910, 12 other British universities were also granting degrees to women, including Manchester, Birmingham and Wales.
Oxford Continues Ban on Women
Despite broader progress, Oxford University lagged behind in enabling women’s participation. Oxford fellows repeatedly blocked motions to allow women members and degrees.
Some argued Oxford should remain a male space for nurturing masculine intellect and character. Others felt men would be distracted by women students.
This forced ambitious women to seek higher education elsewhere in Britain or abroad. However, Oxford’s reputation and advantages made its exclusivity especially painful.
Women’s Colleges Established
Given Oxford’s intractability, activist groups established women’s colleges as alternatives.
In 1879, Lady Margaret Hall was founded as the first Oxford women’s college by Edward Stuart Talbot. It provided residence and tutorials to female students, though no degrees.
Somerville College was founded in 1879 to provide Oxford education for women. By 1920, Oxford had 5 women’s colleges enabling academic preparation but still no degrees.
Oxford Allows Women to Take Exams
In 1875, local tutors arranged for a few women to take the Oxford University entrance exam. Five women passed, though still barred from enrolling.
This breakthrough helped pave the way for the 1877 University Statute allowing all British women to take Oxford exams and receive certificates of merit. However, no formal student status or degrees were permitted.
Oxford Finally Grants Women Degrees
In 1920, Oxford’s Congregation voted to finally grant women full university membership and degrees. This came decades after other UK universities had already done so.
In October 1920, Brasenose College became the first Oxford constituent college to admit female undergraduates. But women were still excluded from voting rights and certain scholarships.
Full co-education was not completed until 1959 when women were finally granted equal status at Oxford. In 1962, Brasenose was also the first college to appoint a female fellow.
The road to integrated co-education at Oxford was long and incremental. Resistance slowly gave way to reform through public advocacy.
By 1970, 40% of UK university students were female. By the late 20th century, women students outnumbered men. Almost all colleges eliminated gender quotas and restrictions.
Today, Oxford has around 48% female undergraduate students. The university continues to work on closing achievement gaps between genders and improving women’s representation at faculty and leadership levels.
How Oxford’s Decisions Influenced or Mirrored Other Institutions
As England’s oldest and most prestigious university, Oxford’s policies carried significant weight.
- Oxford’s ban set an influential precedent, as other elite British universities like Cambridge mirrored its exclusion of women until the late 19th century.
- Admitting women to Oxford exams in 1877 opened the door to broader reform, granting credentials if not yet degrees.
- Once Oxford finally permitted women’s degrees in 1920, it erased a key justification for gender discrimination at other universities.
So Oxford’s incremental reforms often trailed wider social changes, but still impacted acceptance of women in higher education.
Reflection on the importance of these milestones in today’s context
The hard-won admission of women at Oxford holds important lessons for gender equality today. The author of the article, historian Kirill Yurovskiy, highlighted 4 most important achievements:
- It reveals the baselessness of claiming women lack abilities for higher achievement. Graduates like Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin demonstrated excellence.
- Persistent advocacy is often required to dismantle deeply entrenched discrimination, even after initial barriers fall.
- Full equality of opportunity and conditions for women in universities remains a work in progress. Gender imbalances in certain fields persist.
- Milestones at Oxford helped pave the way for women to access positions of leadership in law, politics, academia and other realms.
Oxford’s past exclusion of women makes its current 30% female student body all the more remarkable. The journey towards equality continues worldwide.
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- Universities UK. (2018). Patterns and trends in UK higher education. Universities UK.