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Two Steps Forward, One Step Back:

A Brief History of Single-Sex Colleges at
Cambridge (1871-2021)

By Sophie Watson

Late last year, The Cambridge Tab published an article entitled “Women’s Colleges Are Not Feminist Projects.” Written by an anonymous trans student who attends a women’s college, it argues that women’s colleges should become “a thing of the past.” Both Newnham and Murray Edwards, the last two single-sex colleges in Cambridge, have formal policies regarding the wellbeing and access of trans and non-binary students: Murray Edwards admits “any student who identifies as female,” while Newnham supports female students identifying as men either to move to a mixed-college or to stay where they are, just as they prefer. Both colleges have roles for trans and non-binary representatives on their student councils, and at Newnham we don’t even have a women’s officer anymore - we have a women’s and non-binary officer, since women famously lack any specific needs of our own. Our student council is also pressuring the college to switch to a policy of self-ID which would permit males to study at the college without so much as a Gender Recognition Certificate, for the first time in its century and a half of history.


None of this is sufficient for the article’s author, who - having chosen to attend a women’s college - apparently feels “unsafe” there. This seems to be down to the fact that its existence “reinforces the idea that gender is a fixed, visibly legible, ‘natural’ category” rather than because they have ever actually been placed at risk. To be fair to them, they are forced to deal with such torments on a daily basis as Facebook posts celebrating the “Medwards girls” (“where’s the love for the Medwards boys and non-binary people?”, they unironically repine.) Their arguments against women’s colleges include some old chestnuts, like the idea that single-sex spaces are equivalent to race segregation; and some new, truly tortured bits of logic, like the claim that women’s colleges are regressive simply because they are assumed to be progressive, and consequently get complacent. The idea that the whole university is problematic (having been set up by “powerful white men”) and so women’s colleges are problematic by association also gets an honorary mention.


Perhaps most baffling is their response to what they identify as the main argument in favour of women’s colleges: that they are a space in which women can live and study, free of sexism and/or fear of violence at men’s hands. They say they understand why this is appealing. They even concede that female students experiencing trauma as a result of male violence may benefit from the “strategic exclusion” of “cisgender” men in some very limited therapeutic contexts. But it is apparently inconceivable that such students might also benefit from not having men in the spaces where they eat, drink, sleep, study and live. Or perhaps that just doesn’t count for very much, compared to the possibility that a man might feel hurt by being “excluded.” A few paragraphs later, the author is arguing that women’s colleges contribute to the university’s “institutional failure” to address sexual misconduct on campus. Providing spaces where women can exist and organise, free of male violence and expectations, is a “stopgap,” apparently. Furthermore, women’s colleges are repressive institutions which are “antithetical to the feminist goals of liberation.”


I came to Newnham to read Psychological and Behavioural Sciences in 2018. I didn’t apply because I was traumatised and couldn’t stand the presence of men - since leaving home at seventeen, I have lived in several rather chaotic places, all of which had mixed accommodation. So - while it is indescribably nice to live somewhere where there is no chance of my landlady’s son waltzing into the room as I try to undress, or bumping into one of my housemate’s friends (out on day release from the local prison) on the stairs as I come back from having a bath - it isn’t an imperative of mine to avoid men. I have brothers; and, as surprising as this may seem, I have sometimes missed them enough to yearn for more male company in my three years at Cambridge. But I have never regretted applying to Newnham. I applied here not to avoid men, but to be part of something created by women. I have been reminding myself of that this morning, while trying to decide what I wanted to say to you in this blogpost. I’ve been reading about my college’s history, in a little blue book I was given at my matriculation. It tells Newnham’s story in photographs, 150 years of it, crowding the pages of a sleek little volume that almost fits into the palm of my hand. 


Newnham wasn’t established in order to exclude anyone. It was established in order to meet the needs of a class of people who were already excluded. In 1871, thriving British suffragette movement notwithstanding, women had very few of the rights under law which men already took for granted. Many of the young women who arrived at Cambridge to study had never had any kind of formal schooling before. The women who founded Newnham (and the men who helped them) did so in the belief that this was not an inevitable state of affairs, and that given enough preparation and support their female students were entirely capable of succeeding at degree-level work. In 1890, Philippa Fawcett outclassed every male student in the Mathematics Tripos when (sitting the examinations despite not having the right to be awarded a degree) she was ranked above the Senior Wrangler.


If you are reading this blogpost, you will likely already be aware that women’s right to single-sex spaces of all kinds (not just colleges) is under attack. The vitriol of these attacks makes them initially very startling, but they begin to make sense once placed in the proper historical context. In 1897, the University Senate voted on the question of whether female students (just about tolerated to attend lectures and sit examinations) should be awarded degrees and allowed full membership of the university. There is a photograph in my book, taken from above Market Square, of hundreds of male undergraduates protesting outside the building while the Senate deliberated - the familiar pavements have been transformed into a roiling, angry sea of gentlemen’s hats. When the motion was voted down, they celebrated by letting off fireworks and doing thousands of pounds of criminal damage. A few decades later in 1921, a similar motion was proposed and defeated. This time, male undergraduates celebrated their victory by storming Newnham’s gates and attempting to batter them down with a handcart. Blanche Athena Clough (then principal of the college) stood alone on the other side, facing the jeering men down.


There have always been men who try to destroy that which women create for themselves. The difference today, exactly a hundred years after the storming of Clough Gates, is that they have convinced some women to help them. The author of the Tab article summarised above writes that “all [women’s colleges] do is put women atop the hierarchy instead of dismantling it.” But what hierarchy are women and girls at the top of? Between 2014 and 2018, the number of reported rapes and sexual assaults in UK universities rose by 82%, with the number of incidents at Cambridge coming second only to the University of East Anglia. Sexual violence is experienced disproportionately by women – the female sex, not anyone who identifies as a woman or “transfeminine.” Women are not at the top of any hierarchy. Yet we are supposed to believe that we are selfish for standing on the shoulders of the women who came before us, and fiercely protecting the rights that they fought for. As a strategy, this has been very successful - not only at causing women to disavow their own interests, but to police the behaviour of other women when they refuse to do the same. The student organisation of which I am Co-president (the Cambridge Radical Feminist Network) is a source of ongoing concern for student council members at Newnham; the same people who regularly lobby the college to admit males on the basis of self-ID. The success of any strategy which makes feminists the enemy relies on cutting women off from our collective history. Another (openly feminist) member of the CRFN was taken to task recently for “appropriating the genderqueer colours” in her profile picture. Much frustration and some hilarity ensued when she told us this – reader, they were the suffragette colours. Purple, green, and white.


Being a female student in Cambridge today is far easier than it was 150 years ago. Being a feminist, however, is not so different. They still call us names, only now we’re “TERFs” and “SWERFs” rather than “nasty, forward minxes.” The sentiment behind these insults has remained constant for over a century: women who say no, women who won’t sit down and shut up - and who fight for our rights on our own terms, rather than accept the scraps society throws us - are selfish and contemptible. I hope that my college stands firm when I leave it, and refuses to betray the women who came before me or cheat the women who will come after me by opening admissions up to men; but I can no longer be naive about this. The situation is dire - but perhaps its solution hasn’t changed much in the last 150 years either. Millicent Fawcett, mother of Philippa and one of Newnham’s founders, wrote that: “Courage calls to courage, everywhere, and its voice cannot be denied.” I’m grateful to the women of CambsWomen Together for creating new spaces in which women can come together while the world seeks to erode our established ones; and for being that voice of courage and helping me to find mine.

Quentin Blake illustrated 'The Storming of the Clough Gates' for Newnham College, an image can be found online.



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