Edwardian bluestockings: women at Cambridge

February 2011

King's College chapel through a window

King's College Chapel through a window (1912)
Larger image

This month we feature the colourful sketches of women by Frank Raphael Waley. Waley came up to King's in 1912 to study history and spent much of his time drawing his female classmates. Although Waley's illustrations show lecture halls filled with women, Cambridge was still very male in 1912.

Women at Cambridge

The women's colleges opened their doors in the nineteenth century, but the road to women's education at Cambridge was a long and bumpy one. Early female students were referred to as 'bluestockings' and quickly grew accustomed to opposition and prejudice. When they arrived at Girton (founded 1869) or Newnham (founded 1871) the women had to receive permission from individual lecturers to attend university lectures. In Waley's time, women attended classes and sat examinations but were not granted degrees.

Women at King's

At King's, Oscar Browning (King's fellow 1859) supported the higher education of women and in 1871 managed to convince the college council, with some difficulty, to permit members of Girton and Newnham to sit in on lectures held within the college.

A few years later Kingsman Sir George Prothero (King's fellow 1872) wrote to the provost that he had no objection to women attending his lecture if it could be 'done without impropriety or additional exposure.'

Prothero was not alone in his concern for maintaining decorum; this was one of the reasons used for restricting women from natural science classes. It was felt at the time that certain biology and anatomy lectures would upset women's 'delicate' sensibilities.

Now about half of the university's students are women. King's began admitting women in 1972 and today 40% of the college's students are female.

Postscript: FR Waley

Waley left King's in 1913 and enlisted in the army. He was shipped to France early on in the war and was lucky enough to survive both WWI and WWII without major injury. Waley was a keen gardener, and an internationally renowned expert on daffodils. He died at the age of 94 in 1987.

Waley's ink drawings provide an entertaining and whimsical snapshot of the female experience of Cambridge and King's on the eve of the First Word War.

Click on an image to enlarge it or start a slideshow of Waley's illustrations:

Useful links

Enquiries

If you have any queries about the information in this page please contact the Archivist (archivist@kings.cam.ac.uk).

Archive of the month | Back to the top