The Rising Tide: Women at Cambridge

The Rising Tide: Women at Cambridge exhibition marks 150 years since the foundation of the first women’s college and shines a light on the life of women at the University, from Nobel Prize winners to student activists to those who worked as bedmakers, gardeners, typists and cooks … women who faced a variety of challenges and broke down many barriers.

The Rising Tide: Women at Cambridge

The North and South Galleries of the University Library are lined with paintings and photographs of women who have made exceptional contributions in so many fields, to the University and to women’s equality.  From Baroness Brenda Hale of Richmond (President of our Supreme Court, who quashed the recent prorogation of Parliament and who also has a nice line in brooches) to Helen Stephens (the first female Head Porter of a Cambridge college) and Kate Litman (CUSU Women’s Officer 2019), to name just a few, these women have shaped and are shaping the University that we know today.

Baroness Brenda Hale of Richmond
Baroness Brenda Hale of Richmond

Downstairs in the Milstein Exhibition Centre, the story of the lived experience of women at Cambridge and their fight for equal educational rights is told through costumes, letters, documents and audio visual material.  It’s astonishing to realise that women were only given full membership of the University in 1948, previous requests for equality in 1897 and 1921 having been put to the vote and rejected.

Cambridge University Poster 1897
Image reproduced by kind permission of the Syndics of Cambridge

Girton College (founded 1869) and Newnham College (founded 1871) offered courses to women but they could not be awarded degrees.  Between 1904 and 1907, Trinity College Dublin offered these women the chance to travel to Dublin to officially graduate and receive a full degree – those who took up this offer were known as “steamboat ladies” due to their mode of travel!  And on what must have been a joyous day in 1998, 900 women who had never been able to graduate with full degrees processed up King’s Parade to Senate House to graduate at last.

Trinity College Dublin c. 1904
Trinity College Dublin c. 1904  Image credit: Girton College

Cambridge University Library has existed in some form since the middle of the 14th century.  Since 1934, its collections have been housed in a magnificent but slightly forbidding looking building on West Road designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, the architect who also created our iconic red telephone boxes and Battersea Power Station.  The Library contains more than 8 million books and periodicals, 1 million maps and thousands of manuscripts.  As a legal deposit library, it is entitled to acquire a copy of every book and journal published in the UK and Ireland, which explains its 125 miles plus of shelving and the fact that said shelving extends by 2 miles every year.

Cambridge University Library
Image credit: Cambridge University Library

There is so much to see in this moving and thought provoking exhibition.  It’s a wonderful chance to explore collections from across the University and colleges in this iconic Library building.  The exhibition and a linked programme of events is free and open to all.  The Rising Tide: Women at Cambridge runs until 21 March 2020 and is open every day except Sunday.