7 October 1920: Oxford University allows women to graduate

Here in jolly old Britain, we like to pat ourselves on the back about how modern and civilised we all are; how fair-minded and even-handed our society is. We may still have some way to go to reach full sex equality, perhaps, but broadly speaking, women are able to compete with men on an equal footing. There are still people who complain about the evils of feminism, true, but those people are wrong, and shouldn’t be listened to by anyone.

But all this splendid equality is a relatively new phenomenon. Until recently, education for women just didn’t exist beyond primary level. As late as 1864, England and Wales boasted just 12 secondary schools for girls. So it was hardly surprising that almost none of them went to university.

But in the event that a woman did receive an education that would allow her to study at university level, it would have been little use. Universities didn’t admit women. A well-bred woman’s job was to get herself married, look after her husband, and produce children. If she didn’t marry – well, she could always work as a governess.

But by the middle of the 19th century, things had begun to change. The first higher education college for women – Bedford College in London – was established in 1849. And in 1869, Emily Davies set up Cambridge’s Girton College.

Students at Oxford University had to wait another decade, however, until Lady Margaret Hall and Somerville colleges opened in 1879. Until then, women had only been allowed to attend lectures given by their friends or relatives after being granted special permission.

But the establishment of these colleges didn’t mean women would be awarded degrees, even if they attended lectures and passed examinations. It wasn’t until this day in 1920, still less than a century ago, that Oxford graciously allowed women to matriculate.

Needless to say, the controversial measure opened the floodgates to all sorts of suffragist nonsense. Within eight years, women would be allowed to vote on the same basis as men. And by 1979, Oxford graduate Margaret Thatcher was prime minister. It is perhaps interesting to note that, despite gaining a real degree from Somerville College, the university denied her an honorary degree in 1985.

Also on this day

7 October 1571: The Battle of Lepanto halts Ottoman expansion

On this day in 1571, the ‘Holy Fleet’ of Pope Pius V defeated the larger but less well armed Ottoman navy, precipitating the decline of the Ottoman empire. Read more here.