7 October 1920: Oxford University allows women to graduate

On this day in 1920, the University of Oxford allowed women studying there to receive full degrees.

Female students at Oxford University in 1921 © Kirby/Topical Press Agency/Getty Images
These students, at Oxford University in 1921, would have been among the first women to receive degrees
(Image credit: © Kirby/Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)

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 someway 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 no women 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.

Subscribe to MoneyWeek

Subscribe to MoneyWeek today and get your first six magazine issues absolutely FREE

Get 6 issues free

Sign up to Money Morning

Don't miss the latest investment and personal finances news, market analysis, plus money-saving tips with our free twice-daily newsletter

Don't miss the latest investment and personal finances news, market analysis, plus money-saving tips with our free twice-daily newsletter

Sign up

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, a mere 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.

Ben Judge

Ben studied modern languages at London University's Queen Mary College. After dabbling unhappily in local government finance for a while, he went to work for The Scotsman newspaper in Edinburgh. The launch of the paper's website, scotsman.com, in the early years of the dotcom craze, saw Ben move online to manage the Business and Motors channels before becoming deputy editor with responsibility for all aspects of online production for The Scotsman, Scotland on Sunday and the Edinburgh Evening News websites, along with the papers' Edinburgh Festivals website.

Ben joined MoneyWeek as website editor in 2008, just as the Great Financial Crisis was brewing. He has written extensively for the website and magazine, with a particular emphasis on alternative finance and fintech, including blockchain and bitcoin. As an early adopter of bitcoin, Ben bought when the price was under $200, but went on to spend it all on foolish fripperies.