Considering the variety amongst students at universities today, it can be quite hard to imagine a time when the institutions in which people spend three of the most formative years of their lives were once reserved for a certain type of student: a male. Before 1878, when the University of London introduced admittance for women to gain degrees, not one university in the UK acknowledged women as intellectual counterparts worthy of education at their institution. It was on the back of the ‘first wave’ feminist movement in the mid-1800s that the ideas thought up decades before, by the likes of Margaret Cavendish and Mary Wollstonecraft, finally gained momentum through circles of like-minded, privileged women with money – and therefore influence – who found themselves in a position to make a change.
These women – known as the Langham Place Group – were at the forefront of the women’s rights movement. This group included Emily Davies, who was particularly concerned with education for women. Davies paved the way for mixed sex universities by firstly creating higher education for women in their own right in the form of Girton College, Cambridge University.
Creating higher education solely for women was replicated elsewhere; for instance the London School of Medicine and Bedford College, London. By placing women on an equal footing, it became harder to keep universities reserved for only one gender.
Women were encouraged by the early liberal feminists of Langham Place in the 1860s, and by the university admitting them, to take classes. Although these classes lacked formal recognition, this form of higher education for women was prevalent within the University of London in the years before 1878.
Classes where women were welcomed initially started in 1830, although changing attitudes in academia enabled these classes to increase in number in the years before 1878. These changes were not limited to London either: women’s lecture associations were formed all over the UK, enabling them to attend lectures. Proving popular, examinations and colleges for women also became a more prevailing idea than before.
It is hard to say how far the legislation introducing degrees for women at the University of London affected wider society at the time. Although it undoubtedly led to more involvement of women in higher education at the University of London – 30 per cent of their graduates were female by 1900 – at this point education was still reserved for the privileged. The issue of women in higher education was fought by the middle classes and for the middle classes.
With the inclusion of women to universities in the years preceding 1878, and the changing attitudes of the time due to the fuel of ‘first wave’ feminism, the introduction of mixed sex universities was the next logical step for liberating women in the public sphere. Although it may have gained popular support due to the idea of women being trained into better wives and mothers, the granting of higher education to women has rightfully been about so much more than that.