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lesson 2

first wave

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Cambridge men protesting against equal rights for female students 1897



To remember some key points from the last lesson

To learn how Mary Wollstonecraft influenced feminist activism

To understand the key features of first wave feminism

To know about the early struggles for women at the University

To study the most influential Cambridge women in the first wave 




activity 1

Before we begin learning about first wave feminism, and how Cambridge women contributed to it, have a go at writing some bullet points on what you remember from last time about:  


The Patriarchy - What is it? Examples of how it is used. 


Feminism - What is it? What does it mean to be a feminist?


Four Waves of Feminism - Briefly, what were the main aims?


This should take 5 minutes.

Mary Wollstonecraft

Mary Wollstonecraft is arguably one of the most important people in history. She was a ‘protofeminist’. This word means somebody who had an impact on improving the rights of women before the concept of feminism had been invented.

For much of the 18th Century, a movement called the Enlightenment had been growing in the UK and France. This was a movement of scientists and thinkers who believed that progress in science and in human rights could improve society and that politics would have to change to meet this. The Enlightenment ended with the French Revolution in 1789. This was the first major revolution that looked to overthrow a government and create something new based on the idea of equality for all men.

The idea of why equality should only apply to men in the French Revolution was picked up on by Mary Wollstonecraft. She was inspired to write a short book called ‘A Vindication of the Rights of Woman’ in 1792. Inside she puts forward the revolutionary idea that women should get an equal education and not be the property of men. Her book was hugely influential and began much of the modern thinking on women’s rights that would then inspire first wave feminism.

Every woman who wants to make an impact on the way this country is run has Mary Wollstonecraft to thank.’


Mary Beard, Cambridge Professor of Classics.

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First Wave Feminism 1870s - 1920s

First wave feminism was the first time that groups were formed across many countries that began to campaign for, and change, the rights of women.


Although they campaigned around many areas of life such as education, law and employment; the main successful aim was in giving women the right to vote. It is hard to believe that (some) women in Britain were first allowed to vote only 100 years ago!

The first recognised feminist movement in England was the ‘Langham Place Circle’ in the 1850s which included one of our Cambridge sheroes Barbara Bodichon who later set up the first women’s university college, Girton College, in Cambridge.

To get an idea of what first wave feminism was about, and the struggles involved in achieving the right for women to vote in the UK, watch this short video on Emmeline Pankhurst.

First Wave Feminism in cambridge

Cambridge University has a complicated Herstory...

In 1869, Girton College became the first college in Britain to offer residential higher education to women; however, the University of Cambridge did not give women degrees until the late 1940s and by that time was the last University in Britain to give women degrees

activity 2

Watch this six minute video presented by one of our Cambridge sheroes, Dr Lucy Delap, to learn about the struggle faced by Cambridge University women for equality and then have a go at the quiz below.

Write answers as full sentences in your book.

activity 2 questions

Question 1: Which woman received the first degree from the University of Cambridge and in what year?

Question 2: What year was Girton College founded?

Question 3: Name one right that women had to apply for that men in other colleges automatically had?

Question 4: What was the first important feminist milestone in 1880? Why was it important?

Question 5: What year was the first Senate House vote on women having full membership in the University of Cambridge?

Question 6: Give three examples of how men demonstrated while the vote was taking place.

Question 7: What year was the second Senate House vote on women having full membership in the University of Cambridge?

Question 8: Give one reason why the vote might have taken place at that time?

Question 9: For each of the first three votes in Senate House, how did the men feel about women trying to have equal rights?

Question 10: What are the men in the photograph under these questions waiting for? What happened next?

local impact of the cambridge first wave feminists

Now you understand the context these Cambridge women lived in, hopefully you can see just how remarkable their achievements were. One of the things that is so amazing about the first wave feminists of Cambridge is that they were also ‘social reformers’. This means that they were committed to improving the well-being of the local people of Cambridge.

It was as if their focus on the rights of women had allowed them to see the way that under-privileged people were also hugely disadvantaged. 

They realised that getting into positions of influence in Cambridge County Council was a successful way to make significant changes for the good of the local population. They left their mark in a number of ways in Cambridge with amazing buildings, charities, & hospitals creating a remarkable legacy.

Local Herstorian, and big inspiration behind Cambridge HerstoryAntony Carpen has worked on producing a detailed herstory of the work of these women that can accessed here.


Before your final activity, you need to read the summary of some of these amazing women and their achievements below:

anne jemima clough


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  • Anne was the first Principal of Newnham College, Cambridge (in 1871) and held this position until her death.

  • Before it was a college, Newnham began as a house on Regent Street where Clough and 4 other women lived together. But this house was too far away from where the 'Lectures for Ladies' were held and therefore something had to change!

  • Demand from keen students grew, meaning that more halls of residence were built, and eventually Newnham was established as a 'real' college.

  • Clough also helped to establish other influential courses and societies such as: The Cambridge Training College for Women (1885) and the University Association of Assistant Mistresses (1882).

  • Arguably the most important society was the creation of the London Society for Women's Suffrage that inspired 16 other similar groups across the country, which would later form as the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies.

barbara bodichon


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  • Barbara was a social reformer having published her 'Brief summary in Plain Language of the Most Important Laws Concerning Women'.

  • In summary, it analysed how women were disadvantaged by the laws put in place by men.

  • Bodichon's work allowed her to open up ideas about women's rights and in particular, helped towards the 'Married Women's Property Act'.

  • She also proposed a plan, alongside Emily Davies, for the inclusion of University education for women, starting with a college at Hitchin.

  • This then progressed and developed into Girton College, Cambridge (founded in 1869).

  • At this time it was named 'College for Women' as it was the first residential college for women in the UK!

  • Bodichon refused to marry her first partner because she would not give up her legal rights as women had to when they married. 

  • Her artwork was much admired having learnt from the famous painter William Holman Hunt. She exhibited her work at the Royal Academy. 

  • Her best friend was George Eliot - the famous female writer who had to publish her work under a man's name to sell it!

millicent garrett fawcett


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  • Millicent did not attend a Cambridge college however she was a co-founder of Newnham College.

  • She devoted much of her life to the women’s suffrage movement as a Suffragist. This meant that she campaigned non-violently in order to secure the vote.

  • Her father (Newson Garrett) was a determined feminist, and he brought up his daughter to share his beliefs in equality.

  • Millicent held meetings in her home, where other supporters of women’s education in Cambridge would come to meet. They went on to form a committee to organise 'Lectures for Ladies' in Cambridge, from 1870.

  • In 1907, Millicent became President of the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies (NUWSS).

  • Millicent and Henry had a daughter, Philippa Fawcett. She went on to follow in her mother's footsteps and became deeply involved as a feminist activist at the University.

  • Philippa studied maths as Newnham College and in the exam she got the top mark of any women and men taking the exam. This was proof that women could actually do better than men even with all the obstacles they faced. She went on to teach maths at the University. 

florence ada keynes


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  • Florence was known as the 'Mother of Cambridge' and it's not difficult to understand why...

  • Although one of her achievements was studying at Newnham College, Cambridge and becoming the first female councillor, she should be most remembered for her legacy in social reform and activism for Cambridge as a city. Keynes modernised Cambridge through the introduction of social work and care policies.

  • Florence became the second female Mayor of Cambridge (1932).

  • She co-founded the Folk Museum (now known as the Museum of Cambridge).

  • Alongside Eglantyne Jebb, who you will learn about shortly, she founded and ran the Cambridge Juvenile Labour Exchange, basically inventing the idea of job centres and later taken over by the National Government.

  • She organised free glasses and dental care for children.

  • She helped resettle workhouse inmates into society.

  • And amazingly, she helped to found what is now known as the world famous Papworth Hospital in Cambridge!

  • In addition to all her social reforming works, she managed to find time to bring up John Maynard Keynes, the most influential economist of the 20th Century! He was also a noted feminist and social reformer, and believed that the economy should benefit everyone in the country, rather than just benefiting the rich. Florence's daughter, Margaret, was also a brilliant activist. 

Eva Hartree


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  • Eva joined Girton College, Cambridge in 1892.

  • She was very passionate and active for women's rights as well as for refugees of war.

  • Hartree was the first EVER female Mayor of Cambridge (1924-1925).

  • She worked to abolish laws such as the law that stopped married women from working.

  • She was greatly involved in setting up transportation systems within Cambridge, including the Drummer Street Bus Station, which the majority of you may have used.

  • She was very passionate about setting up the first Cambridge Civil Reception for those fleeing European dictators, even before action had been taken by the National Government.

Clara Dorothea Rackham


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  • Clara studied at Newnham College, Cambridge in 1895.

  • She was instrumental in women's, worker's and children's rights both nationally and locally and therefore her beliefs were similar to Hartree and Keynes.

  • Rackham founded the Cambridge Co-operative Women's Guild, helping the poor by returning trade profits to them and building women's educational levels.

  • She was an elected Committee leader of the National Union of Women's Suffrage, alongside Millicent Fawcett.

  • She became a councillor alongside her campaigning partner, Florence Keynes, in 1919 and became a magistrate in 1920.

  • She campaigned to see specialist judges appointed to deal with child cases in court.

  • Clara believed that the problems of poverty were "not of idleness and intemperance, but of unemployment, underemployment and casual labour."

Eglantyne Jebb


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  • Although Eglantyne did not attend a Cambridge University, rather Oxford, all of her influential social activism took place in Cambridge City.

  • Her passions involved human rights (are you noticing a pattern here?!). In particular, children's rights, after being appalled by newspaper photos she saw of children starving in Germany and Austria (the enemy countries at the time).

  • Jebb was an MP and an activist and transformed the charitable movements in Cambridge, where she founded the Save the Children charity (1919) which you may already be aware of, as it is still successful over 100 years later!

  • She created the first women's charities register in Cambridge (1905).

  • She wrote the first social study of its kind, which scientifically looked at the poverty in Cambridge at the time, which was previously blamed on women with 'low moral standards'.

  • She wrote a book called 'Cambridge: A Brief Study in Social Questions' in 1906, with contributions from the majority of the women above.

virginia woolf


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  • Although Virginia did not attend Cambridge University, she had strong connections to the city.  

  • Her father was a student and later a bye-fellow of Trinity Hall college and her two brothers were students at Trinity. 

  • Woolf is well known as an author of novels and essays as well as a pioneering feminist.

  • Her most notable link to Cambridge is that she gave lectures at Girton and Newnham colleges in the 1920s from which she later wrote her famous feminist essay, 'A Room of One's Own'. 

  • Florence's son, John Maynard Keynes, was somebody she would exchange ideas with. 

  • In 1931, she gave a talk 'Professions of Women' where she looked at education and employment for women and how the lack of these led to a negative effect on women and society. 

  • She was one of the first to look at how women in the past had been neglected in history, with their achievements overshadowed because they were portrayed as flawed or with mental health conditions. 

venn diagram


Draw a Venn Diagram with 2 big circles overlapping as shown.


Pick 2 Cambridge first wave feminists from the list above. Write their names above each circle.


You are going to use the Venn diagram to fill in information about the women that is different from each other in each circle. You are also going to fill in aspects of their lives and achievements that are similar in the overlap.


For an extension, you may wish to research them in more detail to find out more information to put into your diagram.



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Next Lesson...

We will be learning about how second wave feminism took off in the UK inspired by the writing and activism of Cambridge graduate Germaine Greer. 

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