Newnham College, Cambridge

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A view of part of Newnham College.
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A view of another part of Newnham College.

Newnham College is a women's college in the University of Cambridge. It was founded in 1872 by Henry Sidgwick and was the second Cambridge college to admit women, the first being Girton.


Women in the university

The idea of women attending the University was inevitably greeted with both derision and misogyny when first seriously raised in the 19th century, but matters progressed nonetheless; in 1860 Cambridge's Local Examinations Board (governing non-university examinations) allowed women to take exams for the first time. Concrete change within the university would have to wait until the first female colleges were formed, and following the foundation of Girton College (1870) and Newnham (1872) women were allowed into lectures, albeit at the discretion of the lecturer. By 1881, women were allowed to sit university examinations, and in 1921 were awarded "titles" as a result, although they would have to wait until 1947 before they were awarded degrees, and 1958 before they achieved equal rights to their male counterparts.

In 1954, a third women's college, New Hall, was founded. Wolfson was the first mixed college and was founded in 1965. 1972 saw three men's colleges (Churchill, Clare and King's) admit women for the first time. Cambridge now has no all-male colleges and Girton is also mixed, although both Newnham and New Hall remain all-female.

The college attracts a wide range of female students, including some students from non-"western" countries who might not have been willing or able to study at Cambridge were it not for the existence of women-only colleges (although the idea that studying at Newnham would protect these girls from "western decadence" is perhaps misled, as the college is integrated into the University). Most students choose to live at Newnham because they have a preference for an all-female environment, particularly if they are studying in departments which are male-dominated. Some others are quite vocal about the fact that they did not want to be in a women-only college, but were put there by the Cambridge "pool" system because there were not enough places at their chosen college.


The progress of women in the university owes a lot to the pioneering work undertaken by Henry Sidgwick, fellow of Trinity. Together with Anne Clough – the college's first principal – and Eleanor Balfour (Sidgwick's future wife), in 1871 Sidgwick oversaw the purchase of 74 Regent Street, housing five female students who wished to attend lectures but did not live near enough to the university to do so. After moving to Merton House on Queen's Road the next year, in 1875 the first building was built on the current site on Sidgwick Avenue, now called Old Hall. Between 1875 and 1910 the college continued to grow with the construction of three more buildings.

In this initial period, all the buildings were designed by Basil Champneys in "Queen Anne" style to much acclaim. These and later buildings are grouped around some of the most attractive gardens in Cambridge, hidden from the road by the buildings that surround them. Not only are they lovely gardens, but (unlike most of Cambridge's colleges) all residents can walk on the grass for most of the year. Newnham also had laboratories because women were not permitted into the university labs. These now house a drama space and a library. This library was originally Newnham students' primary reference source since women were not allowed into the University Library. It remains one of the largest college libraries in Cambridge.

Newnham taught a varied curriculum, tailored to the students who generally had far less formal education than their male counterparts (unlike Girton which accepted women on the same terms, and taught them the same curriculum as men in the other colleges). Although it was usual for a male student to take his degree after three years of study, not all Newnham students completed an entire degree course after four years' work.


With the conversion of the last men-only colleges into mixed colleges in the 1970s and 80s, there were inevitably questions about whether any of the remaining women-only colleges would also change to mixed colleges. This seems particularly unlikely at Newnham, which has a proud reputation in standing up for women working in the University (see first section).


Alumnae of Newnham include:

In 1928, Newnham, along with Girton College was one of the venues for a series of lectures by Virginia Woolf that resulted in the famous book-length essay A Room of One's Own.

Newnham College was the clear conceptual and architectural inspiration for University Women's College at the University of Melbourne, Australia (now University College).

Colleges of the University of Cambridge Arms of the University

Christ's | Churchill | Clare | Clare Hall | Corpus Christi | Darwin | Downing | Emmanuel | Fitzwilliam | Girton | Gonville and Caius | Homerton | Hughes Hall | Jesus | King's | Lucy Cavendish | Magdalene | New Hall | Newnham | Pembroke | Peterhouse | Queens' | Robinson | St Catharine's | St Edmund's | St John's | Selwyn | Sidney Sussex | Trinity | Trinity Hall | Wolfson


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