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A History of Women's Education in Oxford

2020 marks the 100 year anniversary of the first women being admitted to the University of Oxford. To celebrate, we’re taking a look at the role of women in Oxford history and how history has been shaped by the women who have studied and lived in Oxford’s prestigious colleges.

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Despite the university welcoming women as students in 1920, Oxford colleges Lady Margaret Hall and Somerville College were the first women’s colleges to open in Oxford, in 1879. It is impossible to mention women in Oxford history without mentioning the women of Lady Margaret Hall and Somerville College.

In June 1878, the Association for the Higher Education of Women was founded, with its goal being the creation of a college for women in Oxford. The group was undecided between whether or not the institution to be founded should be specifically Anglican. The group split, with Lady Margaret Hall being originally founded as an Anglican institution, and Somerville College being founded as a college “in which no distinction will be made between students on the ground of their belonging to different religious denominations.”

Women's History at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford

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Lady Margaret Hall is the oldest women’s college at Oxford, founded in 1878 and opening to its first 9 female students the following year. It was founded by Edward Stuart Talbot, then the warden of Oxford's Keble College, and his wife, Lavinia Talbot. Lady Margaret Hall was named after Lady Margaret Beaufort, patron of scholarship and learning and mother of King Henry VII. The first principal of the original 9 students was Elizabeth Wordsworth, great-niece of the poet William Wordsworth. The college remained a women’s college for 100 years, first admitting men in 1979.

Notable alumnae of Lady Margaret Hall include;

  • Benazir Bhutto
  • Ann Widdecombe
  • Nigella Lawson
  • Eglantyne Jebb
  • Priscilla Tolkein

...along with many others!

Actress and women’s rights activist Emma Watson is a visiting fellow of the college. Malala Yousafzai, the youngest Noble Prize recipient and activist for universal education for girls and women, is a current student at Lady Margaret Hall.

Women's History at Somerville College, Oxford

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Somerville College was the second women’s college founded at Oxford. The college became co-ed in 1994, and today the college is 50% male. Somerville College was named after the Scottish mathematician and renowned scientific writer Mary Somerville, known also for her expressed views in support of women’s suffrage and equal access to education for women.

When opened, the college was originally known as Somerville Hall and had twelve students. It was the first women’s hall to introduce entrance exams in 1891. It was renamed Somerville College in 1894, becoming the first of the Oxford women’s college to adopt the title of a college. In 1920, Oxford University allowed women to matriculate, and in 1925, Somerville’s college charter was granted.

Dorothy Hodgkin is one of the most notable alumnae of Somerville, the only British woman so far to have been awarded a Nobel Prize in the three sciences. She was awarded a first-class honours degree from the university, and at the time was only 1 of 3 women in Oxford history to do so. She won the 1964 Nobel Prize for chemistry for her work in protein crystallography and her work in determining the structure of penicillin.

When were women allowed in Oxford?

The first women matriculated at the University of Oxford in 1920, at Somerville College.

When were UK women first awarded degrees?

Although many women passed university examinations earlier, the first degrees were not awarded to women in the UK until 1878, when women were admitted to University of London. Women were next awarded degrees at the University of Durham (1895), University of Oxford (1920), and University of Cambridge (1948).

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In 2020, the University of Oxford celebrated 100 years since the admission of women. Lady Margaret Hall and Somerville College, founded in 1879, played a vital role. Notable alumnae include Benazir Bhutto and Dorothy Hodgkin.

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