Cambridge 1897 Vote & the Suffragettes


Although you will see many women celebrating their graduations alongside their male classmates nowadays, this wasn’t always the case. Women’s colleges were founded in the mid-1800s, but despite doing all of the hard work and exams, women weren’t full members of the University and so were not awarded any degrees in Cambridge until after World War Two, in 1948! Unsurprisingly, the women of the University became rather fed up with this lack of equality. They rallied together to bring about an official vote on the matter on the 21st of May, 1897. The day of the vote brought lots of protestors to Cambridge, men who had degrees from the University and were outraged about the campaign for women to be awarded degrees were given voting rights, even if they had graduated years before!   Unfortunately for women almost three times as many men voted against them as for them. Thrilled, some male students made fun of female students and even made effigies of a woman on a bike representing emancipated women and also the head female campaigners. They hung these figures up along wires above the queue of voters going into the Senate, and afterwards burnt the effigies in the Market Square.

By the middle of the 1800s, women had grown sick and tired of being seen as inferior to men. Women, who were, by law, owned by their husbands, banded together to campaign for rights, like access to education and the ability to vote in a general election. The passionate campaign by the Suffragettes in London is well known, but the Suffragettes’ actions in Cambridge are less famous, although they were just as violent. The Cambridge Suffragettes gave numerous speeches to crowds, both in surrounding villages, and in famous places like Parker’s Piece and the Market Place. These speeches were sometimes received well, but often, angry townsmen or undergraduates tried to interrupt! The men would drown out the speakers with whistles and bells, and even by singing famous songs like ‘Have a banana’. Once, when Mrs Brailsford was speaking on a van on Parker’s Piece, children and teenagers began moving the lorry, pushing her slowly into the middle of a cricket match! But, the Suffragettes did more than talk – their motto was “Deeds not words”. In 1913, the Suffragettes in Cambridge planted two homemade bombs, one at a railway crossing and another at the Varsity Rugby Pavilion. The latter was made in a mustard tin! In the same year, the Suffragettes placed a package reading “Votes for Women” in the lounge of a famous hotel! There was panic when the package was found, but it turned out only to be a block of wood! Some women achieved the vote in 1918, but it wasn’t until 1928 that the United Kingdom had universal suffrage!

Do please download the pdf or full powerpoint presentation illustrating this subject which you will find useful to use for a class:


At the start of the nineteenth century, women were viewed as culturally and legally inferior to men. Women were regarded as the property of their husband, or nearest male relative, so could not own anything themselves, or complain about their treatment at the hands of these men. They had no rights to vote or to education because it was viewed that they should remain in the home. Wives were even occasionally sold at wife sales, one woman being sold for just £1, as late as 1928.

From about the 1860s onwards, women began to gather and protest against this inequality. The first group were the suffragists, led by Milicent Fawcett, who sought to gain the vote through peaceful means. Although they were lobbying for votes for middle class women, they attracted women from all classes, unifying them together. In 1903, the Suffragettes, frustrated by the slow progress of the Suffragists, formed. They campaigned for female suffrage, but through violent means, which included the bombing of churches (including Westminster Abbey), train stations, grand stands and politicians houses. The women would go on hunger strike when they were arrested and were often force-fed by the government. The horror of these deeds, as well as the great sympathy felt for Emily Davidson, who died trying to pin a Suffragette banner to the King’s Horse at the Epsom Derby, began to turn public opinion. What really contributed to some women gaining the vote in 1918, however, was the crucial role women played in the war effort, in factories and as nurses. Suffragettes suspended their campaigning in the war, which also demonstrated that they were reasonable, something many men had been protesting about.

The suffrage movement was very active in Cambridge. There were numerous talks most years – 6 in 1907 and 12 in 1912. Millicent Fawcett talked at least twice and Emmeline Pankhurst at least three times. The reception to these talks was mixed. Some were listened to respectfully, and gained a lot of support; 300 listened sympathetically to a talk at the Market place in August 1912. Others, however were often shouted down, by popular songs or whistles. Kathleen Jarvis, in 1912, was even drowned out for over a hour by the bells of Great St Mary’s. In August 1912, Mrs Brailsford also gave a speech, preaching from the back of a lorry on Partker’s Piece. Children and teenagers began pushing the lorry one way then the other, then all the way into the middle of a cricket match. Once the police had stopped this, they scrambled up into the lorry and begun tearing up the suffrage leaflets.

The Suffragists were the first to be active in Cambridge. Women in 1911, gathered together at some of their houses and refused to fill in the census, crying “No vote, no census”! The Suffragettes were also very active, particularly in 1913. Then they planted a bomb at the Varsity Rugby Pavilion, using an improvised bomb in a Mustard tin. A card reading “Votes for Women” and a female shoe were left nearby, presumably from a woman fleeing the scene after she had lit the fuse! A bomb was also planted at a railway-crossing gate. The Gatekeeper found the bomb, made from a tin with a bootlace attached, leading through to flammable material, such as cotton wool soaked in oil and lumps of charcoal. The Suffragettes also planted a square package, labelled “Votes for Women” in the lounge of a leading Cambridge Hotel. The package was quickly removed, but was later found to be only a block of wood! A Suffragette in 1913 was also convicted of setting fire to a house in Storey’s Way, using a pink flannelette soaked in paraffin, which she had wound around a ladder.

In Cambridge, female campaigners generally focused on the importance of education. In 1867, the first female college, Girton, was set up by Emily Davies and another, Newnham, soon followed. Education was seen as crucial for women, so that they could take up jobs like doctoring, but also so that they could appear educated and reasonable to a predominately liberal government, who saw that as their criteria for the right to vote. There were voices that thought logical subjects, like Maths, would be too hard for women to comprehend, but they were proved wrong when Philippa Fawcett, in 1890, got the highest mark in the Maths Tripos by far.

The biggest issue facing female education campaigners in Cambridge was that women were not regarded as full members of the university, so they were not granted degrees, even after they passed their exams. In 1897, the two female colleges proposed to the University that women be granted a degree. This stirred up great anti-woman feeling among the male undergraduates. They held their own debate at the union where the proposal came under heavy criticism. Mr J. P. Thompson said ‘If [I] gave a beggar [my] coat, he had no right to demand [my] trousers too. If [I] gave a beggar a sixpence, he had no right to demand the shilling and these ladies were demanding the shilling.

On the day of the vote, great crowds gathered outside the Senate House, where the vote was taking place. There were numerous banners, some Shakespeare quotes, and others less highbrow, which protested against female degrees, reading ‘frustrate the feminine fanatics’, ‘Varsity for men’ and ‘no gowns for Girtonites’. There were also two effigies hung from the windows of nearby buildings. One was just a girl, but another was a girl in big bloomers and brightly coloured stockings riding a bicycle. The girl on the bike was a widely recognised symbol of the new woman, sitting astride, as a man would do. The result came back as 662 in favour, 1713 against – men had been shipped in on special trains from London to vote against the motion!

When the result was announced, the square erupted. Flour, confetti, eggs and fireworks were thrown. The bicycle effigy, which had been hanging above what is now the University Book Shop, was torn down and ripped to pieces. Then it was taken in a cab to Newnham and pushed the through the gates of the college. Then men set up a great bonfire outside the college and burned effigies of Miss Anne Clough and Miss Katherine Jex-Blake, the principals of the two female colleges.

Women tried again in 1921 to be allowed degree, but it was only in 1948 that the vote passed and they became full members of the University. For a while, they received certificates that they had passed in the mail. In 1904, Trinity College Dublin offered the women who had passed Oxbridge exams an honorary degree from there. In 4 years, 700 women took up their offer. They became known as the Steamboat Ladies because they all took the steamboat to Ireland. In 1998, the University held a celebration at the Senate House for all those that had passed the Cambridge exams but had not received a degree. Nearly 900 women attended.

Discover More


Lots of information on the protest at the Senate House can be found here

Information on the key players of the early suffragette movement can be found here

A simple summary of the wider Suffragette movement can be found on BBC Bitesize

For more information about the Cambridge Suffragettes and Suffragists, there is a online ‘scrapbook’ of every mention of women from 1897 to 1990. It can be found here. . By searching “Suffragette” or other key words, such as “Suffrage”, the relevant articles can quickly be found.

Cambridge 1897 Vote & the Suffragettes


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