14th October 1920. Halls of Academe.

The idea of a school of higher learning as one distinct and autonomous in an urban setting, goes back to Plato’s Academy c 387 BCE, a sacred sanctity outside the Athenian walls.

Oxford High Street 1920s showing Chridt Church Cathedral

Oxford High Street 1920s showing Christ Church Cathedral.

‘And there’s a street in the place-the main street-that ha’n’t another like it in the world’. A carter describing Oxford High to Hardy’s ‘Jude the Obscure’ 1898.

Today 22 years later saw a ceremony in Oxford’s Sheldonian Theatre when the first batch of qualified women were formally invested with a B.A.

University College, Oxford.

Painting of University College, Oxford, early 20thc.

Broad Street with Sheldonian on the right.

Broad Street, Oxford with the Sheldonian on the right c 1920s.

Immediately afterwards the ladies were awarded an M.A., since the requisite minimum of five years to qualify, had elapsed since the graduands had taken their final exams.

Now for the first time at Oxford a woman was addressed by the title Domina, the feminine of Dominus which represented a B.A., and Magistra, the feminine of Magister, for an M.A.

Women had been at Oxford since 1880, but waited 40 years to take degrees, thus regularising a position whereby they were now admitted to full university status. Previously they had only been eligible for the title to a degree-in other words-they were not officially graduates.(1)

Incredibly this was a situation which remained at Cambridge until 1947, despite being granted ‘titular’ degrees in 1921.

Henceforth all ‘Oxbridge’ women graduates would be entitled to B.A or M.A (Oxon) or (Cantab), and as undergraduates to wear gowns and soft peaked caps.

So another bastion of male prejudice against women had fallen, but not forgetting that up to the mid-19thc., at Oxford and Cambridge, Fellows (Dons), needed to be celibate, and the male students had to be a member of the Church of England to receive degrees up until 1871, the year when the distinction between noblemen, gentlemen and commoners was abolished.

They also had to offer Ancient Greek until 1920 and Latin to 1960. To paraphrase: ‘The mills of ‘Oxbridge’ ground exceedingly slow’.

(1) A student writing in the Durham University Journal in 1899 wrote, regarding the problem of women using the ‘brain which nature has bestowed….therefore a bluestocking….most abhorred of all types’.

Prejudice against a women receiving a degree at that time could be summed-up by a senile don being overheard to say: Monstrum horrendum informe (‘a monster fearful and hideous’), Virgil’s description of Polyphemus. Related by Vera Brittain in her Testament of Youth.

Ref: Magdalen Oxford, British History Online re 18thc.

Ref: collectorsprints.com./Pic of University College.

Ref: blog.myheritage.com/Pic of Sheldonian.

Ref: photosofchurches/Pic of Christ Church.


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About colindunkerley

My name is Colin Dunkerley who having spent two years in the Royal Army Pay Corps ploughed many a barren industrial furrow until drawn to the 'chalk-face' as a teacher, now retired. I have spent the last 15 years researching all aspects of life in Britain since Roman times.

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