Celebrating the women of Harvard & Cambridge

Posted 23 days ago

On Sunday the 8th of March, the world comes together to celebrate International Women's Day. This year, we at Crimson want to honour the founders of the first female colleges at top US and UK universities. In particular, we want to share the stories of Elizabeth Cabot Agassiz and Emily Davies, who were responsible for founding the first female colleges at Harvard University and Cambridge University respectively.

Elizabeth Cabot Agassiz

Born into a wealthy Boston family in 1822, Agassiz received a world-class education from home, and went on to be a prominent intellectual and naturalist. In 1850, she was married to Swiss naturalist Louis Agassiz, and the couple became leading biology and geology scientists in the United States, and would travel around North and South America as key participants in scientific expeditions. Unfortunately, credit had to be given entirely to her husband, in order for it to be recognised by the scientific community at the time. Following her husband’s appointment as a prominent professor at Harvard, she found herself in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Radcliffe began life at the ‘Harvard Annex’ for women, and founder Arthur Gilman recruited Agassiz to run the college. Her influence on the university grew throughout her tenure as the president of the college between 1882 and 1903. She was pivotal in transforming the college into degree-granting institution in 1894, after which it was named Radcliffe. The college was overseen by Harvard, whose president signed the diplomas, but it was not until 1963 until the students would receive officially recognised joint-Harvard degrees. Amongst others, alumni of the college include Hellen Keller, the political activist and first deaf-blind woman to earn a university degree, as well as Benzair Bhutto, former Pakistan Prime Minister.

In 1999 the college was fully integrated with Harvard, ending the years of distinction between the traditionally male university, and the college for women that Agassiz helped establish. She will always be remembered for opening the door for the thousands of women that have received a world-class education at the college, and being instrumental in Harvard’s wider acceptance of women into the student body. Her legacy lives on in the Elizabeth Agassiz House, as part of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at the university.

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Emily Davies

Across the Atlantic in the UK, the charge to allow women to prestigious universities was led by Emily Davies. Her perseverance and fight for equality spurred Cambridge University to open its first women's college, Girton College. At the time, it was the first college in England to educate women.

Davies had been an advocate for women’s education early in her life after observing the education of her father and brothers at Cambridge University, and challenging why she was denied the same opportunities. Davies was also a founding member of the Kensington Society, and participated alongside other intellectual feminists such as Elizabeth Garrett Anderson and Barbara Bodichon. She was heavily involved in the first petition put to Parliament demanding for women’s rights to vote in 1866.

However, Davies’ greatest contributions to women's rights came in her advocacy for women’s education, guided by the principle that the way to promote women’s place in British society was to allow them access to education. After years of trying to persuade universities to accept women, she took matters into her own hands, raising money to purchase and found a higher education college for women. Initially the college was located in Hitchin, but in 1872 it moved to its current site in Cambridge.

She was the first mistress of the college from 1873-75, and was thereafter secretary until 1902. During her time the college taught the same curriculum to women as their male counterparts, yet it was not until 1948 until the college was finally full status as a Cambridge college and women were awarded the same degrees as men. In 1998, fifty years after its full integration, the university acknowledged the 900 women who had not received a full Cambridge degree for their achievements. Nowadays Girton College is co-education, and not a single college at Cambridge remains all-male.

We hope that this has got you thinking about all the great women who have contributed to making our top US and UK universities more inclusive and equal, but there is always room for continual improvement!. Crimson Education fully encourages the higher education of women and supports the advancement of women's rights in all areas.

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