‘That detestable place,’ as she referred to Cambridge, remained a lifelong source of resentment for Virginia Woolf. Despite telling the composer Dame Ethel Smyth, ‘I hate Cambridge, and bitterly though I’ve suffered from it, I still respect it,’ she was never able to reconcile herself to her own exclusion from the University and, as she saw it, the continuing injustices it insisted upon committing against its female students. Yet her resentment was not without foundation.
During the 19th Century, two women’s colleges had been established, Girton in 1869 and Newnham in 1871, but women were not admitted as full members of the University. Furthermore, although they had been granted the right to sit Tripos exams in 1881, and were offered University certificates on passing, they were unable to accept the titles of degrees. In fact, many female students even felt that their presence was not welcomed by the University and at times, both faculty and male undergraduates could be openly hostile to it. One Newnham student even claimed that, when women walked, male students sometimes followed them and mockingly ‘clumped and stamped in time with each of their steps.’
In her memoirs, Frances Partridge (née Marshall), who went up to Newnham in 1918 (and would eventually become affiliated with the Bloomsbury Group through her marriage to Ralph Partridge) remembered the enforcement of rules which she considered outmoded and traditionalist. Partridge recalled how she had cunningly bypassed the strict college rules requiring Newnham students to have chaperones, ‘by inventing an imaginary duenna called Mrs Kenyon, whose services I called on quite often.’ However, Patridge noted that, ‘there was gunpowder in the air, and it finally exploded at a meeting between students and dons, convened to consider the question of chaperonage, when a brave girl stood up and asked why it was that an exception was made for those girls rich enough to have a sitting-room as well as a bedroom. In a dead silence she enquired: “Is this because it is thought that the sight of the beds in our bed-sitting-rooms would be too much of a temptation?” This occasion, if not this actual remark, sounded the death knell of chaperones. After this we met the men freely, played tennis with them went punting and on picnics, and above all danced with them.’ Continue reading