March 1918: Votes and Degrees

“… all women who have been admitted to and passed the final examination, and kept the period of residence necessary for a man to obtain a degree at a University, are entitled, provided they have attained the age of 30 years, to be registered as Parliamentary Electors for the University.”
Letter from the Vice-Chancellor, University of Oxford, published in the University Gazette, 13 March 1918

Five weeks after the Representation of the People Act became law, the University Gazette published a letter from Oxford’s Vice-Chancellor. In it, he addressed the curious anomaly, which the Act had created for women at Oxford: their right to vote had been recognised by Parliament but seemingly not by the University.

The University of Oxford was a Parliamentary constituency and, since 1604, had elected two representatives to the House of Commons. Eligibility to vote depended not on the geographical location of the constituent, but on being a graduate and, despite decades of careful campaigning and measured reasoning, women were not eligible to take degrees.

However, one of the consequences of the war was the recognition of the women’s colleges and their vital role in providing academic and financial continuity for the University. In 1914, around 3000 men were undergraduates at Oxford; by 1918, there were fewer than 400 in residence. A generation of Oxford men had enlisted, many soon after the outbreak of the war, and the departure of so many students, as well as younger academics, affected the University’s ability to function and fund itself.

The women’s colleges helped sustain academic life at Oxford. Their gradual integration, at first through necessity, proved the suitability of women as members of the University. In 1915, the first women had been invited to lecture, in 1916 the study of medicine had been opened up to female students and, in 1917, the University took financial responsibility for women’s examinations. With the extension of the franchise – to women over 30, owning property or graduates in a university constituency – the exclusion of women from membership of the University of Oxford was increasingly difficult to justify.

Emily Penrose and Gilbert Murray
By September 1918, 163 Somervillians had registered as Parliamentary electors and women’s membership of the University was again under consideration. The Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act of 1919 provided a legal basis for such a change, with a clause permitting the ancient universities to matriculate women without further legislation. The statute admitting women to membership of the University of Oxford was passed in Hilary Term 1920 and women were at last eligible to matriculate, graduate and sit on faculty boards. Thanks to Emily Penrose, who had worked to ensure Somervillians took the degree course and met all the other criteria, the first women to graduate, in the autumn of 1920, included 114 former students of Somerville College.

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