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Dr Ann Kennedy Smith discusses how the influential women’s groups that sprang up in 1880s Cambridge, providing forums for intellectual debate among the University's first female students and other women, and encouraging political, professional and social activism beyond college walls.

"We had no part or lot in University societies except the Ladies Discussion Society and I think C.U.M.S…. in any case the University generally were [sic] hardly aware of our existence.”

Although the first women at Cambridge did not join University societies, as former student Blanche Athena Clough (Newnham College Principal 1920-23) recalled above, the 1880s saw several new women-led associations springing up. This talk is about four of these influential groups, which provided forums for intellectual debate among the University's first female students and other women, as well as promoting active involvement in social issues.

The largest of these was the Cambridge Ladies' Discussion Society. Originally connected to the University Society for the Discussion of Social Questions, it became an independent women's association in 1886 that kept in step with the University's terms and organisational principles. Newnham and Girton students were encouraged to join, and a joint talk was held with the male student society once a year. As well as providing a social network that was free from 'town and gown' divisions, the Cambridge Ladies' Discussion Society encouraged the University's women students to become involved in social activism, with talks on ‘Women’s Trade Unions’, 'Technical Education for Women' and 'The Need for Women in Municipal Affairs'.

This talk will also touch on three other societies: the Cambridge Women's Suffrage Association, co-founded by Millicent Fawcett and Kathleen Lyttelton in 1884, leading to the town becoming one of the major centres of the campaign for women's votes; the philanthropic Cambridge Association for the Care of Girls (1883), and the exclusive Ladies' Dining Society founded in 1890 ("a remarkable group" according to John Maynard Keynes). Such associations brought women together and gave the University's women students the opportunity to see how their work could make a difference in the public sphere .

The event is free, and open to all. Suitable for ages 14+. Booking required. BOOK HERE.

This event is part of The Rising Tide: Women at Cambridge programme hosted by Cambridge University Libraries, and generously supported by Cambridge Assessment, the Vice Chancellor of the University of Cambridge, the Howard and Abby Milstein Foundation, and the Friends of Cambridge University Library.

Access: The University Library offers step-free access and disabled toilet facilities.

Image: Mary Kathleen Lyttelton (née Clive) by Eveleen Myers (née Tennant), 1890s © National Portrait Gallery, London.

Event speaker: 
Dr Ann Kennedy Smith
Cambridge University Library
Thursday, 5 December, 2019
Booking required