Cambridge Women and the Professional World: Navigating Gender Conservatism in the Late Victorian Era


  • Olivia Dobbs
  • Dr. Amanda Pipkin



During the late nineteenth century, British women received better education, especially at the university level. In particular, the University of Cambridge opened two women’s colleges, Girton College in 1869 and Newnham College in 1871. The establishment of higher educational institutions greatly contrasted the traditions of the Victorian gender norms, which dictated that women should be feminine, nurturing, and supportive towards their husband and family. Due to this persistence of tradition, these conservative notions of gender influenced Cambridge women throughout their academic and professional lives. Although women may have been limited by gender conservatism in their careers, it is important to note that these limitations did not make their accomplishments less impressive. Furthermore, their strategic navigation of traditional gender roles aided them in successfully establishing their professional presence in their respective fields. Women such as Jane Ellen Harrison, Charlotte Angas Scott, Marion Greenwood Bidder, and Philippa Fawcett used various tactics to establish themselves as academics and help inspire other women in the process. Though exceptional in their upbringing and talents, other Cambridge women commonly practiced their methods of navigating gender conservatism and other social dilemmas. By skillfully conforming to certain gender norms, these women helped revolutionize women’s professional opportunities from within and ushered in the next generation of female academics.

Keywords: feminism, gender, nineteenth century, twentieth century, University of Cambridge, university education, Victorian era, women’s history