The admission of the first women

Downing College admitted its first female students – twenty-two undergraduates and two postgraduates – in October 1980, although the first formal steps to this important and historic change had begun several years earlier.

On 21 January 1977, it was agreed by the College’s Governing Body that the time was right to ‘consider whether the circumstances are now favourable for the admission of women’. This decision followed lengthy discussions throughout the early 1970s on the issue of co-residence following the admission of women to Churchill, Clare and King’s Colleges in 1972, resulting in the establishment of a Co-Residence Committee in the College. Exploring the various options, initial approaches had been made to Girton College in 1974 to discuss the possibility of a closer relationship between the two Colleges and, around the time Girton voted to admit men in 1976, Downing’s Governing Body authorised the Master to claim ‘a place in the queue of Colleges waiting to admit women’.

On 6 May 1977, the Governing Body resolved that the crucial words ‘No women shall be Master or Fellow or member of the College’ should be deleted from Statute I and, on 20 January 1978, it was resolved ‘that women be admitted as members of the College in statu pupillari in October 1980’.

Downing’s first female Fellow, Dr Jane Weston, University Demonstrator in Metallurgy and Materials Science, was elected in July 1978 and that same year new Fellow Barry Everitt made the first offer to a female prospective medical student, for admission in 1980. By then, the College had elected its second female Fellow, the Graham Robertson Research Fellow Janthia Yearley, and in October welcomed its first female students, twenty-two undergraduates and two postgraduates.

Three years later, the Alumni Association Newsletter reported that "they have graced the higher echelons of the class list in every Tripos [and] they have graced the College by their presence."

Women at Downing: 40 years on

Since the election of Downing’s first female Fellow in 1978 and the admission of its first cohort of women in 1980, the College has welcomed more than 2,950 female students and 46 female Fellows, all contributing in their own ways to make the College a place of welcome, diversity and inclusion in 2020. 

Research is currently underway for a major new archive exhibition celebrating 40 Years of Women at Downing. This page will be added to as the year progresses with more on Downing women since 1980.

Please get in touch if you have memories or memorabilia to share from your time at Downing or if you have any additional thoughts or comments.  Contact Jenny Ulph, College Archivist: archivist@dow.cam.ac.uk

Timeline

1972 - Churchill, Clare and King’s Colleges admit female students

1974 - Discussions by the Downing College Governing Body about co-residence begin

23 January 1976 - Master authorised to claim ‘a place in the queue of Colleges waiting to admit women’

7 May 1976 - Co-Residence Committee established by Governing Body

21 January 1977 - Governing Body agrees the time is right to ‘consider whether the circumstances are now favourable for the admission of women’

6 May 1977 - Governing Body resolves that the crucial words ‘No women shall be Master or Fellow or member of the College’ should be deleted from Statute I

20 January 1978 - Governing Body resolves ‘that women be admitted as members of the College in statu pupillari in October 1980’

July 1978 - Dr Jane Weston, University Demonstrator in Metallurgy and Materials Science, elected as the first female Fellow

1978/79 - Paula Nock made the first offer of a place at Downing (Medicine) for admission in 1980

7 October 1980 - Matriculation of first female students

1982 – Paula Nock (1980) and Kate Panter (1981) represent Cambridge in the Women’s Boat Race at Henley

1982 - first female President of the MCR elected

1983 - Penny Furniss (1981) elected as the first female President of the JCR

1985 - Dame Janet Abbot Baker elected as the first female Honorary Fellow

1986 – PD James elected as one of the first Associate Fellows; the PD James Prize for Creative Writing is established that year

1988 – Dr Cathy Phillips elected Fellow in English; today she is the longest-serving female Fellow, more than 30 years after her election

1997 – Dr Susan Lintott elected as Fellow and the College’s first female Bursar

1999 – Joanna Maitland Robinson elected one of the founding Wilkins Fellows

2001 – Dr Phyllis Lee appointed the first female Dean

2011 – Julia Harrison (1981) becomes the first alumna honoured on the College Benefactors’ Boards

2012 – Tina D’Angelico appointed the College’s first female Head Porter, and the third in Cambridge

2012 – Dr Kate Dyer (1982) appointed first female President of the Downing College Alumni Association

2018 – Research Fellow Dr Priyanka Joshi (2016-19) named one of the 25 most influential women working in Britain by Vogue