Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Agnata Frances Ramsay

It was not until 1948 that women were admitted to degrees at Cambridge University although as early as 1868 it had created "Higher Locals" examinations for women over the age of eighteen. The University clearly had no intention of being rushed into opening its doors to women albeit in 1870 lectures for women were inaugurated.

The push by women continued and in 1873 Girton College moved to the edge of Cambridge from Hitchin, thirty miles away. Two years later, In 1875, Newnham College opened on the outskirts of the city offering residential accommodation and teaching.

In 1881 Cambridge granted women the right to take the Tripos Examinations and they were awarded a University Certificate if they passed. Six years after women won this right, Agnata Frances Ramsay from Girton College came first among those taking the Classics Tripos examination, the only candidate to be placed in the first division of the First Class. According to the Class I lists, there were five men in the second division, and seven in the third division. Ramsay’s attainment would have warranted the position of Senior Classic except for the fact that she was a woman. Nonetheless, Mr Punch, who always seemed to know a good thing when he saw one made sure that her achievement was recognised. In her honor, du Maurier drew a cartoon of Mr Punch tipping his mortar-board as Agnata enters a first-class railway compartment labelled Ladies Only with the text ‘Honour to Agnata Frances Ramsay’. The cartoon still hangs in the front hall of Girton College and can be viewed on its website. It was she and others who followed such as Phillipa Fawcett of Newnham College and Margaret Alford of Girton who clearly demonstrated that intellectually and academically they were in no way inferior to male students.

In 1998, on the fiftieth anniversary of the admission of women to Cambridge degrees, in the oration, the speaker noted that:

not without the help of more friends and supporters than could easily be mentioned here, two women had established foundations for their own sex, and those women come first in today's celebrations: Emily Davies and Anne Jemima Clough. Soon came Agnata Ramsay and Philippa Fawcett, taking top Firsts in Classics and Mathematics respectively, and Marion Bidder should be mentioned too, who took a First Class in both Parts of the Natural Sciences Tripos before lecturing in Physiology and Botany in both your Colleges. Was it more shame to the University that their names could not be read out with the men, or glory to you that in those subjects traditionally thought fitter for men they proved the capacity of women?

To see Mr Punch's tribute to Agnata Ramsay, click here.

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