Today, women make up the majority of university attendees – though it’s taken over 100 years to get here. The path into higher education was not, as with most things to do with universal inclusion, simple or straightforward. In addressing the above, I’ll be trying to find out where Bristol stands in the slow, disjointed process of women being allowed to get degrees.

First, a little background. In 1870, a full 142 years ago, education was universalised. This meant that in the U.K, the vast majority of children received only elementary education – today’s equivalent of a GCSE – and the situation remains much the same today. Though, for the few that went on to further education, the next step was college. Some colleges, upon receiving a charter, became universities.

Women were permitted onto a limited number of courses, and were often overseen and organised by Ladies’ Educational Associations (LEAs), most of which were set up in the 1860s and 1870s. These LEAs were often based in larger cities; they promoted, organised women’s higher education, examinations and provided a support network for women teachers – amidst a largely undecided public. London Ladies’ Educational Association began to organise ‘lectures for ladies’ outside the university college grounds, which was eventually incorporated into the main college. Edinburgh’s LEA secured similar teaching facilities, prompting a certificate particularly for women in 1872. This certificate meant that the woman in question had been educated to a high standard in literature or the arts, St. Andrews in particular offering an LLA (Lady Literate in Arts). Though, it is important to note this was not a degree, and Emily Davies wrote a concerned letter in the same year to Edinburgh’s LEA warning of the potentially damaging consequences of splitting standards in this way.

The University of Bristol gained its charter in 1909, having been preceded by University College and a College of Medicine in the city. John Percival, the head teacher of Clifton College from 1862-1879 supported the creation of university college, and subsequently, the university itself. Percival was a deeply religious figure, and, drawing his morals from his religion, was quoted as saying “there should be as little as possible of a barrier between masters and boys; that our relations with them should be … those of friends…” . This, in an era of staunch paternalism, was nothing short of anarchism. Percival also thought that education should be for everyone, men and women, rich and poor alike. To this end, Percival set up his own Association, the Association for the Promotion of the Higher Education for Women in 1868, which campaigned for and provided more education for women. As a result of Percival’s influence, Bristol’s University College was the first to admit women and men on equal grounds.

Women were first permitted onto a degree course in 1878, and the first degrees were conferred upon women in 1880 by University College London. Many women had previously studied, and did not need to complete much further study to attain their degrees. While Bristol was not the first university to confer degrees upon women, it was among them, and had been congratulated in Christina Bremner’s 1897 book, for its progressive attitude (aside from the medical school, which, in keeping with the attitude of the time did not admit women until some years later).

The university benefitted from visionary figures like Percival in its egalitarian attitude, but defends its status as an inclusive university. More recently, historian Negley Harte and Sir John Kingman, (Bristol’s Vice-Chancellor at the time) had a rather public argument about which university was the first to admit women. It was made quite clear that admitting women and awarding degrees before any other university is, today, a prized status for Bristol. A rare success story in feminism’s history, it seems!

By Bethany Benker, who is studying for a Masters in Social Science Research Methods (Sociology) at the University of Bristol. She has her own fantastic blog here:

Beth would like to thank Doctor Sue Bruley (,2186,en.html) and Professor Carol Dyhouse (

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  1. Pingback: I got my Bristol and women piece in Bristol Perspectives! | sellingjesus

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