10 historic firsts for women at UK universities


historic first for women at university


In the UK, the are now more women studying at university than men. But is hasn't always been that way. 

To mark International Women’s Day on 8th March, we’re honouring the female pioneers who overcame prejudice, exceeded society’s expectations of them, and paved the way for women attending, teaching and leading UK universities.


A brief timeline of firsts for women at British universities


1) In Britain, the University of London was the first university to accept women for study in 1868, although women wouldn’t receive degrees until a decade later.

Its first female students joined in 1969: Sarah Jane Moody, Eliza Orme, Louisa von Glehn, Kate Spiller, Isabella de Lancy West and Susannah Wood.


2) The ‘Edinburgh Seven’ were the first female students admitted to study medicine, joining the University of Edinburgh in 1869. However, they were prevented from graduating and qualifying as doctors, facing a full-scale riot led by the male students.

It wasn’t until 2019 that they were awarded posthumous honorary degrees, 150 years since they enrolled at the university.

the Edinburgh seven plaque

Credit: Spillerjzy / CC BY-SA


3) Eliza Orne became the first woman in England to earn a Law degree in 1888. She graduated from University College London at the age of 39.

eliza orne


4) The first female professor at a UK university was Millicent Mackenzie who was appointed as assistant education lecturer at the University of Cardiff in 1904.

millicent mackenzie


5) Edith Morley was the first woman to be given a full professorship in 1908, teaching English at Reading University. (It’s worth noting that both Mackenzie (above) and Morley still faced discrimination in their roles and earned much less than their male counterparts.)

edith morley


6) Elsie Fogerty founded the now famous Central School of Speech and Drama in 1906.


7) The first female professor at Cambridge University joined in 1939. Her name was Dorothy Garrod and she taught Archaeology. At the time she was appointed, women were still unable to earn degrees at Cambridge – that wouldn’t come until 1947.

dorothy garratt


8) Dame Lillian Penson was the first woman elected as Vice Chancellor of a British university, (University of London) in 1948.


9) Baroness Valerie Amos was appointed as principal of SOAS University in 2015. She is the first black woman to lead a UK university. In 2020 she will become the first ever black head of a college (University College) at the University of Oxford.

valerie amos

Photo credit: Simon Davis/Department for International Development


10) Olivette Otele became the first black female history professor in 2018, appointed to Bath Spa University. She is now at the University of Bristol as its history of slavery professor and was elected as vice president of the Royal Historical Society in 2019.

olivette otele

Photo credit: BBC


If you’d like to learn more about pioneering women in universities, check out Raising women up: Visibility, foremothers, and role models in UK higher education by Dr Victoria Leonard.

Don't forget, International Women’s Day is this Sunday 8th March.

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