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The day that changed women's education

The introduction of the University of London's 'Special Examination for Women' was a hugely significant moment for education and women's equality.

Leading women receiving certificate sketch
Early female graduates receiving their certificates at Presentation Day

August 27 is the anniversary of the first time women formally gained access to university education in the UK. On this day in 1867, the University of London was granted a charter by Queen Victoria, allowing it to introduce the ‘Special Examination for Women’. It wasn’t until the following year, 1868, that the first nine female graduates sat these new examinations. This makes 2018 the 150th anniversary of this momentous occasion.

The supplemental charter came as a result of increasing pressure and demand in the 1860s for inclusion of women in higher education.

Candidates were required to pass at least six papers across a wide range of subjects: Latin, English Language, English History, Geography, Mathematics, Natural Philosophy, Greek, French, German and Italian, and either Chemistry or Botany. Some questions included in these exams were: 'Draw a plan of the city of Rome', ‘Extract the square root of 1245456’ and ‘Give a brief account of the Second Punic War, with the dates of the principle battles’.

Nine pioneering women took the examinations, and of these, six passed, progressing on to fields including politics, law and teaching.

The University of London is celebrating this anniversary throughout 2018, with its 'Leading Women' campaign. The campaign highlights 150 extraordinary women associated with the University, including Louisa Garrett Anderson, the first woman doctor in the UK, novelist Virginia Woolf, and Helena Normanton, the first woman to practise as a barrister in England.

It would be another ten years before women were permitted to take the same degree programmes and examinations, however, this event was hugely significant for the University, for women and for society as a whole.

Dr Mary Stiasny, University of London Pro Vice-Chancellor (International) and chair of the campaign said "Given the extraordinary reach of the University of London and its 18 member institutions, the Leading Women campaign aims to generate debate around these issues, to suggest solutions and to actively provide opportunities for the next generation of women. My vision for the future is one in which women all over the world are recognised and rewarded for their contribution, and, in fact, work as equals alongside men to enrich our global workplaces."