A Different Kind of Wrangler

As I was working on my current manuscript this past weekend, I found myself needing to do a research check on the role of a wrangler on a 19th century ranch. I knew they dealt with horses, but I didn’t know if the term wrangler only applied during cattle drives or if it would be applicable in a ranch setting. So I pulled up Google prepared for a quick, fast-checking search.

Well, at first all I found were Wrangler brand jeans. Not exactly what I was looking for. So I added “19th century” to my search about what a wrangler did. That search still didn’t pull up what I was looking for, but what it pulled up instead was an incredible story about a woman breaking academic barriers in mathematics. With a daughter who graduated with degrees in Math and Computer Science who is working on a PhD in a field dominated by men, I was immediately intrigued and dove head first d own the rabbit hole.

Cambridge University was considered the center of academic achievement and learning during Victorian times. Those who excelled at Cambridge went on to have amazing careers and were considered some of the greatest minds of the age. All of whom were, of course, men. During the Victorian era, the predominant medical opinion was that women were delicate, fragile creatures, unable to achieve greatness in academics or athletics. For a woman to dedicate herself to strenuous study or exercise was to run the risk of mental illness or sterility. Medical experts believed that the body could only handle a set amount of development and since a woman’s reproductive system was so much more complicated than a man’s if she diverted too much energy to academic study, her development in other areas would suffer. Not only that, but women’s skulls were smaller than men’s, so there brains were therefore smaller and unable to comprehend the complexities of high academia.

Girton College Cricket Team 1899

Near the end of the 1800’s however, the suffrage movement had picked up momentum and more and more women were seeking opportunities for higher learning. Women’s colleges began to appear, including Girton, a college associated with Cambridge. A handful of women proved to have very capable, bright minds. One such woman, Agnata Ramsey, even managed to take top marks on the Classics exams in 1887, besting all of the men from Cambridge. While a remarkable achievement, this accomplishment did little to sway the men at the time to consider women their intellectual equals. You see, women had been achieving similar scores to men in many academic subjects for years. All save one–mathematics. Men always placed higher in this exam. Victorian-era scholars believed women’s minds incapable of the complex logic required in advanced mathematics since everyone knew they a woman’s nature was based on emotion.

Enter Philippa Fawcett.

Philippa was the only child of Henry and Millicent Fawcett, two people who were extraordinary in their own rights. Millicent was a leader in the women’s suffrage movement and Henry, though blinded at age 25, became a minister in the British government. Such forward-thinking parents no doubt aided Philippa’s rise to greatness. She showed an early talent for mathematics, and her parents eagerly aided her growth. She earned a place at Newnham College (another women’s college associated with Cambridge) and took courses in pure and applied mathematics at University College London, a more progressive school that allowed females to take courses alongside males. Despite access to collegiate coursework, nothing could adequately prepare her for the extremely rigorous 8 days of exams known as the Cambridge math tripos. This exam was created to be nearly impossible. Those who did exceptionally well managed to complete 2 of the 12 papers. Results of the test were announced in numerical order. The group with the top scores were known as Wranglers. And the top scorer for the year was known as the Senior Wrangler. Female students from Cambridge’s sister schools of Girton and Newnham were allowed to sit for the same exams as the men. However, their ranking was kept separate. When the results were read, they would be announced as falling between the men’s ranking. So if a women scored higher than the 18th position and lower than the 17th, her result would be “Between the 17th and 18th Optimes (Optimes were the group below Wranglers).

The man who earned the position of Senior Wrangler was guaranteed a stellar career in academia and a great deal of prestige. Students would hire tutors and study up to 20 hours a day for months. As you can imagine, this led to health problems and mental breakdowns. In 1890, when Philippa sat for the exam, she took a much more measured approach. She worked with a tutor but kept to a strict schedule, rising at 8:00 am every day and never staying up later than 11:00 pm. She would study for 6 hours a day. Not only was she an orderly, self-disciplined person by nature, but she was well aware that she was being scrutinized by society within and without academia. She was determined to give them no fodder that could be used to denigrate the role of women in higher learning.

On June 7, 1890 the results from the Cambridge math tripos were announced and the world erupted. When the women’s results were read, Philippa Fawcett’s name came last, and her result – Above the Senior Wrangler! She scored 13% higher than the top man. The news spread worldwide and challenged traditional beliefs of what a female could achieve. Her remarkable accomplishment paved the way for equal opportunities for women at institutions of higher learning around the world.

It took significant time for change to reach the hallowed halls of Cambridge, however. They didn’t allow women to pursue degrees alongside men until 1948. (In the United States, Yale did not admit women until 1969 and Harvard until 1977.) Thankfully, Philippa lived long enough to see this day. She died at age 80 after a long career teaching at Newnham College. Her death came one month after Cambridge finally opened its doors to women, and 58 years after her society-rocking achievement of being ranked Above the Senior Wrangler.

What area of gender equality are you most thankful for today?