University of Manchester Women Students' Debating Society Archive

Scope and Content

Minutes of the Women Students' Debating Society from the foundation of the Miscellaneous Society of the Manchester College for Women in 1882 to its dissolution in 1905.

The minutes are signed; they are not indexed. The minutes record titles of debates, speakers, divisions (if applicable), but very little information is given on content of debates. There is also a record of the Society's more general business. The archive contains useful information on issues considered topical by women students of this period, as well as more generally, the social and cultural position of women students in higher education in the late 19th century.

Administrative / Biographical History

The Women Students' Debating Society had its origins as the Miscellaneous Society of the Manchester and Salford College for Women. The College had been established in 1877 to provide higher education for local women, at a time when Owens College did not admit women. In 1880, Owens became a constituent college of the federal Victoria University, whose degrees were open to women. After protracted negotiations, women were admitted to Owens in the 1883/4 session, and consequently the College was dissolved. Following this, arrangements for women students at Owens became the responsibility of a Department for Women (which occupied the College's former premises in Brunswick St.), headed by a tutor, Edith Wilson.

The Miscellaneous Society was the main social body for MCW students. On foundation in 1882, its declared aims were "to promote a friendly union amongst the students of the College, by means of debates, papers, dramatic readings etc." Religious topics were prohibited. The first debate on 22 November 1882 proposed "A love of the Fine Arts is a sign of vigour rather than of decay in national life". Debate topics included politics, history, literature and ethics.The Society also held dramatic and essay readings. Meetings were usually held at teatime, with up to twenty students in attendance. It remained the main social body for women students until the Women's Union was set up in late 1899.

The Society was reconstituted in 1883 and was presided over by the tutor for women students. In 1889, it was reorganised as the Social Debating Society, and a further name change occurred in 1899 when it became the Women Students' Debating Society. Guest lecturers were often invited and from 1894 the Society engaged in occasional debates with male students. From 1902 the Society participated in intercollegiate debates, initially with University College London Women's Debating Society. In 1899, a Women's Union had been established, and this offered a range of social activities. A representative from the WSDS was elected to the Union. Given the similar objectives of the Society and the Union, it was agreed to merge in 1905, whereafter debates became the responsibility of the Women's Union.


Arranged chronologically.

Access Information

The collection is open to any accredited reader.

Conditions Governing Use

Photocopies and photographic copies of material in the archive can be supplied for private study purposes only, depending on the condition of the documents.

A number of items within the archive remain within copyright under the terms of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988; it is the responsibility of users to obtain the copyright holder's permission for reproduction of copyright material for purposes other than research or private study.

Prior written permission must be obtained from the Library for publication or reproduction of any material within the archive. Please contact the Head of Special Collections, John Rylands University Library, 150 Deansgate, Manchester, M3 3EH.

Custodial History

The custodial history of the collection is unknown; the minute books were transferred to the Women's Union on the dissolution of the Society in 1905, and probably transferred by the Union to the University of Manchester Library at a later date. The collection was originally organized as part of the general University Archives (UA) sequence.

Related Material

JRUL also has custody of the College for Women archive (MCW), and the Women's Union archive (SUA/1/3). Debating society activities were reported in Iris, a magazine for Owens' women students (see UMP/2/5).

University College, London Special Colelctions has custody of its Women's Debating Society archive.


Mabel Tylecote, The education of women at Manchester University 1883-1933 (Manchester 1941) includes a brief discussion of the Society. Alex Robertson, "Manchester, Owens College and the higher education of women : 'A large hole for the cat and a small one for the kitten'" Bulletin of the John Rylands University Library of Manchester Vol.77.1, Spring 1995, 201-220 is valuable on the early years of women students at Manchester. See also Sarah Wiggins, "Gendered spaces and political identity: debating societies in English women's colleges, 1890-1914", Women's History Review18:5, 2009, 737-752.

Geographical Names