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.