To include the excluded

An exploration of the history of female students at Oxford

Lady Margaret Hall

Reading Virginia Woolf’s ‘A Room of One’s Own’ a year before I would apply to Oxford, I was stunned by the sense of her exclusion, the almost-state of entering an Oxbridge college but being denied complete entrance on account of gender. The experience resonates with an echo of spectatorship, a pre-defined imposter syndrome that haunts through the lines and into our modern day understanding of the sense of not fully belonging.

She attempts to open the library door; the entrance to an Oxbridge library which will one day house her own work: “I must have opened it, for instantly there issued, like a guardian angel barring the way with a flutter of black gown instead of white wings, a deprecating, silvery, kindly gentleman, who regretted in a low voice as he waved me back that ladies are only admitted to the library if accompanied by a Fellow of the college.”

The interruption of male-dominated scholarship into her course enters through the flustered beating of unknown wings, excluding her from waking the echoes of past writers. The University had opened its doors to women in 1879 – yet the sense of exclusion Virginia feels in 1928 persists due the University-imposed quota, established in 1927, its purpose being to restrict the number of female students in attendance. Now we examine: how has Oxford historically regarded female students then and now?

June 1878 witnessed the creation of the Association for the Higher Education of Women, formed with the intention of creating an all-female college – the association was split and eventually formed the non-denominational Somerville and the Anglican Lady Margaret Hall. In 1884, the University controversially opened the examinations of Classical Honour Moderations and the honour schools of natural science, mathematics, and history to female students. However, women were not allowed to matriculate – they could attend lectures and take examinations, but could not receive the degrees which would be given to them had they been men. Women were studying in Oxford but were still kept at a distance, the “guardian angel” of scholarly tradition both teaching them and denying their full place there.

During this period, Trinity College in Dublin was co-educational, and gave Oxbridge women the option to travel to their institution and be awarded degrees. Between 1904 and 1907, the “Steamboat Ladies” travelled to Trinity; one of these was St Hugh’s student, Helena Deneke, later tutor at Lady Margaret Hall.

Writing this piece, I was fortunate enough to be given access to the LMH archives which included Helena’s diary manuscripts that described her life in Oxford from 1900 to 1913. She relates how female students were often not encouraged by parents to apply to Oxford: the first page reads “When I first began seriously to urge a university education my father had demurred: ‘Did I want the companionship of highly intelligent women?’”.

Deneke evokes the constant scrutiny that the female students were under, being reminded during a college event “how careful we must be to avoid offending the susceptibilities of members of the University by unladylike behaviour, we were at Oxford on sufferance and breach of manners”. The progression of female colleges was still thwarted by outdated notions of feminine decorum. A central recollection is her journey to Dublin to collect her degree: “In December 1907 I travelled to Dublin amid rain, and storms and fog… all the same, I found it impossible to think of the whole as anything other than an entertaining game, a foretaste of future history, I felt no loyalty to Dublin”

Her typed voice is descriptive, factual, yet melancholic for a “foretaste of human history” which she can’t yet experience. Instead, she was forced to gain a degree from an institution she had never visited before, miles from the city in which she actually studied and lived. Her voice captures the time of progression and also limitation: women still had to travel to Trinity until October 1920, when they were allowed to officially matriculate. However, this victory was quickly followed by official restriction – the aforementioned quota sysem which was introduced in 1927 and only abolished in 1957.

And yet, despite the University keeping women in this purgatorial state, caught between advancement and tradition, Deneke writes of the sense of community given by an Oxford college, and the friendships, and beauty it allowed. Her experience at St Hugh’s was “my first experience of life in a community… the beauty of Oxford sank into one’s being.” The entry is striking in that the experience of being entranced by the beauty of Oxford, the sunlit days by the rivers, and the view of the spires resonates still with each new student that arrives in Oxford.

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As women in the University were attempting to gain equal rights to study, they were also involved in the larger movement for women’s suffrage. In another manuscript, Gemma Bailey relates the experience of the Women’s Suffrage Pilgrimage in 1913. In an entry from 8th January, Bailey recollects: “we carried lanterns and evergreens and had several banners… the police wouldn’t let us actually form at the M.M. … this was fatal. Men began attacking banners and soon there was a free fight”. The marchers journeyed from Hilda’s to Trinity to Balliol amidst violence. The account is integral in understanding the wider political conditions during the attempts to advance women’s education, and we must remember that a struggle in the political as well as the educational was taking place in Oxford.

The LMH Chronicle (December 1928) is a collection of entries by various female students remembering their Oxford experiences. Students’ memories frequently mention the “rules” women were expected to follow: Henrietta Haynes mentions the constant presence of chaperones, expressing her exasperation at “the idea of never being able to take a solitary walk in Oxford”. Women still had to be accompanied by an elder if they wished to walk through the city. Later, Deneke’s voice enters again, remembering LMH during the First World War: air raids in the Old Hall, emptied colleges filling with cadets, and “Somerville college with (the) wounded”.

During the war, the presence of women allowed the University’s continuation: “for some years the women were the reason for carrying on teaching and examining.” When the University began to be re-manned in a normal way a war-time student was heard to remark in great surprise: “Why, there were more men than women at our lecture to-day!” The remembrance that the University was “re-manned” can be seen in the wider significance of men returning to their previously held positions after the war. Deneke’s account resonates with a passion for continuing during a period of fear and uncertainty. And yet, they were still limited by the quota until 1957.

All-male colleges started to become co-educational from 1974 – the first five colleges were Brasenose, Jesus College, Wadham, Hertford, and St Catherine’s. The later colleges to accept women included Trinity and Magdalen in 1979. Here, I want to consider how the architecture of one of the later all-male colleges compares to that of an all-female college. Architect Aaron Betsky has written on the idea of ‘gendered architecture’ – how traditional qualities of great architecture link to those of masculinity. Betsky suggests that the attributes of powerful architecture “of rationality, strength, trying to be as big and tall as possible – those are all things that we associate with masculinity”.

The exteriors of buildings are an expression of human sexuality and power. From a visual perspective, Magdalen and Lady Margaret Hall differ significantly – LMH features the central, circular window above their Old Hall entrance, less defined by grids and functionality, surrounded by meadows (Betsky refers to “gardens and interiors” as female spaces). Magdalen follows a linear, dominating structure; the tall college towers and the rising spire, the dominating presence of the monumental.

Additionally, the adjectives used on the website of the previously all-male college can be compared to those of the women’s college; adjectives often reflect the values of the buildings and of the college itself. On their page ‘College History’, Magdalen describes their architecture in the following terms – “grandest”, “scale”, “grand”, “new” with “the erection of the large allegorical gargoyles”. In contrast, Lady Margaret Hall expresses their architecture as allowing “sensitivity” and “harmonious development” with an “open and welcoming quadrangle”.

The Magdalen values imply stature, height, strength, grandeur, extravagance; LMH speaks more of harmony, enhancement, openness. Viewing Magdalen through the lens of Betsky, we can see how the traditional qualities of masculinity are reflected in the architecture of a previously all-male college in comparison with the tradition of openness officially and architecturally encouraged by the all-female college.

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The latest all-female college to become co-educational was St. Hilda’s in 2008. One tutor who has been in Oxford since 1990 and witnessed the changes in co-education is Lucinda Rumsey, Senior Tutor at Mansfield. She has been a lecturer in English in several Oxford colleges including New, Worcester, and Keble and has acted as Senior Tutor since 2008.

I sat down with her to discuss her experiences of women’s education in Oxford. “The female colleges were built from opening previous boundaries of gender and culture. When deciding to go co-educational, people in those colleges were torn between valuing what the tradition was for and the limits it implemented.” We are discussing the presence of female history within a college environment: Lucinda points out that a person is a product of their environment, and often when the environment has a strong female history you can feel that it is a place where women were and will continue to be.

Yet, there is an argument to be made regarding the limitations implemented by the single-sex college. Lucinda remembers an applicant in 1994, when the Oxford application system meant that women could apply to more than one college but would often be allocated to a single-sex college. This applicant interviewed at Mansfield but was allocated to Hilda’s – she preferred to not be in a single-sex environment and did not attend her second interview at Hilda’s. This resulted in her losing her place in Oxford.

Lucinda’s experiences illustrate how the male-female disparity existed between not only students but tutors. Recalling earlier memories of sexism at Oxford, Lucinda describes attending a tutor dinner as the only woman and being expected to pour their coffee. Years later while lecturing at another college, another woman was appointed to a senior position to the chagrin of male senior members of staff. As they were leaving the meeting, two senior staff members were discussing her appointment – one scoffed that he was concerned by the idea of “our male students being taught by a feminist!”.

Her experiences of moments like these allow greater understanding of the progress taken by women in Oxford. The introduction of co-education was only the starting point; the struggle for equality within the University continues in different areas. Lucinda attended the first meeting for the Women’s Studies Master’s degree established by Professor Ros Ballaster. She still has her badge, given to the Women’s Studies lecturers, inscribed with the words “Oxford’s Cheapest Faculty”.

This year, the statistics for gender in the University have been in the national news – ‘Oxford University admits more women than men for first time in history’ was the headline in the January Independent. According to UCAS, Oxford offered places to 1,275 female 18-year-old applicants and 1,165 to male applicants in 2018. In comparison, the University’s official statistics from 2013-2016 show a dramatic disparity between the offers given to male and female students – 2014, for instance, showed 1,364 offers to women and 1,508 to men. However, in 2017 there was 1,502 offers made to female students and 1,426 to men, with the female proportion of total UK students admitted rising to 50.1% in comparison to 46.5% in 2014. In numbers, we seem to have arrived at a Golden Age of equality within our university.

Oxford University declares to base admission decisions on individual merits, regardless of age, sexual orientation, or “gender reassignment”. We have traversed through years of female exclusion, restrictive quotas, the absence of co-education, and the ingrained belief of the “weaker sex”. The scholarly angel in his black gown no longer refuses the entry of women into the library. Yet, with 2018 being the first year to admit more women than men during a 900-year history, we continue to question whether we will continue to remain at a constant level of equality.

The education of women forms an arduous, revolutionary, and progressive part of the University’s history, an area which should continue to be remembered and built upon in coming years.

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