“Women are more than housewives, domestic servants and office secretaries”

To mark the centenary of the Representation of the People Act we look back at Oxford's influential female politicians


This year marks the tenth birthday of Twilight, the 40th birthday of Grease, and the 50th anniversary of Manchester United’s first victory in the European Cup. That’s a pretty big year already.

But February 2018 will also mark the centenary of the ‘Representation of the People Act’, the culmination of the struggle for women’s enfranchisement which allowed all men and women over the age of 30 to vote, and the centenary of the Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act, allowing women to become MPs.

In December 1918, some women were able to vote for the first time in the general election. However, this was very much the beginning, not the end, of the story – it wasn’t until 1928 that the voting age was brought down to 21 and the franchise was extended so that men and women could vote on the same terms.

So, how did this development change the lives of women at Oxford?

To ‘set the scene’ a little, in 1879 Lady Margaret Hall was established as a college admitting female students. I suppose I should mention that Somerville was also established in the same year, but LMH had the idea first so we get the credit (100% unbiased journalism here). St Hugh’s opened in 1886, followed in 1893 by St Hilda’s. The last women’s college to be founded was St Anne’s in 1952.

To throw some more dates into the mix, on 7 October 1920, female students were granted the privilege of attending that beloved ten minute ceremony Oxford so grandly calls ‘matriculation’. After years of putting in all the work – without Bridge Thursdays or even Cellar to tide them over – women were now finally allowed to graduate.

Despite these improvements, it wasn’t until 1974 that five men’s colleges – Brasenose, Jesus, Wadham, Hertford and St Catherine’s – began to dismantle their defences and allow women to enter their fortresses (shock horror). And, it was only a decade ago, in 2008 – when St Hilda’s accepted their first bunch of boys that all Oxford colleges officially became unisex.

It’s very well known that Oxford has a seemingly endless list of male political alumni – Clement Attlee, Edward Heath and David Cameron to name a few. Yet, since gaining admission to a previously male-dominated, ‘no girls allowed’ area of Oxford life, female graduates of the University, as far as my research has shown, have only fairly recently begun to take advantage of their newfound political rights.

The earliest example I could find was Barbara Castle, Baroness of Blackburn, who studied (you guessed it) PPE at St Hugh’s. She was elected as the MP for Blackburn in 1945 and served right the way through until 1979, making her the second longest serving female MP in the House of Commons.

Under Harold Wilson’s government, Castle held many prominent positions including Secretary of State. It’s possible that her university education had little impact on Baroness Castles’ later political career, however it seems that her time at Oxford stimulated her interest in politics – she was the Treasurer of the Oxford University Labour Club, after all.

It may not be to some people’s liking, but it’s impossible to write this article without referencing the one and only Margaret Thatcher. Though they admit to having “ambiguous feelings” toward their most famous alumnus, the first female Prime Minister of our great nation is the product of Somerville College.

Love her or hate her, it’s undeniable that she marked a massive progression in the political rights of women – to many people’s surprise, a woman actually could do the same job as a man. As for whether or not she later ruined the reputation of women in politics, well, that’s personal opinion.

Continuing on that line, Britain’s second female Prime Minister, Theresa May, also attended Oxford – specifically St Hugh’s.

Now, you might want to take a seat, because what I’m about to tell you will make you question everything you thought you knew – Mrs May did not study PPE. Theresa May, the woman who has her finger over the nucelar button, and the person currently leading us out of the European Union, in fact studied Geography (maybe they don’t spend all their time colouring in after all). Like Mrs Thatcher, whether you adore or abhor Mrs May, her position as PM is another historical point in the political rights of women.

Besides the only two women Prime Ministers ever to have served, Oxford has generated other female politicians of note (most of them Tories). Shirley Williams, one of the ‘Gang of Four’ who started the Social Democratic Party in 1981 and for a time was the leader of the Lib Dems in the House of Lords, graduated in PPE from Somerville College; Harriet Baldwin read French and Russian at Lady Margaret Hall, and is now the MP for West Worcestershire and the Under Secretary of State for Defence Procurement; and Liz Truss, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, read PPE at Merton.

Yet without the February 1918 Representation of the People Act and the Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act December 1918, none of these women would have the ability to make their contribution to British politics.

These Acts may not have been all-inclusive, but they did provide the momentum for change. Most importantly, they gave some women the opportunity to have their voice heard and forced men to accept that women were, and are, more than housewives, nurses, domestic servants or secretaries. Therefore it seems the impact on the women at Oxford was limited, however 1918 did mark a significant milestone for some British women. The informed women that emerged from Oxford University evidently took a while to fully take advantage of their newfound rights, but nevertheless, the importance of this centenary for the women of this institution should not be overlooked.

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