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‘Under Siege by Women’: Everything We Take for Granted at Oxford

It is easy to forget that, just over 100 years ago, women could not get a degree from Oxford. They could study their course, sit their exams, and work just as hard as their male counterparts. But at the end of it all, what did they have to show for their efforts? Granted, Oxford is far more accessible to women now (though it feels strange to say that Oxford is accessible at all…). It is easy to forget that, only a short while ago, our sisters did not enjoy all that we have now.

This Trinity, I finally got to study women for more than one week of a term. No longer was I subjected to a week of women’s history (i.e. what Charlemagne let his daughters do, or what women were up to in the Chartist movement), as though women’s history wasn’t just regular history. Surely, the actions of women must amount to more than 1/8th of a module?

Nonetheless, I have been glad to finally study women, and, more specifically, their gradual admittance to higher education institutes such as Oxbridge. I use the term ‘glad’ very loosely—altogether it has been somewhat disheartening to see how slowly progress was made, and how hard we had to fight for it. Despite this, I am grateful for the deeper appreciation of my place here at Oxford that this module has given me. Perhaps simply existing here will be enough to send a few old misogynists spinning in their graves.

So, without further ado, let me recount my existence at Oxford, and some ways in which our sisters’ existence here was restricted.

Lectures for Ladies

Now, as an historian, I will not pretend that I have attended every single lecture. Perhaps I should start to, to show my gratitude for even being allowed. I have trekked to the Exam Schools every now and then (or pulled up Canvas on my laptop and set the speed to 1.5 for efficiency). But I have scarcely stopped to think about how lucky I am to be able to do so. 

As early as 1866, attempts were made to organise classes and lectures for women in Oxford; these failed. A lack of support put an abrupt end to them, and it wasn’t until 1873 that women such as Mary Ward and Louise Creighton, with the support of college fellows’ female family members, established Lectures for Ladies. This opened up lectures on topics such as Literature, Mathematics, German, and History, and they were wildly popular. Despite this, it wasn’t until 1914 that women were allowed to attend lectures unchaperoned, ridding the lecture hall of the clacking of knitting needles and the absurd seating arrangements which saw women facing away from lecturers to avoid ‘distracting’ them. Next time you’re falling asleep in your seat at a 9 AM lecture, remember to look your lecturer straight in the eye…

College Life

Worcester College: the place that I call home for 8 weeks at a time. Yet I am abruptly reminded every time I enter the college that a mere 43 years ago I wouldn’t be allowed to call it my home, as women weren’t accepted into the college as students until 1979. I was astonished to find that the restrictions on women went as deep as the architecture of women’s colleges. Long corridors were favoured over staircases so that fellows could ensure the women were behaving, and they adopted a small-scale domestic style for their buildings so women felt right at home. Right at home, that is, in an institution where they were unwanted by the majority. 

So the next time I trip up on my dingy, medieval staircase, I will be grateful. Grateful for my privacy, grateful to trip up the steps my sisters were not even allowed to set foot on.

Examinations and Degrees

I am thankful that I can take exams. Acne-riddled, 16-year-old Lucy, anxiously flipping through flashcards prior to her GCSE Physics exam, would be disgusted to hear me say that, but it’s the truth. For so long, examinations at Oxbridge were seen as a male domain. In ancient institutions which were ‘under siege by women’ (Deslandes 2002), examinations were the masculine stronghold. Women might attend classes or lectures, but they could not prove their academic talents as they weren’t able to directly compete with men. Even when they could sit all the exams necessary to obtain a Bachelor’s Degree, their results would be published separately. No matter how well they performed, they would not receive a degree. In fact, Oxbridge were the last two universities in Britain not to offer a degree to their female students.

Women could not matriculate at Oxford until October 1920, and as we all know you cannot obtain a degree here without matriculating. From October 1920, the first Oxford women were finally awarded degrees for their work. Cambridge women were not so fortunate, waiting until 1948 to be awarded degrees. Less than 100 years ago

So, although I haven’t yet actually got my BA (fingers crossed I eventually will), I am thankful that I have the opportunity to. Every time I moan about my essay crisis—a weekly occurrence, might I add—or collections, or Prelims, I will remember that it actually does all count for something now. Maybe the sight of me in sub-fusc, sitting with my peers in the Sheldonian Theatre, would be enough to make the men of old times weep.

The Oxford Union

I shudder to admit this as a frequent Oxfess commenter, often moaning about Union hacks and their false obsession with ‘#access’—but I am in fact a member of the Oxford Union. Until 1963, women weren’t allowed to be members of the Oxford Union. The Union is a symbol of power, of debating, and has been the playground of the Establishment for many years. And yet, now, the debate chamber has been infiltrated by the likes of myself and my peers. Not only a woman, but a woman from a working-class background, from Bradford, from a state comprehensive school. A woman who still isn’t sure which wine pairs with which meat, or quite what all the fancy dress codes mean. While the price of their membership certainly isn’t accessible, and the Union undoubtedly has a long way to go, I can’t deny the privilege I’m afforded in my access to this symbol of the Establishment.

And so, though Oxford is still far from a place where everyone, regardless of their background, feels welcome, I feel I may now walk around with some sense of gratitude. Not gratitude to the old men who so reluctantly let us in, of course. Gratitude for the women who fought for the right of non-men to be here. For the women who proved that we deserve to be here. 

By no means is our work here done—no one can deny that Oxbridge reeks of elitism to this very day. But I go onwards with the hope that, eventually, we will change the face of this ancient institution for the better.

With thanks to the History Faculty and all my sisters at Oxford, past and present.

If you’re interested in some further reading, check out:

Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, ‘Sex in Mind and Education: A Reply’, Fortnightly Review, 15:89

Julia Bush, ‘“Special Strengths for their own Special Duties”: Women, Higher Education and Gender Conservatism in late Victorian Britain’

Paul Deslandes, ‘Competitive Examinations and the Culture of Masculinity in Oxbridge Undergraduate Life, 1850-1920, History of Education Quarterly, 42: 4

William Whyte, ‘The Architecture of Women’s Colleges’