The Magazine

Oxoniennes

Women have crashed the gates of England's oldest university.

Jan 26, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 18 • By ELISE PASSAMANI
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Her Oxford

by Judy G. Batson

Vanderbilt, 384 pp., $45

One of the first women to study at Oxford
University in the late 19th century wrote that she would hide her notebooks in her jacket to avoid the embarrassment of being identified as "that eccentric creature, a girl student."

For anyone walking through Oxford today, this alumna's discomfort could not seem more foreign: Women students are everywhere, from pubs to playing fields, labs, and lecture halls, sporting garments emblazoned with colorful college crests.

As of 2006, the university boasted 5,735 women out of a total of 12,106 undergraduates, and 3,262 women out of 7,380 postgraduates. The last of the Oxford men's colleges to go co-ed (Oriel) did so in 1985, and the one remaining women's college (St. Hilda's) welcomed its first men this past October. This year marks the 50th anniversary of women achieving full status in the university.

Women's struggle to become full students at Oxford spanned approximately 80 years, starting in 1879 when the first 21 women students arrived. The university's transformation from a symbol of male privilege to a place where women have equal status is charted in fascinating detail in Her Oxford. Judy G. Batson weaves together an enormous scope of information from the archives of the five former women's colleges and, more important, the memoirs of many of Oxford's first women students. The result is a highly enjoyable portrait of an institution steeped in tradition and of the intrepid women who, with serious scholarship and determination, broke down Oxford's barriers one by one. The author includes an array of black and white photographs depicting college life from the 1880s to 1960, and the book is topped off with 120 mini-biographies of noteworthy alumnae, ranging from Dorothy Sayers to Margaret Thatcher.

Surprisingly, Batson cites an issue of demography as the impetus for improvements in women's secondary and higher education in 19th-century Britain. In the 1851 census, "women outnumbered men in Great Britain by over 500,000, and more than 800,000 .  .  . were classified as spinsters"--due, in part, to the higher mortality of boys but also to the higher rate of men emigrating to the far reaches of the Empire. As a result, middle-class Victorian women couldn't count on getting married, and many needed to work to support themselves. One of the only respectable avenues open to such women was to become governesses. But few had any formal education, let alone credentials to show potential employers.

"Who could have predicted," Batson asks, "that an attempt to improve the intellectual abilities of governesses would lead to a transformed educational climate for women in general?"

Once women started attaining some formal education, a positive cycle was put into motion. Many of the earliest women university students went on to become teachers and headmistresses in schools for girls, which in turn produced better prepared candidates for higher education. Notes Batson: "By 1890, good-quality girls' schools had sprung up all over the country; women could earn degrees from a number of universities and colleges and could study, though not earn a degree, from the two most ancient institutions, Oxford and Cambridge."

The first residential women's colleges were Lady Margaret Hall (LMH) and Somerville, both founded in 1879 on properties in North Oxford purchased from St. John's College. Concurrently, a separate group, the Society of Home-Students, was founded for women already living in Oxford who did not want to move into a residential college. This would eventually become St. Anne's College. Then, in 1886, the principal of LMH founded St. Hugh's to help women of more modest means come to Oxford, and 10 years later, the fifth and last of Oxford's women's colleges, St. Hilda's, was formed in a partnership with the Cheltenham Ladies' College, a secondary school.

Between 1879 and 1910 the women's colleges were administered in large part by a group called the Association for Promoting the Education of Women in Oxford (AEW), which arranged lectures for the women students to attend as well as tutorials. Women students could only attend lectures if the lecturer consented; at times they would be required to enter a lecture hall through a side door and had to sit apart from the men. Frequently, sympathetic Oxford dons would come and lecture to women in "rented rooms over a baker's shop in Little Clarendon Street" in North Oxford.

John Ruskin, for one, seems to have refused to let women attend his lectures, referring to them as "the bonnets." But the supporters of women at Oxford became adept at swiftly putting opponents in their place. When, in 1958, a writer in the Times suggested that women's colleges focus on teaching domestic courses, a woman promptly responded: "[W]henever higher education for women becomes the subject of public discussion some dodo of a man raises his antique English head and spits vulgar abuse on women in general."

While Batson exposes prejudice where it existed, her tone is straightforward and devoid of bitterness. Her Oxford is not a reproach to the paternalism of the past but a panegyric to the women who brought about so much positive change.

In particular, she pays great attention to the outstanding leadership provided by women who, during the early years, skillfully managed the colleges with limited resources. The first principal of LMH was Elizabeth Wordsworth (great-niece of the poet), whose curious mind and social ease set the tone during the 30 years she was in charge. Annie Rogers, who took the Oxford Local Examination in 1873 at age 17 under the name "A.M.A.H. Rogers," did so well she was awarded a scholarship to study at Worcester College--until it was realized she was a girl and the offer was rescinded. (She would later become secretary of the AEW and a classics tutor at St. Hugh's.) Her predecessor at the AEW, Bertha Johnson, became principal of the Home-Students in 1893, where her leadership was described as "a benevolent autocracy, of a vivid and somewhat unconventional type," and where her "touch of motherliness" earned her the affection of many students. Emily Penrose, who attended Somerville during 1889-92, returned as principal in 1907 and stayed for nearly 20 years. While some women students at other colleges didn't sit for examinations, Miss Penrose insisted that all her students do so; she believed that excellence was the best argument for allowing women to earn degrees.

The question of awarding degrees was first raised in 1894. Many Oxford men had come to accept the presence of women in their midst--after all, women "had behaved with exceptional decorum; they had not been carted off to hospitals or mental institutions with brain fever; and the majority had shown that work of a university standard was not beyond their grasp"--but the 1896 resolution to grant women degrees was defeated, and women were to remain "honored and indulged guests," as one Oxford professor put it, until the question came up again in 1920.

In the meantime, women students became very important during World War I. Indeed, so many undergraduates left to fight--between 1914 and 1915 the total number of students decreased by two-thirds--that it may be argued that women helped keep Oxford from shutting down. Many left their studies to become nurses.

Just before the war broke out, a St. John's fellow named John Stocks called for a committee to reconsider granting degrees to women. After the war, Oxford's governing bodies convened in May 1920 and voted for a statute that would grant degrees to women. (Cambridge did not do the same until 1948.) What's more, they agreed to grant degrees retroactively to former students who had fulfilled all their requirements, and those who hadn't sat for examinations could come back and do so. Thanks to their principal's insistence on academic achievement, many Somerville students from the Penrose era were immediately qualified.

Her Oxford is a serious book, but it is full of amusing anecdotes, such as this description of Annie Rogers's gardening habits:

gardeners at St. John's College were urged to keep a sharp eye on Miss Rogers if she walked around their premises carrying a large, furled umbrella, handy as both a digging tool and a carryall for smuggling out acquisitions .  .  . under her "enlightened despotism," St. Hugh's gardens became some of the most beautiful in Oxford.

Her Oxford is also an indispensable resource for those interested in Oxford, and in changing attitudes towards women's role in higher education. The women of my generation can easily take their education for granted, but of the 785 million illiterate adults in the world today, two-thirds are women, and in many places, girls are simply denied schooling.

Elise Passamani is a graduate student at St. John's College, Oxford.