The Magazine


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

Jan 26, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 18 • By ELISE PASSAMANI
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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.