The Magazine

Oxoniennes

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

Jan 26, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 18 • By ELISE PASSAMANI
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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she was awarded a scholarship to study at Worcester College--until it was realized she was a girl and the offer was rescinded.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.