The dust has quickly died down after St Hilda’s announced ten days ago that it would be admitting men. The last “all-girls” college in Oxford (as most reports patronizingly put it) finally relented and opened its doors.
I wasn’t exactly thrilled by the news. There could after all be a knock-on effect on my own cherished single-sex Cambridge college. And besides it was hard to follow the logic of why letting men into St Hilda’s would improve the educational opportunities of women.
But worse were the arguments that came out on either side of this debate. “Pro-mixers” tended to heave a sigh of relief that this quaint anachronism had at last been done away with. The supporters of single-sex colleges, I’m afraid, did little better. Here, they said, was a place where women could be cherished outside the nasty, competitive hurly burly of a man’s world.
Wrong on both counts. Women’s colleges are not havens of refuge for those that can’t hack it in mixed company. And as for the accusation of anachronism – they are probably better equipped for promoting women’s opportunities into the 21st century than most other institutions.
This isn’t the place for the PR about why my college offers a marvellous opportunity for clever women. Enough to say that it serves its students well because it is part of the wider university community not a refuge from it.
Most good teachers advising their sixth-form students have got this message. It’s only occasionally now that I visit a school, chat amiably to some engagingly articulate and forthcoming potential applicants to Cambridge and then find my eye drawn to a solitary soul in the corner – well-scrubbed, dressed in sub-Laura Ashley and quiet as a mouse. “That’s Deirdre,” says the teacher. “She’s thinking of applying to Newnham.”
True, Deirdre may turn out to be really smart underneath (especially when she’s escaped from the orbit of her more self confident but less clever class-mates). But you see what I mean.
So why support women’s colleges? Aside from all the advantages for undergraduates, there are some are very solid institutional reasons. The idea that women’s colleges are a strange Victorian anachronism, while the rest of the university is “gender normal” is frankly bonkers.
For most of its 800 years, Cambridge University has been a “boys” institution. Women only got degrees here after World War II (they took the exams much earlier, but didn’t get the piece of paper). Now there is a huge and sincere campaign to change this – but there’s also centuries of history to work against. Look around the portraits hanging in any college dining hall. With the exception of the occasional matriarch benefactor of the sixteenth century, they are all men.
The raw data are themselves an indication of the current problem. The latest “Equality and Diversity” progress report records that there are just 46 women professors in the university, as against 404 men. To be fair, that was an increase of nine women professors on the previous year – but then again the number of women “Readers”, the next rank down, fell by two. To put it in an entirely personal way, for many of my 20 something years as a university teacher in Cambridge I was the only woman lecturer in a Faculty of about 30 men.
The University is certainly on the case. My own heart sinks at some of its initiatives. The idea that there should be at least two women on every University committee is a noble gesture, but it presages a lifetime of administration for me, while (some of) my male colleagues are let off the hook and get some thinking time in the library. What we really need is a place within the university where women are not just present in single figures but have a critical mass – and that is, of course, the women’s colleges.
Until things change, most women teachers Cambridge are likely to be ambivalent about their careers. I have found it a wonderful place to work (otherwise I wouldn’t have stayed). But, like all of us, I bear the scars of a bloke-ish institution.
My favourite (and somewhat self-inflicted) scar is this – and it must be typical of many women’s experience here.
When I was pregnant with child number one, I was the “Meetings Secretary” of the University Classical Society, “The Cambridge Philological Society”. This involved attending meetings three times a term and, in Victorian style, reading out the minutes of the last meeting. (“Professor X read a paper on ‘The digamma in archaic poetry’” or whatever). With ludicrous heroism, and loathsome self-advertisement, I turned out to do this chore less that an week after the baby was born. Never was I going to let the guys say that giving birth interfered with duties to my subject.
For the next term or two, I went on with the job. But at the end of a teaching afternoon (the meetings started at 4.30) I needed desperately, and uncomfortably, to go home and feed the baby. So I would read the Minutes and, once the lecture had begun, I would slip away.
Ten years later, I had long resigned the “Meetings Secretary” role, and they were looking for a new candidate to fill the post. “It’s a drag” I said to one of my colleagues. “You have to turn up for every meeting”. “Ah,” he said, “You were the lazy one who used to walk out before the lecture had even finished.”
I had got no kudos at all. Quite the reverse.
It had been pointless heroism on my part. But the jibe would never have happened at Newnham.