Never mind minorities, what about the half?

It’s a routine introduction from the announcer, except for the words:

‘… all-male final …’

I’m about to watch University Challenge.

It’s the final final. There’s been a blizzard of quarters and semis – felt like the fractions had mutated out of control, aiming for world domination.

But, all-male?

‘I bet,’ says I, ‘one team’s from an Oxbridge college* that used to be women-only.’

It is.

Somerville College, Oxford, until 1994 female-only, has reached the final with an all-male team.

The other team?

All-male, from mixed – but formerly all-male – Trinity College Cambridge.

Oxford has been on my mind.

I recently re-connected with a friend from my student days – days spent in the comforting bosom of my single-sex alma mater, St Hilda’s College, Oxford.

We re-met thanks to social media.

Like me, she was commenting on the fact that St Hilda’s – the last of Oxford’s five formerly women’s colleges to admit men (in 2008) had just announced the appointment of a new principal.

A man.

Lord Duff.

(Unfortunate name, that, Duff.)

Most of us were pretty unimpressed by the college telling us first on Facebook.

The page developed the jitters as a stream of new – mostly unfavourable – comments sprang up.

A few axe-grinders lauded the choice because he’s a scientist.

But the bit that had us gnashing our teeth came in the last line of the announcement.

[I paraphrase]

‘Oh, by the way,’ (spoonful of sugar), ‘Lord Duff’s wife, Lady Duff, is one of our old gels.’

Lady Duff?

Is she not worth a little more? Like her own name? Her own job?

Or was she, perhaps, just a qualification for the appointment?

‘Applicants must have a St Hilda’s gel in their close family in order to be considered for this important role.’


A few comments down the thread, came the inevitable …

‘Never mind women, what about minorities? Where are the college heads of Indian, Inuit or Bushman extraction?’ (I made up the last two, I confess.)

Now, I’m all for fair treatment of minorities.

I don’t even like calling ‘them’ minorities, they’re just people who should be treated fairly.

But while the world still doesn’t treat roughly half its population fairly, or pay them equally – and turns a blind eye to aborting of female foetuses – I think there’s room for concentrating on us. The ‘other’ half.

I listened to a radio reporter in India, this week, trying out an all female carriage on the Delhi underground. Is it a woman’s right, she asked, to be segregated?

Isn’t that interesting?

We become agitated about women being excluded from religious and networking organisations – so isn’t this tantamount to having our cake and eating it?

Not really. The alternative is groping and harassment. If the men can’t behave, then it’s definitely a woman’s right to keep them at arm’s length.

Which is not why I was involved in the campaign to keep St Hilda’s all-female.

I have nothing against mixed colleges, I just enjoyed the comfort and security of my all-female college life. (And believe me, my social life was not constrained by segregation in our sleeping and breakfasting arrangements.)

But for some young women, it wasn’t a luxury, a choice, or a preference for single-sex bathrooms, it was the only way they could brave the system, whether for religious or purely personal reasons.

The end of this last all-female Oxford enclave came about for many reasons, not least our gender’s tendency to work behind not with power. But it was – irony of ironies – an unfortunate side-effect of equal opportunity legislation that set the college on course for admitting men.

Candidates applying for university-funded posts at St Hilda’s had also to be offered the option to be based at a mixed college.

Now, St Hilda’s has a picturesque setting on a bend in the Cherwell River, a tennis court, a meadow. But Sir Christopher Wren had no hand in her buildings.

Why would good candidates, faced with a name that has stood for centuries, a historic founder like Cardinal Wolsey, instead choose an establishment set up in the 19th century by Miss Beale (the one who, with Miss Buss, ‘Cupid’s dart could not feel’)?

The college could not raise enough money to fund posts and scholarships itself and thus avoid seeing the talent opt for other, more prestigious colleges.

We just didn’t have enough rich old gels.

Or rich old husbands.

Think that’s not fair? Well, the university’s been around in one form or another since at least the 12th century, but it wasn’t until 1920 that women were able to claim a degree, even if they had studied for one. Not till the 1950s that the women’s colleges were given equal status with the men’s.

So, perhaps it was too soon to expect our graduates to be able stump up millions, like the young men who’d been churned, over the centuries, from medieval establishments into the establishment?

And mixing has brought its rewards. The proportion of male to female students is not far off 50/50 now. But the work for women is far from done. When Lord Duff takes up his post there will be only nine female heads among the 38 college leaders.

And in 2012 only 20% of professors were female – though that was up from 18% in 2011.

Some statistics suggest that it’s not that women can’t make it, nor that it’s discrimination that holds them back, but that they don’t always try. Women competing for professorships, for example, enjoy a greater success rate. If they apply.

Where women live while they’re at college may be irrelevant, not make a jot of difference. (So why does Cambridge still have women-only colleges I wonder?)

But young women still need to learn that not only can they aspire, they can succeed – even amid the daunting dreaming spires.

Which is why I’m disappointed.

A once all-female college fields an all-male team in a highly visible TV programme.

Another appoints a man as its head only six years after it went mixed.

What does that say to girls?

And, forgive me Lady Duff, for asking, but who are you?

The woman behind a good man, perhaps?

I trust so.


*Oxbridge is a shorthand term for Oxford and Cambridge universities. Both universities are collegiate. Many people are confused by the collegiate structure, I didn’t want to get into that here – but if you are interested there are many good explanations online, such as Wikipedia’s.

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4 Responses to Never mind minorities, what about the half?

  1. Audrey Chin says:

    Went to Somerville and indeed was very sad went it went co-ed. Have sent the daughter and the giving to Wellesley College in Massachusetts – a last holdout.


    • I was surprised to see 4 female colleges still at Cambridge… I had a depressing time working on the SHC campaign, college often its own worst enemy – at one point the principal could not make time to see a cabinet minister (an alumna) trying to organise a fundraising event – and my (unpaid) PR strategy went nowhere. I am so glad I was there when it was still the nurturing place that I needed. I take it you are back from your amazing travels (I have been a bit distracted lately by events here, may have missed some of your posts).


  2. charliebritten says:

    As an old girl of an all girls’ grammar school and former resident of a single sex hall of residence at a red brick university, I agree with your comments. I coped very well with the opposite sex… later on. Allowing girls a few years together, without the boys, allows them to develop personalities and opinions, before they have to deal with the boyfriend bear-pit.


    • I went to an all girls school as well and had no brothers, I think I would have found the thought of going straight to mixed sex accommodation – bathrooms and breakfast – terrifying! My husband, when doing his PhD, was paid a small sum for looking after a mixed ‘dorm’ in the USA. He said the other day he hated the bathrooms and was glad he’d had a single sex hall when an undergraduate. I just think there should be the option.


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