Why women’s colleges?

Gender Agenda

Gender Agenda

Issue 5 Easter 2003

The magazine of

Women's Union

Why women’s colleges?

Anna Hobbs

I don’t believe that a random sample of Cambridge students if stopped and asked to picture in
their minds the typical Master of a Cambridge College would not imagine a fifty or sixty
something man. I would expect the same result if I asked them to picture a Senior Tutor or the
Dean. The only reason for any other image of a Vice Chancellor at the moment is the recent
appointment of Professor Alison Richard, but I would imagine her image might kick in a second
or so after hearing the question; a slight jolt to the recollection as we remember that
something unusual has happened – the appointment of a woman to a very senior position within
the University. The first image of a mature, authoritative male is generally not the one that
the sample students would voice. After this automatic reaction the conscience reminds, “Of
course, don’t forget it could be a woman, mustn’t be seen to be sexist, even though it doesn’t
happen very often.” I still don’t believe that that picture wasn’t the instant response to
the question.

I’m not suggesting that the sixty-something male isn’t the automatic image of a College Master
in my head, or that I allowed the appointment of a female Vice Chancellor to pass without
comment. My point is that this picture is there, ingrained in all of us, and until the
immediate subconscious response to the question is that a typical image cannot be supplied, we
still have some difficulty with the place of women at the University of Cambridge. The picture
is there because most of the Masters here are indeed male. The same goes for Senior Tutors,
and, it must be said, JCR Presidents. The first female Principal at a Cambridge College not
originally founded for women only (ie not Girton, Newnham, New Hall or Lucy Cavendish) was
appointed two years ago. A few appointments of women have made the news and so it is assumed
that we are doing well. However the fact that these appointments claim our attention shows
that the University is moving forwards slowly. While it is still progressing there is surely a
place for the institutions that can help its students and staff to aid that progression.


Newnham College

The current ratio of men to women at Cambridge can make it look as if we have at long last
reached a respectable balance, while in fact the presence of the women’s Colleges boosts up
the number of women to meet that of the men. So if we take away the women’s Colleges or
replace half their students with men (as Girton did a while back) the ratio tips back again. A
lot of people I have met have interesting views on female Colleges; many people have an
impression that it is somehow odd and unnatural to keep a lot of intelligent women cooped up
without any men, that it is outdated and unnecessary. Particularly amongst those who don’t
know any of these cooped chickens, Newnham and New Hall seem still to inspire the same kind of
awe that the women’s Colleges did in the 1940s when male acquaintances, and even brothers,
were allocated visiting hours and tea parties were presided over by chaperones with
frightening hats. Men can still be spotted walking around Newnham with hunted looks on their
faces, terrified that they will be caught and removed for daring to trespass on hallowed
female turf. It is wrong to think that the women’s Colleges are just as they were sixty or a
hundred years ago – their founding purpose was to teach women what the men were being taught,
but this had to be carried out apart from the men so Newnham and Girton were homes and
workplaces for their students. Now that women are welcome in the University itself, the
purpose of all-female Colleges has changed but we should not assume that they are completely

Many students here will consider the negative points about an all female environment before
they will imagine that there might be some positive ones. In typical self-centred fashion, for
instance, it is easy to forget that undergraduates at Cambridge are not the only members of
the University trying to get anywhere. What might escape our notice is that Newnham has an all
female fellowship as well as studentship, which means that any post going will go to a
woman. In an institution with a disheartening lack of women in positions of power it is good
to know that somewhere there are guaranteed places for them. The argument is that there is no
such guarantee for men, but at the moment it looks like male academics hardly require assured
places in order to gain them.

I now feel privileged that I went to an all-girls school and to an all-female College where
the Principals were women, where women had the opportunity to do everything on offer. Now that
I work in a job involving schools, I realise how many Head Teachers, Heads of Sixth Form and
Oxbridge Coordinators are male, despite the predominance of women in the teaching
profession. I realise how fortunate I am to have evidence in my life that women are perfectly
capable of these responsible positions. Much as we would like to believe that we have reached
a stage of equality, we are not there yet – it just looks as if we are. Think about how many
women we have here teaching and researching (particularly in the Sciences) and think how that
compares to the number of female students studying here, or even to the number in your sixth
form. While the numbers are still building gradually, still filtering through the system, I
for one appreciate having a place where women are aiming as high as they like.

In order to dispel the myth of elitism and open access to higher education for everyone, the
University is doing more and more work in state schools in areas with no history of sending
students to Oxbridge and often little history of sending them on to any higher education
institutions. The aim is not only to raise awareness of the opportunities available at
Cambridge but also to impress upon teenagers that university is an option at all. A lot of
these students are from ethnic minorities, many of them are from families who need to be
persuaded that it is safe to send their children away from home to be educated – something
that most students at Cambridge and most of their parents, desperate to get their children
into one of the top universities, would never have considered to be an issue. For many of the
young women we now encourage to think about Cambridge, Newnham and New Hall are the only
options for higher education, the only places their families would allow them to live and work
away from home. Similarly we are actively inviting mature students into the University to see
what it can offer them. For women returning to education after a long break, perhaps
intimidated by the image of academia, Lucy Cavendish is a godsend. For these women the
presence of the all-female Colleges opens up huge opportunities they have never thought

The usual response to the idea of women’s Colleges is the opposite – they close off options
and stifle the students. I’m sure this happens to some people, but I’m also sure that in every
College there are those who sit in their rooms and make no friends. My experience of women at
New Hall and Newnham is that they arrive, they dump their luggage and make some friends and
then they get out into the rest of the University and get themselves involved in everything
available to them To be honest, if you have lived here for over six months and still have the
idea that they are all nuns or whores, you probably haven’t met one. And the reason for that
could well be that you’ve been sitting in your own College bar with your College friends and
maybe you haven’t been out to see what the University has to offer. At Newnham we knew it was
our home, where you can wear your slippers in the corridor if you liked, where vomit on the
grass and drunken shouting at night were rarities (maybe I’m stereotyping, but funnily enough
it is a fact) but we knew we had the rest of the University to play with and we should get out
there and find it. To so many women these Colleges present an opportunity for growth – that is
why they began and why they are still going.



Email us at gender-agenda@cusu.cam.ac.uk