The History of Keeping the Damned Women Out

It is easy to forget that what is your daily life today is tomorrow’s history: history is not just about the great white men long dead and buried. A talk I attended a few weeks ago vividly brought this to life for me. The talk was by Nancy Weiss Malkiel, one of the first women hired as faculty at Princeton back in 1969, a university where she has been ever since. The talk was about the move towards coeducation on both sides of the Atlantic and was based on (and ‘advertising’) her recent book Keep the Damned Women Out. Churchill College was a very fitting venue because it was the (then) all-male Cambridge college which first voted to admit women as undergraduates and its Archives hold the College papers detailing the road to coeducation within it, one of the sources used by Malkiel.

1972 was the landmark year when women first entered the colleges of Churchill, Clare and Kings. I remember it well. I came up in 1971, disappointingly just a year too early to be one of those pioneering women (as I had hoped I might be; my memory, which may well be false, is that I had initially understood some colleges would go mixed in 1971 and I had aspired to be in that first cohort). I went to Girton instead. But the period of ‘history’ she was describing was exactly what I lived through. As an undergraduate Natural Scientist student (all science undergraduates study Natural Sciences in Cambridge, then as now choosing three experimental sciences in their first year and specialising more and more during their course) and moreover one focussed on the physical sciences, I got used to being part of a tiny minority. Particularly in practical classes I sometimes might have been the only girl in a room containing perhaps 50 men. I know I didn’t like that, but that was just how it was and as far as I was concerned one simply had to get on with it. Three colleges adding a few women a year later wasn’t going to transform the environment. I did have what I quite consciously thought of as the advantage of going back each night to an all-female college and to female friends with whom I could moan – be it about coursework, lecturers or boyfriends. That the college just happened to be up the only hill in Cambridge plus a mile or two further out to cycle was another of those things that was just how it was. I had wanted to go to Girton, to Girton I went and by Girton I was nurtured.

But this was a time when female lecturers – in any subject – were rare across the University and when the competition to get into Cambridge was substantially harder for girls than for men, since there were far fewer places open to them. At the time I didn’t realise how this meant that the women’s colleges tended to sit right at the top of the ‘league’ tables for exam results (something which ceased a while back). As I listened to Nancy Malkiel’s talk I realised how much I didn’t know about the years that might have been turbulent for the university, but ultimately didn’t turn out to be so. The issues that seemed to have exercised college minds as they contemplated going mixed were whether a college’s reputation in sport would suffer, and whether there were sufficient baths and long mirrors. Hardly great existential questions.

I saw none of the catcalling that Jocelyn Bell Burnell described from her years as an undergraduate in Edinburgh a little earlier, nor was I aware of any antagonism to female dons. That it existed in those years is illustrated by a story I heard of a Girton fellow whose husband was a fellow in another and fervently all male college which had a ban on the entrance of wives into their SCR. When the pair – both acting as examiners, hardly behaving as an amorous couple – retreated to the SCR after an examiners’ meeting for a restorative cup of coffee, all the (male of course) fellows present hid behind newspapers in their disgust. This same college, where my husband was at one point a research fellow, equally forbade him from taking me into lunch although, ludicrously, other fellows could bring me along (and in the case of Sir Sam Edwards, did).

Churchill is proud of having been the first college to vote to go mixed but this wasn’t without its own internal conflicts, as the book makes clear. Sir John Cockcroft, the first Master, had been all in favour of the move but died suddenly in 1967. The discussions did not stop with his death, and other fellows remained enthusiastic and kept the debate and formalities moving forward. It turned out the next Master, Sir William Hawthorne, was not of like mind. Nor, a cautionary tale I was told as soon as I entered the College as Master in 2014, did he read the mood of the overall fellowship. He stood out against the admission of women and very publicly lost the ensuing vote. Not a position a Master should ever get themselves into, particularly on such a high profile issue.

Nevertheless, minor glitches such as plumbing apart, the move to coeducation in the previously all male colleges in Cambridge – and indeed in Oxford where these days, unlike Cambridge, not a single single-sex college remains – went smoothly. This is in stark contrast to the US where things seemed much more heated and protracted in the late 1960s and 1970s as Ivy League universities contemplated making the change. One immediate difference in context is that in the US – where open hostility towards women within the hallowed walls of Harvard, Yale and particularly Malkiel’s own Princeton remained present for a decade or more after the first admissions – is that Cambridge and Oxford were already mixed at the university level: women in themselves weren’t new in the lecture hall or amongst lecturers, just rare. The fights over admitting women had, particularly in Cambridge, been long and unpleasant but had taken place many years before, culminating in the admission of women to full degrees in 1948 (Oxford had been much more open-minded, admitting them in 1921).  Secondly, college affairs are not dominated by alumni to at all the same extent as in the US. Although alumni-giving has become increasingly important in both Cambridge and Oxford, it was not a central (or indeed even peripheral) anxiety in the run up to coeducation as at Princeton or Yale.  The very title of the book comes from a letter from an alumnus to his alma mater expressing the horror of many that women on campus might be treated equally with men, rather than welcomed solely for weekend dating opportunities.

Reading the book took me back to my undergraduate years, making me realise how much, if unknowingly, I had been living and studying through a time of rapid transition, through ‘history’ if you like. The way we Girtonians lived had by the ‘70s changed immeasurably since the college first opened in 1869 (in Hitchin, a suitably safe distance from Cambridge, although it moved to its current site in 1873). A brief illustration of this is encapsulated by a visit to my student room from my grandfather, himself a student in Cambridge before the First World War, who asked anxiously if it was OK for him to be there without a chaperone. I enjoyed the book – and Malkiel’s talk – for all the sense it conveyed that I had been part of that significant transition, even if blindly so. The book provided much scholarly meat for thought, a sense of contextual history plus amusing anecdotes and is well worth a read (although not a quick one).


This entry was posted in Education, Equality, Women in Science and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The History of Keeping the Damned Women Out

  1. Laurence Cox says:

    I would be interested to hear your views on this article:

    Do you think it reflects the personalities of your male colleagues (both current and past)?

    • NQ says:

      Laurence Cox: I am not the venerable professor (or indeed a professor), but this is absolutely my experience, to a tee. In fact, the only tenured female professor in my old department was very much this way, as well as her male colleagues – then again she was also strongly sexist against women.

Comments are closed.