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Her Oxford

reviewed by Gillian Sutherland - June 29, 2009

coverTitle: Her Oxford
Author(s): Judy G. Batson
Publisher: Vanderbilt University Press, Nashville
ISBN: 0826516106, Pages: 384, Year: 2008
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The first two women’s colleges wanting to join the University of Oxford, Somerville and Lady Margaret Hall, opened their doors in 1879. Three more societies joined them in the next two decades; but it was not until 1920 that their students became full members of the University. Even then the numbers of women students were restricted, the cap not being finally lifted until 1957; and it was only at the beginning of that decade, the 1950s, that all five colleges became fully self-governing academic corporations. Such an abbreviated thumbnail sketch prompts two questions. Why did it take so long? And why did women persist in wanting to join an institution which appeared so reluctant to let them in? Batson provides some answers to the first, but does not formulate the second, which is a pity, as the two questions and attempts to answer them are not unrelated.

Batson’s 18 chapters and 6 Appendixes (sic) provide a brisk account of the creation and vicissitudes of the Oxford women’s colleges in their first hundred years or so, which is up to the advent of mixed undergraduate colleges. It is well seasoned with anecdotes and short accounts of some of the more distinguished students. Batson writes easily and fluently, and there is a helpful but not absolutely up-to-date bibliography. The book provides a useful introduction for anyone not already familiar with the story. It does not supersede the account in the magisterial volumes of the History of Oxford, those for the nineteenth century edited by M.G. Brock and M.C. Curthoys, and for the twentieth century by Brian Harrison; and the 200 “biographies” of Oxford women students and their subsequent careers with which the publishers make great play are too incomplete and random to provide the makings of a serious prosopographical study. It also seems that the author has gathered less material from St. Hugh’s than from the other four colleges, a lack which is more significant than it might first appear, since at the beginning the college deliberately set out to position itself further down-market than the others.

The question of why the women chose to use so much of their time and energy trying to secure acceptance is one which may seem most resonant to North American audiences, familiar as they are with nineteenth century patterns of educational innovation and variety. Why didn’t the women wanting higher education find their own site and do their own thing, attracting others of like mind and ambition to join them? The answers lie in a tangled knot of beliefs and assumptions about class, status, and curriculum in nineteenth century England. Oxford – and Cambridge – were the only universities in England at the beginning of the nineteenth century, and they were the preserve of the social elite, the upper and upper middle classes, and they remained at the apex even as other institutions of higher education grew up around them. These other institutions, in London, in the great manufacturing cities, might attempt to widen access and experiment with curriculum innovation, being much attracted by the alternative model of provision on offer in Scotland, with its four ancient universities. Oxford and Cambridge were deeply resistant to such experiment, laying far more emphasis on the experience of shared intellectual endeavour than its content, a stance crystallised at mid-century by John Henry Newman in Discourse VI of his The Idea of a University. The Englishwomen who laid long and weary siege to Oxford – and Cambridge – were not simply laying claim to a higher education, they wanted a share in the higher education, which had the highest status in the society in which they lived. Yet this was also a society which tried to control and limit tightly the relationships and social encounters of adolescents and young adults in elite groups and those who aspired to join such groups. Another mid-century observer, the Chancery barrister and diarist A.J. Munby, obsessed with recording the lives of working women, would remark that friendship was inconceivable between men and women of the middle and upper classes. The worlds of unmarried young ladies and young gentlemen were homosocial ones. Such concerns fed into and reinforced the economic pressures making for late marriage among the English middle and upper classes in the last third of the nineteenth century.

With these assumptions and powerful conventions of behaviour as context, it is easier to grasp why many Oxford men saw the women’s presence and their demands as verging on the revolutionary and why they resisted so long and so hard. These assumptions and conventions form a nexus which helps explain why the idea of a women’s college in the depths of the country, The Princess or the Princess Ida scheme, depending on whether you favor the characterization offered in Tennyson’s long poem or the version in Gilbert and Sullivan’s operetta, was so much canvassed by the men and so stoutly resisted by the women. There are clues to all this in Batson’s narrative, but they can only be found by those who know already what they are seeking.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: June 29, 2009
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 15700, Date Accessed: 1/22/2022 4:26:51 AM

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About the Author
  • Gillian Sutherland
    Newnham College, Cambridge
    E-mail Author
    GILLIAN SUTHERLAND is a Fellow of Newnham College, Cambridge. She has written extensively on education in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries with a particular focus latterly on the higher education of women. Her most recent book is Faith, Duty and the Power of Mind. The Cloughs and their Circle 1820-1960, Cambridge University Press, 2006.
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