Women at Wadham

Date Published: 13.12.2021

Wadham was one of the first historically all-male Oxford colleges to admit women in 1974.

The Observer magazine featured Wadham undergraduates Mela Davidson and Kate Mackenzie in an article, 'Room of my own' in February 1985. Photo by Guglielmo Galvin.

Proposing co-education

Co-education at Oxford was discussed from the 1960s onwards but it wasn’t until 1965 that New College passed a resolution in favour, although with an insufficient majority to authorize a change of statue. In Wadham College 1610-2010, edited by Jane Garnett and Cliff Davies, they write that the University’s Franks Commission (1964-5) conceded the case for an expansion of the number of women admitted, following a large increase in the number of women taking A Levels. Wadham was one of five colleges that led the trend across Oxford towards the admission of women.

The process began with a motion in the JCR on 4 December 1968. A committee of five was established to investigate the possibility, reporting in favour of co-education in 1970. The then Warden, Maurice Bowra, seems to have been sympathetic to the idea: “I think my JCR, Like other JCRs desire change for the simple reason that most of them have been brought up at home with girls around them, and find it very odd, if not unnatural, to be severed from them.”

The issue featured prominently in the election for the Wardenship which took place during 1969 and was won by Stuart Hampshire. At Hampshire’s first meeting of the Governing Body in 1970, this item was top of the agenda, and at a special meeting two weeks later, 16 Fellows voted in favour, four against, eight abstentions (and, apparently nine absent) on a motion that ‘the College should become multiple sex’ and rejecting the notion of a quota. The Warden called a meeting of interested heads of colleges in order to explore the technicalities. In 1972, the University approved a scheme by which five men’s colleges would admit up to 100 women undergraduates each year. In the event, when the first admissions took place, in 1974, the quota was disregarded. Wadham alone took 27 women in a total undergraduate admission of 97.

A tentative case for co-education

Wadham’s decision to admit women was partly based on the report of the Wadham College JCR and Governing Body joint sub-committee on co-education, published on 12 March, 1970. JCR members were David Nightingale (1966, Classics), Andy Hodson (1967, Law) and John Knight (1968, PPE). The very junior fellows appointed were Tim Binyon and Ray Ockenden. The resulting report was, according to College archivist Cliff Davies, perhaps unexpectedly both cogent and well researched. The resulting document presented what it described as “a tentative case for Wadham’s becoming co-educational.”

The report argued that overall academic standards would rise if the proportion of women at Oxford was brought closer to the national average. It considered the worry that the quality of women’s colleges would be threatened if men’s colleges became co-educational, but argued that: “as the evidence seems to suggest, there is a reservoir of female talent,” so the drop in standard at existing women’s colleges might not be very great. The report pointed out that Oxford was already co-educational in the academic sense in that lectures, some classes, central libraries and examinations were already co-educations, it was, according to the Franks Report, the tutorials which had remained almost exclusively male.

“The prejudice against the education of women at university level can be given a semblance of respectability by the fact that women pursue careers for a shorter period of their active lives than men. But, unless university education is seen exclusively as vocational, and education up to the age of 18 as being sufficient for the subordinate role of women in society, it is difficult to see what society as a whole can gain from this kind of discrimination.”

The report also considered whether women would be a ‘distraction’ to the monastic ideal of an Oxford college, and whether promiscuity would be encouraged. It concluded that evidence from existing co-educational establishments suggested that these were unfounded concerns. The adverse effects of women on the sporting life of the college were thought to be balanced by the advantages that women students would bring.

The report recommended accepting on merit, a quota of no less than 20% female students, and that they should be admitted at undergraduate and graduate level. At more senior level the report proposed at the least a woman dean with fellowship status. In terms of College buildings, it recommended that the women should be evenly distributed throughout the site to ensure best integration.

In conclusion in recommended “there are good ground for Wadham’s considering the admission of women, and for the establishing of a mixed college in Oxford…although it would obviously be desirable if Wadham were joined in this change by other men’s colleges…there is a case to be made for Wadham going it alone, although it seems quite likely that, if Wadham were to commit itself definitely to the admission of women, other colleges would soon follow suit.”

"Over 230 women applied for admission to the mixed colleges. Wadham had the most applicants (72). While it is gratifying to be the most popular college, the reasons were not at all clear – unless it be that our academic record in recent years has been so much superior to any of the other mixed colleges."

D C Smith, Tutor for Admissions, 1974

The arrival of women

The arrival of Wadham’s first women was chronicled with no particular ceremony in the Wadham College Gazette, No 172, Trinity Term 1974. “…the main event of the year has been the first admissions examinations in which women were candidates for an undergraduate place alongside men. This method of admitting women as undergraduates, both as commoners and as award holders, had been previously agreed with the women’s colleges in Oxford, and no difficulties were encountered.”

D C Smith, then Tutor for Admissions, described the women's admission process in the 1974 Gazette: “27 girls accepted places for October 1974. Three women graduates of other Universities were also offered places so that, at the time of writing, it is expected that there will be 30 women amongst the 96 or so undergraduates coming into residence. Wadham will therefore become one of the first five at Oxford (the others being BNC, Hertford, Jesus and St Catherine’s).

For the next five years, it has been generally agreed in the University that no other men’s college should become mixed. There is some agreed control of the numbers of women to be admitted to the existing mixed colleges.

Over 230 women applied for admission to the mixed colleges. Wadham had the most applicants (72). While it is gratifying to be the most popular college, the reasons were not at all clear – unless it be that our academic record in recent years has been so much superior to any of the other mixed colleges.

The women applicants were widely distributed amongst the various academic disciplines. Physics was the only major subject to have no applicants, and English had the greatest number; this is symptomatic of national trends and not a phenomenon peculiar to Wadham. The standard of women applicants was little different from the men. The average ages was several months older, but a much higher proportion had not yet taken A level; there were also an unusual number of applicants from overseas. The University agreement limited us to awarding only 4 scholarships to women which we distributed as follows: 1 Major scholarship in Medicine (to someone who was only just 17), a major and a minor in Modern Languages (reflecting the high quality of the candidates) and a minor scholarship in History.

A number of the good candidates who could not be fitted into Wadham were placed in other colleges, so that although we had so many applicants, roughly half of them were successful in getting a place somewhere in the University. This overall level of competition – two applicants per place- is no stiffer than for women’s colleges as a whole. Since the Women’s colleges did not feel that the quality of their entry had suffered this year, the experiment of admitting women to men’s colleges seems set for success.

While we do not intend to segregate the women admitted in some corner of the College, there are obvious domestic reasons why they cannot be scattered at random in rooms throughout the College. Instead, they will be distributed in a number of suitable ‘clusters’, mostly in the Back Quad.

Almost all of us now feel that admission of women to Wadham will prove to be an important improvement for the College.”

Wadham's first women

According to the College History for the first generations of women, Wadham seemed a very male-dominated environment and some avoided the college bar for this reason. Wadham women were quick to form a rowing VIII, which went on to win the Christ Church Regatta in Michaelmas 1975, beat the University’s second women’s crew in Hilary 1976 and came top of the women’s division in Trinity 1976.

The number of women undergraduates in Wadham rose spectacularly in the 1990s; in 1997, of a total entrance of 136, 81 were women. The proportion of women graduate students grew more slowly, although women made up 23 of 56 admissions in 2007.

Women’s presence was slower to establish itself in the fellowship. Says Cliff Davies: “A lot was made at the time about the very 'token' presence of women in SCRs in all the newly mixed colleges. That failed to take account of the much slower turnover of fellows compared with students (short of sacking us all!).”

Wadham’s first woman fellow was Ruth Padel, literary critic and poet who was elected to a one year Junior Research Fellowship in 1975. The first Tutorial Fellow (in French) was Christina Howells, elected in 1979, followed in 1986 by Tao Tao Liu (Chinese) and in 1987 by Jane Garnett (History). The first woman Tutorial Fellow in a science subject was Giulia Zanderighi, in Physics, elected in 2007.

Wadham's first female JCR President, Sally Hornsby (1978, PPE), née Sarah Granger, was elected in 1979. Her friend, Jill Holden (1978, PPP), née Benson, remembers: "Sally was the first female JCR president at Wadham, a role in which gender, typically, both for her and the College, was of no importance at the time. She was the right person for the role." Sadly Sally died in January 2005.