Wadham women's voices

Talking about Wadham

Wadham women, including some of our first students and fellows, discuss what College has meant to them. Add your voice by sending your comment and photo to julia.banfield@wadh.ox.ac.uk

Julie Curtis (1974, History and Modern Languages)

Oxford University Lecturer in Russian and Fellow at Wolfson College

“I had been at a mixed school, so coming to a mixed institution seemed natural to me. I was impressed and reassured by the welcome speech which Warden Stuart Hampshire gave to the freshers that year, in which he simply made no special mention of the fact that women undergraduates had arrived: we were all now Wadham students, and that was all that mattered. A shame that the college doctor, in a rather less enlightened sequel, then invited the gentlemen to leave the Hall so that he could have a word with the ladies about contraception. I gather that this faux-pas was not repeated the following year!

Occasional expressions of surprise from other people in Oxford suggested that they found the change startling, but of course if you're the pioneer you're likely to be the person least aware of how unusual your position is. Our group of first years had a largely unproblematic time, and a lot of fun - including some very memorable staircase parties. If people resented our being there, they didn't show it: and if some of the men grumbled a bit when an intrepid group of us took up rowing for a lark, then it is true that in the early days we did succeed in capsizing the boat with all eight of us in it... Oxford rowing was certainly difficult to break into - there were no women's divisions in Eights Week at that time, and we had to try and compete with other colleges' rugby eights to get into the bottom division. But by the second year a Women's Division had been created, and we were thrilled to come Head of the River in 1976, with the college cheering us on.

I had a great time academically: I was taught by Cliff Davies and Pat Thompson as well as Tim Binyon. Russian was always the subject I really cared about, and reading the whole of Anna Karenina in the original during the Cornwall reading party in my final year was something of a turning point.

Wadham meant a huge amount to me then, both intellectually and emotionally, and I'm uniquely lucky in having continued a close relationship with the college ever since.

After I left Wadham I completed a D.Phil. in Russian literature at St Antony's. My first teaching post was at the University of Leeds, and then I moved to Cambridge to take up a British Academy Post-doctoral Fellowship. My research has focused on Stalin-era writers such as Mikhail Bulgakov and Evgeny Zamiatin, and I have also developed a special interest in Russian drama. In 1991 I came back to Oxford to take up a University Lecturership in Russian associated with a Fellowship at Wolfson College. I'm the undergraduate tutor in Russian for a number of colleges, and was particularly delighted to step into the role of Lecturer in Russian for Wadham when Tim Binyon retired in 2003, a role which I filled until the College renewed the Fellowship and appointed my distinguished colleague and good friend Philip Bullock to the post. It's great to know that Russian in Wadham is in such talented hands!"

Diana Darke (1974, Oriental Studies)


“When I arrived at Wadham as one of the first 20 women in 1974, it was to read German and Philosophy, a new BA Hons course. I had chosen Wadham as my college because it described itself in the prospectus as 'liberal and forward-thinking', qualities it amply demonstrated when it allowed me, immediately after Prelims, to switch to Arabic. The only requirement, one I considered entirely reasonable since all government grants were then limited to three years, was that I had to study all through the first summer vac to make up the time I had lost.

It was a decision that changed my life, enabling me to become a Middle East writer and specialist for the next 30 years, culminating in my decision to buy and restore a courtyard house in the walled Old City of Damascus. This in turn led me to become closely involved in Syria's revolution, the subject of my latest book.

On the personal side Wadham also changed my life by providing the venue, at a Wadham Society event in the House of Lords, where I re-met John McHugo, a fellow Wadham Arabic graduate, who became my second husband in 2008.”

Hilary Davies (1974, Modern Languages)

Poet, teacher, translator and critic

"Studying at Wadham was definitive.  What was distinctive for me about being in a mixed environment after an all girls’ secondary education was not, first and foremost, the social opportunities it presented, wonderful for my personal development though they were, but the difference in the way I was now taught. Rigour, concern for detail, respect for and breadth of knowledge: all these my excellent school had provided hitherto. What was new was that I was being invited, asked, to fend for myself intellectually, to explore, formulate and defend my own ideas.

Wadham gave me confidence to do this, to relish intellectual cut and thrust, as well as to accept that one might be wrong and, crucially, not be afraid to say, ‘I don’t know’.  This in turn has been absolutely essential to my subsequent career: I have gained an inestimable amount over the years from helping other young, and not so young, people gain that kind of discernment and enlightenment. It’s also great fun! French and German have of course been the backbone of my own teaching career, devoted to promoting the cosmopolitan outlook which we all need in the 21st century. And though my love of poetry was already there when I came up, Wadham certainly was responsible for introducing me to the great European practitioners like Rilke and Baudelaire, who influenced me later on.

Wadham highlights include: a tutorial on a punt with a bottle of wine, memorable; Duncan Stewart’s famous end of year drinks parties, which had all my friends from other colleges vying to be invited; being invited by David Mabberley to identify bits of fossilised creatures as a sort of after dinner game; the figure of Stuart Hampshire wandering around the college (not a frequent sight) always looking faintly lost and questioning; sitting in a midnight library watching the stars; reading Goethe’s famous poem about a gingko tree and discovering we had our very own in Wadham garden."

Daphne Dumont (1974, Law)

Lawyer and former President of the Canadian Bar Association

"In my first weeks in college in 1974 I was interviewed by the ATV network and the Oxford Mail.

It was a bit hard for me since being in a mixed college was a normal experience in Canada and I found the attention at Oxford a bit unnerving. Also I was alone among the second-year men who had come up early to write a special exam for a university prize in law, the Gibbs Prize, and to this point I hadn't met any other women. Once they arrived it felt much more normal and relaxing.

One of many things Wadham gave me which I still deeply cherish is the love of rowing. To have been the first woman to actually enter a men's college as a student, and also to have rowed bow in the first boat across the line in the first ever women's division in eights...what a great source of pride.”

Jane Garnett

Fellow and Tutor in Modern History

When I came to Wadham in 1987, as only the third female fellow, the balance between women and men at undergraduate level was reasonably good (rather less so in the MCR).  There were strong women in the SU, and feminist politics were debated. I worked with the SU to draft a sexual harassment policy, and also helped with the launch of a Wadham women’s magazine, Dorothy’s Lip. I had come from previous posts in a women’s college and a mixed college.

Compared with both Wadham had a distinct atmosphere – a liveliness of political engagement – which felt refreshing.  Over the years I think I have become increasingly sensitised to the ongoing challenges facing women, within the university and beyond, and to the importance of equipping our students to confront them. This has sometimes seemed – paradoxically – the more pressing in a self-consciously liberal and progressive college like Wadham, where it is easy to become complacent about ourselves and/or to assume that all the battles have been won.

In the ups and downs of feminism, though, Wadham students – male and female - have generally continued to be responsive to issues of gender and sexuality as part of an impressively broad political commitment, and it has been a pleasure and a privilege to work with them.

Amelia Gentleman (1991, History and Modern Languages)

Social Affairs Correspondent, the Guardian

Photo courtesy of The Guardian

“There is a lot I miss about being at Wadham. Most of all - the extraordinary attention we got. I don't think since I left that anyone has ever listened to me with as much attention for such a concerted, intensive period of time as my tutors here. The other really special thing about Wadham is its liberal, progressive ethos…we had everything that was amazing about an Oxford education without all the stuffiness. 

When I look at what my friends have done, I think it has given them the courage in their convictions to go into jobs in charities, promoting education in Africa, supporting family planning globally, protecting dissident writers, or into teaching, medicine, drama, photography, films. These are not always particularly lucrative roles, but I see a lot of really happy and fulfilled people here.”

Eileen E. Gillese (1977, Law)

Justice of the Court of Appeal for Ontario

"I was seriously intimidated by Oxford when I first arrived there from Alberta, Canada.  So seriously intimidated that I might have done poorly academically, if only because I thought I would.

Wadham saved me.

Learning law from Jeff Hackney instilled in me a passion for the subject, which diminished some of that intimidation.  But it was Wadham that really saved me.


Wadham was open, unpretentious, diverse – and fun!  I was comfortable at Wadham, which enabled me to find my way, both academically and personally. 

I took away many life lessons from my time at Wadham but none more important than the knowledge that no matter where I land in life, there will be people of the Wadham-ilk, if I but look for them.  And, so, I will be comfortable and find my way."

Hannah Ginsborg (1976, Philosophy & Modern Languages)

Professor of Philosophy, University of California, Berkeley

Philosophy is a discipline which is still overwhelmingly male, and where women often have difficulty feeling at home.  I've heard many accounts from women of my generation, and younger women as well, of undergraduate experiences which discouraged them from pursuing philosophy: experiences of being excluded from intellectual conversation, of not being taken seriously, of being explicitly told that philosophy is not for women, and worse.

How lucky I am to have been an undergraduate at Wadham, studying philosophy with Michael Ayers.  It never even occurred to me, during the course of that wonderful education, to ask whether -- as a woman -- I might somehow be less qualified to do philosophy than my male counterparts.  I felt very comfortable at Wadham, and my undergraduate experience there gave me the confidence, as well as the academic preparation, to pursue my intellectual ambitions.

Christina Howells

Professor of French, Tutor in French, Tutor for Women and Wadham’s first female Tutorial Fellow.

“When I came to Wadham as Fellow in French in 1979 I was the only woman Fellow and the first woman Tutorial Fellow. Sometimes I am asked whether I found things very difficult in those early days, but the – possibly disappointing – answer has to be No. I was made immensely welcome, and any difficulties that I encountered came not from my gender but rather from my complete lack of familiarity with the Oxford system, since I had studied for both my undergraduate and doctoral degrees at Kings College London (which had been, incidentally, coeducational since 1885).

But I was a quick learner – I had to be! And living in College for the first year while we looked for a house near Oxford provided a fast-track initiation to the mysteries of the social side of the Fellowship, from snuff during dinner to whisky afterwards (neither was compulsory!), and from the Smoking Room to games of bridge. I expect I was just tolerated at some of these events – bridge is hardly a spectator sport – but I never felt that was the case. Nor in fact did I feel as though I was living in an otherwise all-male environment – after all, the College had started to accept women as undergraduates five years earlier so there were plenty of young women around, and I was considerably closer in age at that point to the students than to most of my colleagues. Indeed, I always had the impression of being in a thoroughly egalitarian and mixed society, despite the occasional irascible remarks of a couple of my more elderly colleagues who probably found me irritatingly naive and uncultivated – and I expect they were right.

My feminism probably helped too – I simply had no notion that there could be any disadvantage to being a woman, and certainly no feeling of inferiority. There were always plenty of women in Modern Languages, in the Faculty as well as in the College itself, and I thrived on encouraging my women students to grow in confidence and indeed assert themselves against the occasionally overbearing young men who quickly learnt that being male was no guarantee  of being right! Plus ça change! perhaps; but the major change in College since 1979 has been rather in the greatly increased proportion of women Fellows: at undergraduate level the move to coeducation was (perhaps unsurprisingly) swift and remarkably easy.”

Karen Masters (1997, Physics)

Astronomy researcher working at the Institute of Cosmology and Gravitation, University of Portsmouth, and Project Scientist for Galaxy Zoo.

"Wadham was a place I could feel at home in Oxford. As a woman studying physical sciences, and also as someone coming from the state school system to Oxford, there were a lot of groups in which I could feel out of place in Oxford, and in my degree choice (Physics).

Wadham was so clear in its welcoming of diversity of all kinds that I always knew I was wanted and at home there. This helped to build my confidence to continue in a career path in which I am still part of an underrepresented minority group." 

Anya Metzer, (2012, English)

President of Wadham College Student Union, 2013/14

"I feel incredibly fortunate to be at Wadham.

It is a privilege to be in a community which sees progressive and liberal values as intrinsic to academic scholarship and rigour; the prized university experience of exposure to multiplicity of perspectives, examination of the critical corpus and exploration of where our thoughts can take us is cherished here, and fed through the encouragement to study the greats and also seek out those on the margins.

At Oxford I have learnt so much and from so many, and College invites me to interrogate received wisdoms forensically, and to challenge my own preconception. Between QueerFest and Wadstock; the Symposia and the subject dinners; the BOPs and the tutorials, Wadham is truly a community that educates in every way."

Lissa Muscatine (1977, European Politics)

Presidential speechwriter to the Clintons and owner of iconic Washington bookshop, Politics and Prose

“My deep affection for Wadham begins with the college’s role at the forefront of intellectual ferment and social change. That Wadham was one of the first historically men’s colleges at the university to admit women gave me and many other women an opportunity to study there and participate in a cultural and generational shift. And while those transition years offered some challenges, Wadham has remained expansive, inclusive, and innovative.

Ken and Linda, and the students and faculty at Wadham, are dedicated to celebrating Wadham’s – and Oxford’s -- long and illustrious traditions. But they also appreciate that the 21st century requires broader horizons, diverse perspectives, and a willingness to match intellectual firepower with a commitment to civic engagement and the greater good.

All of this makes me even more excited about Wadham today and eager to witness how the college evolves and grows into the future.  It is an extraordinary time to be a student anywhere, but especially at Wadham.”

Sarah Pine (2010, PPE)

OUSU Vice President (Women) for 2013/14

"Wadham has such strong networks of women and feminists. I'm was so happy to be part of an SU with women's officers as well as other liberation positions.

A community which recognises the inequalities in society, and then works to counter them, was a great experience."

Giulia Zanderighi

Fellow and tutor in Physics and Wadham’s first female tutorial fellow in a science subject.

“It makes such a difference in one's life to spend your days working on what you really like. For me this is trying to understand what we observe in nature, facing small challenges every day, enjoying the little satisfaction of having had a smart idea, of having understood what you couldn't explain yesterday.

Not everybody likes mathematics, physics or sciences. But an education in sciences can open the door to do what you really want. So those that do like it, men and women, should absolutely go for it.”