Celebrating 40 years of women at Wadham

30th September 2014

News, Alumni news

Remarkable women representing the four decades since the admission of women to Wadham in 1974 took part in a panel discussion with Wadham alumni on 27 September.

  • Panellists (l-r) Amanda East, Erica Whyman, Anne McElvoy, Sally Mapstone and Sandra Fredman

    Panellists (l-r) Amanda East, Erica Whyman, Anne McElvoy, Sally Mapstone and Sandra Fredman

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Chaired by Anne McElvoy (1984, Philosophy & Modern Languages), panellists outlined their time at Wadham and their careers since leaving College.

Policy Editor at The Economist, Anne McElvoy described Wadham as the “starting gun” for her career in journalism, adding that College “took away the fear of hesitancy”.

The huge gender gap in the field of engineering presented challenges and could make you feel isolated at times said Amanda East (1981, Engineering). When Amanda came to Oxford there were only fifteen women in the 150 strong engineering department. Of the three female engineers at Wadham, Amanda found herself in a supportive group, however she said “I did not want to be one of the lads.” As she rose through the ranks of industrial ink jet printing she found that being a woman in a male dominated environment had its advantages: “You were always noticed and not forgotten,” she said. Ignoring the sexist comments and ‘girly calendars’ (Amanda felt there were bigger battles to fight), she did find some men had difficulty being managed by a woman. “In meetings, clients would look around the room asking when the engineer was going to arrive, not realising it was me!”

Sally Mapstone (1975, English), now Pro-Vice Chancellor for Education at Oxford University described her experience as a female student at Wadham. “Wadham in ’75 was radical and, along with Balliol, was left wing, informal and an exciting place to be. (It was in this period that the back quad became known as Ho Chi Minh quad).” It was when she moved to the women-only environment of St Hilda’s that she noticed differences. “St Hilda’s felt like a girl’s boarding school when I first went there. However, run by women for women, it had a certain appeal. It can be harder for women when you do not have the support networks of women or female role models.” Citing current figures on the small number of women who hold senior academic positions at Oxford, Sally added: “We have come a tremendous way but we still have a very long way to go.”

Erica Whyman (1988, Philosophy & Modern Languages) who became Deputy Artistic Director of the Royal Shakespeare Company in January 2013 suggested: “perhaps in the last 25 years we have settled for the comfortable” saying that perhaps now was the time to challenge ideas about institutions such as marriage. Quoting that “well behaved women do not go down in history,” she commented that the stage has always been interested in badly behaved women, describing the importance of telling stories about women through theatre. Illustrating the empowerment she felt as a Wadham student she said: “I remember singing for Nelson Mandela every Saturday night and genuinely thought we were part of his being freed.”

Having grown up in South Africa in the 60s and 70s, Sandra Fredman (1979, Law) described coming to Wadham from a very political background. She was therefore surprised to find in her first weeks at Wadham: “my politics tutor spoke only to the male students in the group and my French tutor flirted with us!” Now Rhodes Professor of the Laws of the British Commonwealth and Honorary Fellow of Wadham College, Sandra chose Wadham for her Masters degree because it was co-educational. She went on to become the first female fellow of Exeter College, becoming a role model for female students. It was when she started a family that she found she had to make a lot of decisions. “I did not want to follow the norm and realised that the barriers are structural rather than individual antagonisms between men and women.”

Wadham alumni joined the discussion, voicing their experiences of inequality since leaving College, and expressing the feeling that women still have a long way to go before there is complete equality of the sexes.

Following a drinks reception in the Cloister Gardens, guests enjoyed dinner in Hall with a speech from Hilary Davies (1974, Modern Languages). Raising a toast to College founder Dorothy Wadham and the continued tradition of equality of opportunity and co-operation between women and men in Wadham College, she commented: “One of the things I did when I left Wadham was to spend nearly thirty years educating young women for places like this, and the wider world. These more fortunate women are now five, six generations removed from the heroic age of female emancipation but the world is still a very hostile place for millions of their sisters. And even we who are lucky enough to have benefitted from institutions like Wadham know from our own lives how uneven the playing field can remain. So we owe it to other women elsewhere and in the future to continue to be an example and to be proud of it.”

About the speakers

Anne McElvoy (1984, Philosophy & Modern Languages) has been Policy Editor at The Economist since 2011.  Prior to that, she was Executive Editor of the London Evening Standard from 2002 where she wrote a weekly political column.  Her journalistic career began in 1988, when she joined The Times as a graduate trainee, becoming a foreign correspondent covering the fall of the Berlin Wall, unification of Germany, break-up of Yugoslavia and as bureau chief in Moscow in the early 90s.  She has also worked for The Spectator, The Daily Telegraph and The Independent.  She is a regular broadcaster and the author of two books.

Amanda East (1981, Engineering) joined Cambridge Consultants Ltd – a technology and innovation company – before starting up an ink jet company.  After 18 years in Industrial Ink Jet, she left work to concentrate on bringing up her three children. Later she started a family property company which she continues to manage. She is a Governor of The King’s School in Ely.

Sandra Fredman (1979, Law) is Rhodes Professor of the Laws of the British Commonwealth and the USA at Oxford University. She was elected a Fellow of the British Academy in 2005 and became a QC (honoris causa) in 2012.  She is Honorary Professor of Law at the University of Cape Town and a fellow of Pembroke College Oxford. She is South African and holds degrees from the University of Witwatersrand and the University of Oxford. She has acted as an expert adviser on equality law and labour legislation in the EU, Northern Ireland, the UK, India, South Africa, Canada and the UN; and is a barrister practising at Old Square Chambers. She founded the Oxford Human Rights Hub in 2012, of which she is the Director.

Sally Mapstone (1975, English) has been a Fellow of St Hilda's since 1984 and she is currently serving as Pro-Vice Chancellor for Education in the University, where she has overall responsibility for educational policy and strategy. She previously served as Pro-Vice Chancellor for Personnel and Equality. She is also Professor of Older Scots literature in the English Faculty. She is Honorary President of the Scottish Text Society, an Honorary Fellow of the Association for Scottish Literary Studies, and a Fellow of the English Association.

Erica Whyman (1988, Philosophy & Modern Languages) became Deputy Artistic Director of the Royal Shakespeare Company in January 2013. She works closely with Artistic Director, Gregory Doran, on all aspects of artistic strategy, taking a particular lead on the development of new work and the planned re-opening of the RSC's studio theatre and laboratory space, The Other Place.  Prior to that, she was Chief Executive of Northern Stage in Newcastle upon Tyne from 2005 to 2012, and won the TMA Award for Theatre Manager of the Year in 2012.  She was Artistic Director of Southwark Playhouse (1998-2000) and then Artistic Director of The Gate Theatre, Notting Hill (2000-2004).  She was one of the first fellows of the Clore Leadership and in the 2012 New Year’s Honours List she awarded an OBE for services to Theatre in the UK.

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