A tradition of equality, liberty and vomit-free flowerbeds

October 1, 2004

Cambridge's female-only New Hall College is 50. Alison Thomas reflects on five decades of change.

This autumn, Cambridge University's New Hall College celebrates its 50th anniversary. From an initial intake of 16 undergraduates housed in a converted guesthouse on the Cambridge Backs, New Hall has grown in five decades into a thriving community of more than 500 undergraduates, postgraduates and fellows. Much of the credit for this expansion can be attributed to its first president, Dame Rosemary Murray. In the days when selection of Oxbridge students was based on an entrance examination, Dame Rosemary rejected the standard format of a series of subject-specific papers in favour of a single general essay paper designed to test logical thought and powers of expression. She wanted to attract students of "initiative and vitality" as well as scholastic ability.

This policy has, over the decades, created the "dynamic, cosmopolitan and relaxed institution" of New Hall today. Students describe New Hall as "an exciting place in which to live and play" and its forceful modern architecture - the college's recently restored dining hall is undoubtedly one of the most dramatic places in which to eat in Cambridge - helps to create this feeling.

But perhaps the most significant contribution to New Hall's ethos comes from its single-sex status. It was founded by women for women and continues as one of the two all-female colleges at Cambridge; Newnham being the other. New Hall's origins lie in the recognition after the Second World War of the need for more opportunities for women at Cambridge. At that time, 10 per cent of its students were women compared with a national average of 25 per cent; and just two of its 100 or so professors were female.

Furthermore, Cambridge, alone of UK universities, did not admit women to full membership. Any degree gained was in name only, and female academics were denied involvement in the governing of the university.

When the issue of female membership was put to the vote, in 1921, the victorious male-only lobby marched to Newnham and smashed the magnificent bronze entrance gates in a symbolic attempted break-in. In 1948, by contrast, a motion to give women full membership was passed unopposed by council. The ruling council also agreed to set up a commission to look at the "provision for women students at Cambridge". Three more years elapsed before the official sanction came for an increase of places for female undergraduates at Cambridge.

In the intervening years, under the leadership of Dame Myra Curtis, principal of Newnham, the Association for the Promotion of Women at Cambridge had been canvassing support for the idea of a new women's college. Thus, when the green light was given them by council early in 1953, the women were ready to launch the "Third Foundation for Women at Cambridge". They set the early date of autumn 1954 for the first student intake as, by the early 1950s, the other two colleges for women in Cambridge were heavily oversubscribed.

The foundation of New Hall marked the beginning of a time of significant change for women at British universities. During the early 1960s co-residence became an issue of heated debate among British universities. A decade after New Hall's foundation, Cambridge's ruling council amended its statutes so as to allow individual colleges the freedom to amend their own statutes in turn to admit women (or, indeed, men). In 1972, when New Hall was finally granted its charter and achieved the full status of a college in the university, three Cambridge colleges, King's, Clare and Churchill, each admitted their first cohort of women. By 1988, there were no all-male colleges remaining in Cambridge. A similar pattern of events occurred at Oxford. Thus, in little more than a decade there had been a huge boost in the opportunities for women to study at Oxbridge. Consequently, the eight women's colleges in Cambridge and Oxford were forced to consider whether there was any need for single-sex colleges. Three colleges, New Hall and Newnham at Cambridge and St Hilda's at Oxford, have chosen to remain single-sex.

Anne Lonsdale, president of New Hall, argues that there are strong academic and social reasons for maintaining her college's all-female status.

Undergraduate years are an important time for students to discover their place in the world, a time to exceed expectations and perceptions. Because many young women suffer from a lack of confidence, Lonsdale sees an important part of New Hall's role as confidence building.

Even though 50 per cent of Oxbridge students are women, the upper echelons of academic posts are still held predominantly by men. At Cambridge, 70 per cent of senior lecturers and 90 per cent of professors are male. There is still, it seems, far to go until the changed ratios that have so transformed undergraduate opportunity influence the academic hierarchy. The issues are undeniably complex, but there is evidence that single-sex education benefits women, at least at secondary school level.

One important experience that few women seem to achieve at mixed colleges are undergraduate responsibilities such as Junior Common Room president.

Typically, men make up 85 per cent of Oxbridge JCR presidents. At the all-female colleges, these posts are, of course, filled by women.

Another important aspect is choice. Lonsdale points out that the single-sex status of New Hall provides an important opportunity for study at the highest level to those bright young women of certain religious or cultural backgrounds whose families would not support their daughters living in mixed communities. There are also women who prefer the often quieter atmosphere of an all-female college. As one Newnham student comments: "It was good to find a college devoid of boozy young men shouting in the bar and corridors and vomiting in the flowerbeds."

Alison Thomas is senior lecturer in genetics at Anglia Polytechnic University.

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