Intrigue in a Cambridge rose garden

March 19, 1999

What happens when a handful of women try to transform a college that has been a bastion of male scholarship in Cambridge for 700 years? Peterhouse's eight women fellows reveal all

It's hard to change the culture of an institution overnight," Stuart Hall, one of the leading professors of cultural studies, said recently. And when that institution has been going for more than 700 years, the effort of changing it is that much harder.

Founded in 1284 and givena royal charter by Edward I,in between his ruthless crushingof the Welsh and his savagebattles with braveheart William Wallace, Peterhouse, Cambridge was a preserve of male scholarship and camaraderie until1984, when it first opened its doors to a few female graduate students. A year later the first female undergraduates arrived, and the first female fellow,Caroline Moore, was appointed in 1985.

Like the sediments of geological time that make mammals look like arrivistes, the 700 years of the college's male prehistory are very visible. Portraits of jowly men stare down at students as they eat in hall. The armchairs in the college library are heavy and leather, like a gentleman's club. And the only pictures of women around the college are the Burne-Jones stained-glass windows depicting Chaucer's The Legend of Good Women, most of whom were abandoned by their lovers' or dutifully sacrificed themselves for a higher, male cause.

But with the appointment of two more female research fellows this year, the college brought the number of female fellows to eight out of a total of 44, or just under a fifth. And, like the new women MPs in Tony Blair's government and unlike Chaucer's good women, the women are not dutifully acquiescent but are determined to make a difference to the institution.

Male preserves are no longer safe. A female chaplain has been conducting services in chapel all Lent term. After a long campaign, the women fellows have been granted their own separate toilet, instead of being tolerated in the men's. The heavy schoolboy fare, served at lunch, of meat and steamed pudding, has been joined recently by vegetarian alternatives and salad. And the all-female high table on the first Sunday of the academic year caused such a stir that gossip about it even circulated among the hushed common rooms of other Cambridge colleges. Nobody, not even the Peterhouse students, had quite realised before how many women fellows there now are.

Yet the task of changing the college is hard. Peterhouse is traditionally strongest in engineering and history, stereotypically male subjects. Three of its male fellows are Nobel laureates in chemistry. But with women fellows in physiology, history, English, French, physics, zoology, mathematics and biochemistry and with one of them the holder of a Royal Society fellowship, the college is not complying with traditional expectations of stereotypical female subjects in its new appointments.

The college also had previously fixed assumptions about the recruitment and appointment of people to research fellowships, the very competitive and prestigious post-doctoral positions that launch academic careers. But there are now two women on the seven-strong research fellowships committee who are questioning established practice and promoting different people and other subjects.

The women meet regularly for informal dinners and discuss, among other things, ways of developing the culture of the college. Proposals vary from the wild to the feasibly sensible. Anything can be thought when you are contemplating radically shaking up an institution. But the main campaign is to recruit more senior women to the fellowship.

"We need somebody who can speak on the governing body with the authority and gravitas that age can bring," says Jennifer Wallace, fellow in English. The women are particularly keen to be able to appoint a woman professor into the fellowship.

All Cambridge colleges are rethinking their function and corporate identities in the light of the current financial squeeze and the consequential establishment of numerous development campaigns. Peterhouse is no exception and the women are playing an important role. Having already achieved almost a 60:40 ratio in the male:female gender balance of postgraduates, and a roughly 70:30 ratio among undergraduates, they want to alter the culture of the college to encourage an even wider diversity of applications. So what about a female master next time and a lead from the top down? Even the bursar is in favour, and he who pays the piper...

Susanne Dickson, Natasha Glaisyer, Sophie Jackson, Mari Jones, Anna Kohler, Naomi Langmore, Jennifer Wallace and Sarah Waters are fellows, Peterhouse, Cambridge.

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