These women had so many breaks but they still have not got to the top

February 12, 1999

Women have more career choice than ever, but a survey of Cambridge alumnae shows that even those graduating in the past 15 years do not make it at the highest level. Alison Goddard reports

When Diana St John went to Girton College, Cambridge, in 1939, it was to ensure that she did not become like her cousin. "She was a sad example of what happened to nice, intelligent women who were not beautiful, did not get married and had little family money," St John says. "Her employment opportunities were restricted: the only options were to become a governess or a companion."

When Louise Simpson went to Girton in 1982, it was normal for an intelligent woman to receive a degree, and her career options were no longer limited to teaching. Nevertheless, even women graduating in the past two decades are still not making it to the top of their fields, according to a study exploring the lives of highly educated women over the century.

"There has been an enormous revolution in women's potential opportunities, but they are still constrained by men's expectations of them," says Pat Thane, professor of contemporary history at the University of Sussex and co-author of the study. "It's not women's choices that stop them doing certain things but social barriers."

With Amy Erickson and Kate Perry, Thane has surveyed 700 women at Girton College between 1920 and 1990. (She chose Girton because it keeps detailed records of its alumnae.) "Academics like to look at other classes, working classes, and not at themselves," Thane says. "There has been very little research done on the middle classes.

"This was a good opportunity to look at the lives of women in the 20th century. If anyone was going to be successful, these middle-class educated women should be. I wanted to find out where they came from. What motivated them to go to Girton? What did they do afterwards?" Thane has discovered that few succeeded at the highest level. "Why have these women who have had so many opportunities not got to the top? They have been successful in a middle range - they are good doctors and teachers - or they are just happy with their lives. But hardly any have achieved a position of power in an area such as politics."

The study shows that Girton women are self-deprecating when discussing their lives. "Some hid the fact that they went to Girton because it made others feel inadequate," Thane says. The women also take great satisfaction in their families. "Even when women regret the loss of career opportunities, none questions the worth of children."

Thane found a clear difference in career and marriage patterns over time. "Before 1914, women had to choose a career or marriage - but only teaching was available as a career." More than half of the Girton women went into teaching, which they generally had to stop upon marrying. Many did not wed - early Girtonians were considerably less likely to marry than women in general. In the 1930s, just 54 per cent of them married compared with 89 per cent of other women. Asked why, many said that they had not found a suitable partner.

After the second world war, women began to achieve more, though many Girtonians rejected the career ladder for a diverse range of roles. "In the postwar period, most women with university degrees wanted to have paid work and do voluntary work and raise a family and look after a household," Thane says. But they were still limited by the expectations of society.

"Women have not just made the choice to prioritise other things over their careers, they have also been horribly constrained," Thane says. "But many of them have not let themselves worry about it because there is just no point."

Ironically, the women who were at Girton during the social changes of the 1960s were the least happy and fulfilled of the respondents. "In the 1960s it was generally felt that women could have it all," says Thane, who herself studied at St Anne's College, Oxford, during that decade. "Things were open, but they were not open enough. Women felt frustrated that the opportunities were not there." More of these women divorced and failed to achieve their career ambitions than their counterparts in the general population.

In the 1970s career women emerged as the job opportunities sought in the 1960s began to appear. But although these 1970s women are reasonably happy with their lives, older Girtonians do not envy them. "The older generation see the younger ones as having too much to achieve," Thane says.

The study is due to be completed in a year. Thane intends to conduct a similar but smaller survey of attitudes at some of the men's colleges in Cambridge and compare the two studies. "Women's lives have changed more than men's," she says. "In a very short space of time, changes in women's lives have been dramatic, while changes in men's lives have been minimal. The responsibility for family and children still lies with women. There will not be equality until there is role sharing throughout every aspect of life."


"I was the youngest of five daughters and my father was keen that we should all be educated. We went to a good solid girls' school. The teachers took to one side girls who might go to university. After elementary needlework, we were directed away from domestic science, and the teachers made sure that our Latin was up to scratch.

"I went up to Girton in 1939. We were not part of the university - we were one of the women's colleges and we did not wear gowns. Cambridge was a solid patriarchal society. Barely touched by feminism, I felt tremendously lucky to be there.

"Lectures were given in university, and we were warned that there might be some who resented the presence of women. There was a story about a history lecturer who tried to discourage women from attending by telling randy stories about the monks before the dissolution of the monasteries in the 16th century.

"I don't recollect that there was any careers guidance. What I did on matriculation was dominated by the fact that I desperately wanted to earn. The only possibility was teaching. My tutor asked whether I was interested in a job that had just come up at a privileged Norfolk school that had been evacuated to the Cotswolds. I taught there for two years.

"I wanted to get into a real school, and I got a job as a junior history mistress at Leeds High School. I was there for three years then I took a year off to get a postgraduate teacher's diploma from the Institute of Education in London in 1947. Then I taught at a London comprehensive for five years.

"I met my husband on a committee protesting against violence in comics, some of which pictured domestic violence. He worked in publishing and was a writer.

"In 1952 we married. Many authorities would not allow married women to be teachers. But I gave up work because I had to travel through 19 tube stations to get to school. We have two daughters, Kate and Claire. It was much more common to take time out for children then.

"I was out of teaching until 1960, when I began teaching in a further education college in Hammersmith, where I stayed until I retired in the early 1980s."


"I was at a mixed grammar school in Bexley. My family had no history of going to Cambridge. I can remember where I was when my geography teacher suggested that I apply. I was the first girl from my school to get into Cambridge or Oxford. My parents were incredibly proud.

"Looking back, Cambridge was quite elitist. I had to learn the formal dinner etiquette. It was also quite sexist. It was as if we, as women, were there only at the invitation of the men.

"I met my husband, Richard, at Cambridge. When I saw the careers adviser she said, 'I see you are engaged - it is teaching for you, then, dear,' and the awful thing is that teaching was what I did. We (Girtonians) were good girls who did what we were told. We were still very much observers of the social change of the 1960s - it was the next generation that made use of the changes.

"Richard and I married in 1970 when I was 23 years old, which seemed a bit late, as many Girtonians married aged 21, on graduating.

"I worked in youth employment for a year and then got my postgraduate certificate in education in 1971. I taught full-time for four years. In 1975, Vicky was born. My mother did not approve of my going back to full-time work. Ann was born in 1976 and Tom in 1979.

"After the children were born I did about three different part-time jobs in youth and community work. I was a youth and community officer in Berkshire at the time of Hungerford (when Michael Ryan shot 30 people, killing 14 of them, in August 1987). I looked at what could be done for the kids who were caught up in the situation. In 1990 I set up a small business: the centre for crisis management and education. I have had a career roundabout rather than a career ladder.

"In 1993, Ann, my 16-year-old daughter, died within 40 days of being diagnosed with leukaemia. I felt really knocked back after Hungerford and my daughter's death. I went back to Girton on a sort of retreat.

"I now specialise in what schools can do to help children after a crisis. In the past three years the work has really taken off, and I have been able to put into practice ideas on school-based responses to trauma. Since August I have been working with schools in Omagh. I am also doing a PhD that looks at community interventions in response to disasters."


"I wanted a good education, and I wanted a good time. I didn't really know much about Cambridge, but I definitely wanted to go to a mixed college and Girton was mixed by then. My school - a girls' grammar in Birmingham - didn't have a tradition of sending girls to Oxbridge but one girl had gone, and she went to Girton.

"Girton has a strong feminist tradition. It is a large, very sociable college. There was a real sense that you had to do something with your life. The other thing that appealed to me about Girton was that 50 per cent of the students came from state schools, which was above average for the university.

"After Girton I worked as an editor in illustrated publishing in London. I worked on a range of reference books - interior design, gardening, cookery and craft books.

"I married Andrew Clippingdale in 1990. For a while he was based at the University of Sussex and I commuted from Brighton to London. Then he moved to Cambridge and I commuted from Cambridge to London. I loved publishing - it was really difficult to give it up - but eventually the commuting got to me. For the past three years I have worked in the university press office, and I am now on maternity leave.

"We have a daughter who is six months old. When you have a family you realise that you do have to depend on your husband's income for some time. But I wouldn't want to not have a career. My mother was a nurse and she gave it up when she got married and was home all the time, and she was somehow unsatisfied. I am going back to work for three days a week from April. But organising a child-minder is a nightmare."

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