When 'dollybirds' downed dusters to take degrees

January 20, 2006

Carol Dyhouse charts the ascent of woman in higher education over the course of the past century

What kind of images do most people have of student life? Over much of the past century the popular perception of the student was predominantly male.

Until the 1950s at least, the image owed much to literary representations of privileged youth living the high life in Oxford or Cambridge colleges, as in Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited . In the 1960s, the postwar stereotype of the earnest, bespectacled varsity male sporting his college scarf gave way to media representations of long-haired hippies and student radicals of the "summer of love" in the newer universities of that decade. By the 1980s, privilege had been diluted by widening access and popular visions of student life were fed by images of the aimless and scruffy flat-sharing denizens of Scumbag University, derived from the cult television series of that era, The Young Ones .

Almost all of these images have been male, although after the 1970s the proportion of female students in UK universities rose sharply and female undergraduates now outnumber their male counterparts. The dramatic growth in female participation in higher education after 1970 owed much to the attractiveness of the new universities to women. They offered broader curricula, particularly in the arts, and unlike many of the older institutions they carried no formal tradition of gender segregation or discrimination against female students.

In handbooks, prospectuses and the promotional literature of the time, the contrast with older universities is striking. The cover of Warwick University's first student handbook, in 1966, featured a wistful-looking blonde in a miniskirt fingering a feather duster (don't ask) and leaning against a signpost in a muddy rural setting, its sign marked simply "University". Similar publications from Essex, Sussex and East Anglia universities, together with media coverage of the new universities, make it clear that a long tradition of caricaturing female students as odd - down-at-heel bluestockings wearing hairy tweeds and hopeless hairstyles - was at an end: by the early 1970s, the dollybird was effectively part of the branding image of the new university.

Demography and changing patterns of marriage were even more important than institutional changes in accounting for the increase in numbers of women going to university. One of the main bugbears of teachers of girls and women in the 1950s and 1960s had been "the early marriage problem". In 1961, three quarters of all girls left school at the age of 15. By 1965, as many as 40 per cent of brides were under 21 years old (as compared with less than 15 per cent in 1921). It was clear that the desire to marry young discouraged many women from staying on at school and making long-term educational and career plans.

The trend towards early marriage peaked around 1966-67, but it came to an abrupt end in the early 1970s. The most obvious explanation for this marked discontinuity is the widespread availability of the contraceptive pill together with easier access to legalised abortion (following the Abortion Law Reform Act 1967), which allowed women the increased control over their own fertility that was central to their being able to take a long-term view of their own futures.

There is plenty of evidence to suggest that female students in the 1950s and 1960s could be haunted by fear of unwanted pregnancy and the consequences of illegal abortion. In 1969, Anthony Ryle of Sussex University's Student Health Service argued that "the problem of the unwanted pregnancy...contributes to the pool of student casualties to quite a marked degree". He estimated that about 10 per cent of female students became pregnant during the three years of undergraduate study. University authorities, health advisers and parents were all aware of the problem: in 1968, the University of Kent's magazine, Fuss, featured a cartoon depicting anxious-looking parents facing their daughter's teacher over a desk, asserting that they "would like Brenda to go to the university with the lowest pregnancy rate".

Wider availability of more efficient forms of contraception and the legalisation of abortion were two of the main features of the sexual revolution in Britain in the 1960s and 1970s. Related to this was a new permissiveness in sexual mores and a new assertiveness of young people, which partly caused, as well as resulted from, the lowering of the age of majority in England from 21 to 18 years of age.

In 1967, one of the main preoccupations of the Latey Committee, which recommended this change, had been the tide of early marriages and its implications for the status of the young. The legislation that resulted (the Family Law Reform Act 1969) had important repercussions in universities, in that students became legally "adults". A whole system of disciplinary and supervisory regulations stemming from university authorities' recognition of their responsibilities in loco parentis became redundant.

Students' protests over paternalism and their resentment of disciplinary interventions in the conduct of their sex lives seemed vindicated. This had particular significance for female students, who had traditionally chafed against the much more stringent "protection" applied to them - gate hours and the like - than to their male counterparts.

The changes of the 1960s and 1970s made possible a situation in which "women students" could be seen simply as "students", rather than as a separate category needing careful supervision and protection. In challenging lingering forms of discrimination in universities during the same period, both the Equal Pay Act 1970 and the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 were crucial milestones.

In relation to higher education, battles were fought against quotas restricting female students' admission to medical schools; against the practice of awarding lower grants to married women students than to their unmarried counterparts; and around the vexed issue of single-sex colleges in Oxford and Cambridge. The politics of and struggles around "co-residence" in these years were tortuous, but seen through the longer lens of history, events moved with extraordinary rapidity. Once a few male colleges decided to admit women, it quickly became apparent that both their popularity (among men and women) and the academic quality of their entrants improved.

Female students, once an embarrassment, became both a resource and bait. In Oxford and Cambridge, attempts to slow the process of change broke down in the context of a competitive race to go mixed in order to grab the best girls. The transition to co-education in London, Oxford and Cambridge was almost complete by the end of the 1980s, and in all three this change was crucial in allowing for a rise in the proportion of female entrants.

By 1996, women had come to represent more than half the UK's undergraduate population. Cultural representations may lag behind social realities, but it is worth asking how this "genderquake" has affected student identity and patterns of social life.

One fascinating area for investigation is the history of the student rag. In the 1900s, students in the larger civic universities, particularly in the North and Midlands, drew on older traditions of Saturnalia and misrule to stage boisterous annual carnival processions; after the First World War, these were legitimised by participants making collections for the support of local hospitals. In London, rag activities centred on rivalries between colleges and were associated with pitched battles between medical students and engineers.

Such activities were profoundly gendered: women were allowed to look on, but any participation risked provoking outrage. In carnival and rag processions, male students frequently arrayed themselves in drag, dressing as suffragettes, fat ladies and babies in prams, or blacking up as Indians, golliwogs, "nigger minstrels" and sheiks. The parody and ridicule can be seen as serving to confirm their own identity as white males of an incipient professional class.

These carnivalesque traditions of student rag flourished between the wars and even later, but they came to grief in many places in the 1960s, when student politics seemed to threaten university authorities with rather more than simulated rebellion or a temporary letting off of steam. Female students had been allowed a more active role in student rag in the postwar years, often dressing as carnival or beauty queens, but student beauty contests judged by the vice-chancellor did not go down too well with women's liberation groups in the 1970s, and complaints about sexism and racism in rag magazines grew louder.

Rag festivities survived fitfully into the 21st century, but as the student population diversified they lost coherence as a cultural form: some of the contemporary manifestations of rag week would be barely recognisable to the marauding males of the past.

Carol Dyhouse is research professor of history at Sussex University. Students: A Gendered History is published by Routledge this month.

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