Sex and the Hildabeast

March 7, 2003

Women-only colleges have served their purpose; it's time for St Hilda's to move on, says Hilda Brown.

As a non-Oxford graduate, my experience of Oxford University spans 40 years of working with an unfamiliar concept: single-sex colleges. Like many others, I responded to the new sense of independence that was so palpable in the five women's colleges in the 1960s, the result of an increasing participation in the affairs and joint appointments system of the university. The atmosphere was a heady mix of high aspiration and academic achievement.

As a result of having the pick of female candidates, the academic standing of the women's colleges shot up in an increasingly competitive environment.

They became a source of envy for the men's colleges and took the top places in the Norrington table year after year.

This success may have been partly responsible for the not entirely altruistic move by the men's colleges to admit women between the mid-1970s and the 1980s. After this, life for the women's colleges could never be the same again. The first sign was the gradual but relentless fall in applications. The second came in 1992, when equal opportunities legislation turned university lectureships into a lottery in which female candidates could choose between a women's and a mixed college and voted with their feet.

It was at this point that maintaining a single-sex policy on appointments seemed to me and many of my colleagues untenable. Three of the other four women's colleges had by then changed their statutes to admit men, and Somerville soon followed suit.

But in St Hilda's, there was no serious debate until 1997. This culminated in a vote focused solely on the appointments issue and the crisis in science teaching after new rules resulted in the loss of joint university posts. The vote was finely balanced: a majority favoured change, but in the end the hardline traditionalist lobby managed to scrape by on the narrowest of margins. The need to defend St Hilda's position over the years had led to a siege mentality among some of my colleagues.

Six years on, the college seems to be standing still. All further attempts to make joint appointments with the university have failed. The "solution" of fully funding a handful of science posts that could never be part of the university's establishment always seemed risky - a mere palliative as well as a financial drain.

The composition of the college fellowship has changed greatly since 1997, and there has been an influx of new young fellows who view the college's problems with fresh eyes. Now, at last, the negative effect of the single-sex policy on admissions is being addressed.

In 2003, young women of 17 are not easily persuaded that this degree of protectionism is warranted. They would prefer to compete on equal terms and enjoy the social diversity offered by a mixed collegiate society. The college has tried hard to persuade them otherwise. Open days, undergraduate initiatives and visits to schools and intensive outreach programmes have all encouraged them to apply to Oxford, but not to St Hilda's. The college's record in admitting a high proportion of state-school candidates is good, but many did not choose to apply to St Hilda's and some have much greater problems coming to terms with the unfamiliar concept of a single-sex environment than I did 40 years ago. Being young and resilient, many will eventually settle down and even accept with good humour their soubriquet of "Hildabeasts", often becoming tough in defence of their college. But I wonder if it is right that the college should put them in this position?

The junior common room has just voted in favour of the status quo by the narrowest majority ever recorded. Ultimately, it is the governing body that will decide whether the time has come for the college to take the plunge.

The five women's colleges played a heroic part in advancing higher education for women in the 20th century. The case for St Hilda's to take the next step seems to me overwhelming. I should like to see the college regain its élan and emulate the success that the other four colleges have achieved in their new roles. The alternative does not bear thinking about.

Hilda M. Brown currently is vice-principal of St Hilda's College, Oxford. She writes in a personal capacity.

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