Swapping women's rights for ladies' nights

December 7, 2007

As St Hilda's prepares to admit men, Rowenna Davis mourns a female- positive refuge from Oxford's lads and old boys. One of my earliest memories of Oxford was sitting in my first tutorial anxiously trying to understand my philosophy tutor's explanation of Sorites' Heap Paradox: "Look, you wouldn't sleep with me for a pound, right? But you probably would sleep with me for a billion pounds - the point is that you can't specify an exact number of pounds which would make you sleep with me because it's a graded issue."

This visual elucidation, which I assumed was intended to help my understanding, broke down when I explained to my tutor that I wouldn't sleep with him for any amount of money.

Unlike Sorites' Heap Paradox, the change happening at St Hilda's is clear- cut: this year the college is female only, and next year it will be mixed. Although I recently graduated from a mixed college, the news that Oxford's last female-only college is interviewing its first male students has led me to reflect on my student experience. Conventional belief may herald the change as progressive, but what about the arguments for a women-only space at the university?

There are generally two types of reasons for keeping St Hilda's single sex, the first of which are identifiable by their concern with numbers. Female representation is the classic example; at present, there are 1,300 fewer women than men at Oxford out of an 18,000-strong student body. If St Hilda's goes 50-50, there will be 500 fewer female students in the university.

Female representation in the academic community will also go down. In my three years at Oxford I was never once taught by a female tutor, and trying to find a woman on my reading list was analogous to playing "Where's Wally"? Because women at Oxford have very few female academic role models, they are often deterred from entering the field. This vicious cycle was something that St Hilda's was helping to break.

Although these "improving the numbers" arguments are all valid, in my view it is the less quantifiable reasons - those to do with the invisible inequalities of atmosphere, culture and attitude - that provide the most compelling arguments for keeping a female-only space.

St Hilda's sent a message about Oxford to the outside world; it said that we respected women enough to give them an exclusive space, and that we acknowledged that there are barriers in our society that they have to overcome. Even if women didn't apply to St Hilda's directly, that message was a useful one in boosting the number of female applications.

During my time at Oxford I found the most tangible examples of female inequality weren't manifested by men but by women. Gone were the days when female Oxford students were consciously proud of "holding up the side". The "women's officers", whose posts were designed to represent women's interests on student bodies, spent most of their time organising lingerie parties and crew dates. Hordes of female students, afraid of looking "too clever", took on ditzy personas to fit in.

The women who went to St Hilda's, on the other hand, spoke about a sense of pride in their collective female identity and a feeling of being connected to an important tradition of women's rights that they wanted to uphold. Is this really something we want to lose?

A few weeks ago I attended a dinner party in St James's Park, a classic Oxford affair where I was reminded of another unquantifiable reason for keeping a female-only space. As I sat eating smoked salmon next to a former union president, the topic of female equality came up.

"The thing I don't understand," said the former public schoolboy, "is why these women don't set up some decent networks. I mean, I know loads of guys that I could call to get a job." Although I do not wish to advocate St Hilda's as a nepotistic equivalent to an old boys' club, in a world dominated by these kinds of networks a community of women sharing information, ideas and opportunities might provide an inspiring alternative - and a useful counterbalance - to the status quo.

A final, unquantifiable benefit concerns female sensitivity. Besides the obvious religious arguments for providing a female-only option, there are also secular reasons for women to feel sensitive about studying in mixed colleges. During my time at Oxford I saw women's fresher photos publicly rated for attractiveness out of ten; I sat in halls where awards were given out for "best breasts" and felt the pressure to go to bops with themes such as "pimps and prostitutes". The first men going into St Hilda's may feel apprehensive, but they are never going to face these kinds of worries.

What does it take to label an institution sexist? Like Sorites' Heap Paradox, this is a difficult question, and its answer is a matter of degree. I don't regret going to Oxford - I'm proud to be a female graduate from one of the institution's mixed colleges - but my reservations about the change remain.

Although the first women entering male-only colleges were victories for gender equality, the sight of men walking through the gates of the last female-only space in Oxford may, paradoxically, signal a step back.

Rowenna Davis is a graduate of Oxford University and was active in women's rights campaigning there.

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