University is No Place For Women, or, ‘What About the MEN?’

Punch Cartoon from 1887. Miss Ramsay is shown into a railway carriage marked 'First Class - Ladies Only'

Punch Cartoon from 1887. Miss Ramsay is shown into a railway carriage marked ‘First Class – Ladies Only’

In 1887, a woman called Agneta Frances Ramsay – who was not allowed to matriculate – achieved the highest result in the yearly final examinations at the University of Cambridge. The university did not grant her a degree, because she was a woman, and we all know that women do not belong in institutions of Higher Education.

Yesterday, I read that St Hilda’s college at Oxford, the last all-women’s college to go mixed (in 2008), has appointed a male Principal for the first time. This morning, I read a Guardian article censoriously asking ‘Why do we worry that few girls take up physics, but not that boys make up just 29% of English Literature students?’

I’ll go with the second question first. Why indeed, O Guardian? After all, there are such a lot of successful female physicists in the public eye these days, and everyone knows that no man can get his foot in the door of any career relating to English Literature. There are no male Booker prize winners, no male journalists, and at the highest levels of academia, the lofty status of professor of English Literature is reserved exclusively for the fairer sex.

If I were techie I’d insert a facepalm gif into this post, but as it is, you’ll just have to follow the link.

I admit, I don’t totally disagree with Laura McInerney, who wrote the Guardian article. She has a point that, by constantly focussing on girls, we risk ‘pathologizing’ them. If we only look at the stats for A Level, it’s possible to believe we should look at boys not doing English in exactly the same way as we look at girls not doing Physics. But we have to look further on.

Take an example. At the faculty of English Literature at the University of Cambridge (just to continue a fine tradition of acting as if the UK really only has two universities worth mentioning), I count some 13 male professors and two women, one of whom – the brilliant and inspiring Professor Helen Cooper – is about to retire. I wonder who will replace her? In the admin staff, I count 13 women and five men. I’ll leave you to guess what the pay disparities might be there.

If you’re interested, at the Department of English at the university of Leicester (picked randomly for comparison), I count 7 male professors and four women! Whoopie-do.

Obviously, I know that being a professor of English isn’t everyone’s dream job and I’m pretty sure the vast majority of sixteen-year-olds picking A Level subjects don’t spend their time thinking about it. As a former sixteen-year-old who wanted to study English Lit and Physics (the English Lit won out, can you tell?), I certainly didn’t. But all of those professors of English started out somewhere. And somewhere between choosing A Levels at 29%, and passing through university (my current second-year workshop has 19 women and five men, or just over 20%), getting a PhD, doing a postdoc, publishing and lecturing and possibly getting a professorship … somewhere along that line, something very strange happens to the numbers.

Sure, I know that maybe this is unfair. I can believe (though I’d love to see stats if you have them) that at the various times when Professors Richard, Stefan, Steve, Peter, Stephen, Simon, John, Christopher, Adrian, James, David, Geoff and Barry were choosing A Levels, there may have been less of a disparity between boys and girls doing English Lit. But were 87% of A Level English students over this period men? Really? I don’t think so.

Having moved neatly from A Levels to people with the top jobs at University, I’ll go back to the story about St Hilda’s electing a male principal, which I mentioned earlier. The college rather clumsily justify their choice on the basis that Sir Gordon Duff (for twas he) has a wife who was at the college. As Val McDermid brilliantly responded, they might as well have come out and said:

“His wife knows our little ways, so it’ll all be ok. Yeah, right. Mary Bennett must be birling in her grave.”

Now, I know there’s an honourable history to Oxbridge gaffes about gender politics. The topic has been a good subject for pisstakes since Chaucer wrote about Cambridge students in the Canterbury Tales, since Shakespeare wrote about Dr. Caius in Merry Wives. A woman who’d been a graduate student in the late 70s told me about her experience of turning up to the initial meet-and-greet. She was accosted by the wife of one of the hosts, who asked brightly ‘and which of the young men is your husband?’. On being told that, in fact, this young woman was herself one of the new doctoral candidates, the hostess beat a hasty retreat, explaining ‘well, I’m here to speak to the young men’s wives!’

We could go on about it for hours, digressing into the fantastic pseudo-medical hangups of Victorian doctors who believed women’s teeny little bodies couldn’t support a brain and a womb at the same time. I could get behind the idea (or 13-year-old me, freezing on the astroturf, could get behind the idea) that women shouldn’t be taught team sports like they do at boys’ schools, because playing hockey damages your capacity to breastfeed. I could snipe at the perception that still hangs around, that men don’t study English Lit because women are innately better at communication, while women don’t study Engineering because we’re innately crap at fine motor skills. Cos, of course, nothing in childhood development could condition those disparities in, ohno.

Once again I direct your attention to the fine work of Mr Stewart.

Something tells me you won’t be gobsmacked to learn that, actually, I don’t find myself convinced by all of this. A list of the Oxford heads of colleges tells you pretty quickly that heading an Oxford college is still a male-dominated field, with nearly three times as many men as women. I’m sure there are hundreds of complicated reasons for this, but there’s also one very, very simple reason.

Sir Gordon Duff, new Principal at St Hilda’s, was born in 1947. When he applied to Oxford in the mid-sixties, the only mixed college was restricted to graduates, and the remaining thirty-odd colleges reserved for the men. When Naida Clarke, better known as Lady Duff, went up to St Hilda’s, she was competing for a place at only five colleges. Could this have anything to do with the fact there are more male college principals – as well as more male English Lit profs, more male MPs, etc. etc.?  

Much is made of the fact that Oxford used to have women-only colleges in an age when such positive discrimination is seen by some as anachronistic, unfair, or symptomatic of the epidemic of ‘extreme feminism’ washing over our shores. Few people know that, in 2014, Oxford still has one single-sex house, the all-male permanent private hall of St Benet’s, which has announced its intention to take on women undergrads just as soon as it can find the space. I can almost taste the enthusiasm.

There tends to be a feeling that – in this modern, enlightened age – it’s only right to celebrate appointments such as St Hilda’s new principal as a victory for the feminism, in rather the same way that the cringey cliché ‘well, I don’t see race’ is sometimes presented as a victory of equal rights activism. It’s the same attitude that sees handwringing articles written about the lack of boys doing A Level English. And this is the point where I acknowledge patiently that yes, I’m sure Sir Gordon Duff is eminently qualified and I am aware it is a real issue when boys don’t access education, and I believe there are concerns to be registered.

But please, can we stop pretending we’re looking at a playing field that’s already level?


Check out the book Bluestockings, which is a speedy and approachable history of late Victorian and twentieth-century women’s education, albeit with a deeply annoying subtitle referring to these women as ‘the first women to fight for an education’.

See also Patricia Vertinsky, The Eternally Wounded Woman: Women, Exercise and Doctors in the Late Nineteenth Century.

Update: This article has just been published, discussing the gender inequalities in Higher Education with reference to the REF, the system through which research is assessed and – basically – through which your academic career is assessed. This is not a historical problem – it’s right here with us.


10 thoughts on “University is No Place For Women, or, ‘What About the MEN?’

    • Ahh, but embroidery also requires visual concentration, and we all know it is men who are the visual creatures. No doubt the two unsuitable demands cancel each other out. Or something.

  1. If you ever get a chance to see the play ‘Bluestockings’, go and see it! It’s really good. The book looks like a good recommendation (but yeah, seriously annoying subtitle).

    FYI, the Patrick Stewart gif was blocked at my work for falling under the heading “Offensive & Tasteless.” Poor Patrick Stewart.

    • 😀 Poor Patrick Stewart indeed. No idea what he did to deserve that.

      Thank you for the play recommendation – I’d heard good things of it.

  2. “Male Privilege, The Protected Sex The control Freak. I wanna be in charge, otherwise I’m going to feel butt hurt, omg, what shall I do, I feel worthless, no no not her, it’s me, I am in charge, they told me I am the privileged one, i got to have my privilege. I’m in charge, i tell you, it’s me

    The result of taking second place to girls at school is that the boy feels a sense of inferiority that he is never afterward able entirely to shake off “Editorial in London Globe against co-education)” Written c1900.

    Alice Duer Miller
    What Every Woman Must Not Say

    “I don’t pretend I’m clever,” he remarked, “or very wise,”
    And at this she murmured, “Really,” with the right polite surprise.

    “But women,” he continued, “I must own I understand;
    Women are a contradiction—honorable and underhand—

    Constant as the star Polaris, yet as changeable as Fate,
    Always flying what they long for, always seeking what they hate.”

    “Don’t you think,” began the lady, but he cut her short: “I see
    That you take it personally—women always do,” said he.

    “You will pardon me for saying every woman is the same,
    Always greedy for approval, always sensitive to blame;

    Sweet and passionate are women; weak in mind, though strong in soul;
    Even you admit, I fancy, that they have no self-control?”

    “No, I don’t admit they haven’t,” said the patient lady then,
    “Or they could not sit and listen to the nonsense talked by men.”

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