In Defence of Women’s Colleges

Cait Findlay 26 October 2016

Telling people that you are at one of Cambridge’s three women’s colleges can feel like coming out; often, people are surprised or shocked, reactions which are frequently based on false myths or misconceptions. A common misunderstanding from people who are not at Cambridge is that a women’s college is the academic equivalent of a convent or lesbian cult, which, of course, is inaccurate, although amusing. Our fellow Cantabs frequently assume that we are at our colleges because we were either pooled or made an open application; both are assumptions which presume that no one would choose of their own free will to apply to an all-women’s college, particularly now that the overwhelming majority of colleges are coeducational.

The reality is very different, as demonstrated by statistics published by the University. For example, the admissions statistics for my own college, the beautiful red-brick Newnham conveniently situated opposite the Sidgwick Site, show that there were in fact nearly twice as many direct applicants here compared to the proportion of open applicants. Compare this to Homerton, which, to cast no aspersions, had a ratio of direct to open applicants of 265 to 285 in 2015, and you see that many women actively choose an all-female environment. Of the women I have spoken to who were pooled, none have bemoaned their Newnhamite status, and, in fact, many have said that if they were to go back to the application process, they would choose an all-women’s college from the start.

To study at an all-female college is not to entirely segregate yourself from men. Lectures are still mixed, most of the Porters and other staff are male, and the buildings aren’t charmed to physically repel men, unlike the staircases in the Gryffindor dormitories; and I have been the unwitting victim of many a raised toilet seat. Your social, academic, and love lives, can still involve men if you so desire, since you are not confined within an oestrogen bubble for the whole three or four years of your degree.

However, the assumption that we somehow have a burning need for men in our lives is inherently problematic. This isn’t the early twentieth century anymore, and I imagine (and fervently hope) that very few people are at university to find themselves a husband. The purpose of a women’s college, as I see it, is to provide women with an academic environment in which they can redress the historical imbalance of further education for women. Women have only been able to become full members of the University and graduate with degrees since 1948, which is merely a drop in the ocean of Cambridge’s 800-year academic history. Frankly, it is embarrassing that so little legitimacy has been given to women as intellectuals until so recently.

Nonetheless, in the past three weeks, Newnham has become to me not only a place of learning and academia, but also a comforting and inspiring home. We are surrounded here by bright, brilliant women, who will go on to do great things as alumnae of a college which has already produced such gems as Emma Thompson, Rosalind Franklin, and Clare Balding. Women’s colleges have provided opportunities for women since Girton College, now coeducational, opened its doors in 1869, and it is my firm belief that they will continue to do so for many years to come, no matter the reception they may encounter. After all, we are here to learn and to flourish; the proud tradition of women’s colleges reminds us that no matter the odds, we can, and we will, as the women before us did.