Women’s colleges

Chantal Aberdeen 2 May 2017

In 2008, the last exclusively all-female college at Oxford University – St Hilda’s – admitted men for the first time. The decision to do so left only four women’s colleges in the country, three of which are in Cambridge. With women only being awarded full membership to the university from 1947, these colleges have a long history of female empowerment in a once predominantly male environment – but the past tense should be noted. University admissions statistics for 2015 show that, of the students who were accepted after receiving offers, there was a male to female ratio of 52:48, while women received a higher percentage of offers than men this academic year – a reflection of how far Cambridge has come.

But has this progress made all-female colleges unnecessary? Do they still have a place in the university? Female undergraduates were first accepted to several previously all-male colleges in 1972. This progress was followed, in 1976, by the first all-female college voting in favour of admitting men. When speaking of the change in role of Girton College signified by this transition, the current JCR President, Blaise Sadler, commented: “It initially acted as a counterweight against the male colleges, and then took gender equality to mean on a college level.” This is a perspective on the actions required to achieve gender equality that fell on one side of what I discovered to be a polarising debate.

Speaking to current undergraduates of Murray Edwards College exposed the broad spectrum of different opinions on the issue of gender equality. Many held views similar to those of Sadler’s remarks on Girton. When asked if they would agree a proposal to accept men to their college, one student told me they would: “My college is extremely supportive in general and in helping women to succeed in male dominated sectors.”

“These aims can be extended to the whole university throughout the colleges, without the need necessarily for women to be in separate colleges.” Another student, however, was opposed to the idea, claiming that women’s colleges restore the gender balance.

It seems that, despite the statistical progress the University has made, the debate as to whether or not gender equality has really been achieved rages on. When discussing the idea of admitting men to currently all-female colleges, some showed their regard of gender equality as something of the future still to be aimed for, and not the present.

“When women eventually have equality with men, this should be an ideal we aim for”, a Murray Edwards undergraduate told me, but “it is absolutely not the case that this should be put into practice now. Women still feel intimidated and silenced among men. Without the encouragement of all-women environments like Murray Edwards, there would be no progress in terms of promoting among women the idea that their opinions have as much worth as male opinions.”

Miranda Nicholson, the college’s Student Union President, similarly considered the future of its all-female status when speaking of the scheme ‘Collaborating with Men’: “It looks as though it will be truly groundbreaking in revealing how women can thrive in their careers, and teaching men how they can help to aid that”, she told me. We also discussed how it could pose “the next step for women’s colleges – because it shows how we can integrate male experience into changing that which the female feels”.

But in addition to such consideration of female empowerment, Nicholson also spoke of the future of women’s colleges beyond the over-simplification of gender inequality to just a male-female divide: “increasingly we will be addressing concepts of transgenderism”, the MECSU President told me. “50 years down the line, likelihood is [the college] will not still be all female. Perhaps we need to start making a move towards that circumstance."

This was something that rose often in my discussions with the students of all-female colleges: Ruby, the JCR Women’s Officer at Newnham, told me “for ‘single-sex’ colleges to truly support students who are marginalised on the basis of gender, they can’t continue to operate on a binary gender model: admissions policies needs to be accessible to and inclusive of people of trans and non-binary gender identifications."

To some, the future of all-women’s colleges might seem short-lived. The days of female exclusion from the academic possibilities posed by the University of Cambridge appear to be either in the past or reaching the end, whatever your opinion may be. However, that is not to say that these colleges have lost their relevance. It might just be a case of adapting to continue the fight against gender inequality.