Formal power structures are slowest to change.
One interviewee who was an undergraduate at Magdalen from the late-1980s was shocked when she heard that this exhibition was about women and power. She replied: ‘I think that’s quite a strange title. Is it ironic?… when I was there, women didn’t have power; but then I was conditioned for that to be normal, so I’m not sure I spotted it…As I get older, I get angrier… when I was your age, I thought this would be fixed by now.’
This exhibition prompts us to consider how we have been ‘conditioned’ to think about gender. It asks us to notice who is marginalised or disempowered within a community. It prods us to spot when certain faces and voices are privileged. This privilege was seldom built on gender alone. As one pioneering Magdalen student remarked, ‘Being a black woman was much harder than being a woman’.
On this final page of the exhibition, we look at how women started to obtain leadership positions in College after co-education. We focus on all aspects of College life, ranging from the JCR to the Choir right the way up the College hierarchy to the presidency itself. Finally, we will investigate efforts to enhance and support equality through attempts to create an inclusive environment. Such initiatives aim to make the college a welcoming place to study and work for all – regardless of gender.
Annual elections enabled female students to take on leadership roles more rapidly within the JCR and MCR than elsewhere in College. Authority within the Junior Common Room (JCR) changed most quickly and significantly. The photograph below shows the first Junior Common Room Committee to be led by a female president.
Two women were elected in the first decade after 1979, three in the second decade, and four in the third decade of co-education. Sally Kenney came to Magdalen in October 1980 to study Philosophy, Politics, and Economics. She described in a letter to an incoming student how in 1981 in ‘a flash of insanity, I ran and won the presidency of the J.C.R.’. The photograph suggests that relatively equal numbers of women and men were elected to the JCR committee alongside her.
As part of her presidency, Sally aimed to support incoming female students as well. In summer 1981, she invited female students to write to all incoming women undergraduates and graduates before they started at Magdalen in October. The letters warned that ‘The Bursar in his benevolent paternalism assumes that women need to be warm and clean moreso [sic] than men’. The letters explained how to request an unmodernised room, if heating and plumbing turned out not to be every woman’s priority. Women’s leadership and organisation within the JCR defied the gendered assumptions of older men who were responsible for College’s policies.
Equivalent letters to undergraduate freshers emphasised the importance of not feeling ‘overwhelmed or isolated’. The women urged instead that ‘You must remember that, deep down, you’re one of us – and we expect you to join in, no excuses’.
This call to ‘join in’ was clearly necessary. The College Record describes how female ‘dominance’ on the JCR committee ended when men ‘reasserted’ themselves the following year by electing only one female representative to the committee. A decade later, the Women’s Officer urged her peers ‘There are only two women (incl. the Women’s Officer) on the J.C.R. Committee at the moment. What about a couple more for more balanced representation. Women – do consider standing!’ By seeking to ensure that women ‘join in’ with Magdalen life, women worked to collectively change their college.
It was not until 1990 that the first female MCR president, Jemma Hine, was elected. In the second decade of co-education, a total of four women represented the graduate community, followed by three in the third decade. There have only been two women elected to lead the graduate community in the last ten years. Change is not inevitable or constant.
Thankfully, the modern JCR is much more equal: six women have led the JCR in the last ten years. In interviews with female JCR Presidents across the last 40 years, each recalled incidents when their peers were explicitly hostile to female authority. Yet, each also had overwhelmingly positive memories of their presidency. Many women explained that, when they stood for election, it was ‘expressly about wanting the college to be a more inclusive place’. Evidence in these cases suggests that the work of these leaders made a significant difference to Magdalen students’ attitudes and experiences.
Calls for female leadership have not been limited to the student body in recent years. In the 21st century, efforts have been made to diversify one of the College’s oldest groups: the choir. Magdalen has had a choir since at least 1480. In 1994, one female student optimistically identified the choir of boys and men as the only remaining sign of ‘hallowed tradition’ inherited from the all-male college. She urged her fellow students to ‘demonstrate the musicality of a mixed choir’ and hoped that ‘with enough pressure things may change’.
The picture above shows Magdalen’s second choir of women and men that College founded in 2010. Magdalen was the first Oxford choral foundation to include women’s voices as part of the Chapel music programme. For a decade, the Consort of Voices has sung services on Saturdays and sopranos studying at Oxford have been offered world-class choral training at Magdalen.
In 2013 Anna Lapwood was admitted to Magdalen to study music and became the first – and only – female organ scholar in the College’s history. She is now Director of Music at Pembroke College Cambridge. In October 2020, the first female Academical Clerk was admitted to the foundation. The College is now engaging in discussions across the city, the University, and the UK about how best to address the inequalities inherent in the wider choral tradition.
Finally, discussion around leadership within College must highlight the most recent event to advance equality. After more than 500 years of history, Magdalen elected its first female president in February 2020. Dinah Rose QC (pictured to the right) is the 43rd person to hold the post of President. Dinah came to Magdalen to study Modern History in the 1980s and had a very successful career as barrister, appearing in many leading cases in the fields of public law, human rights, employment law, and competition law over the past thirty years. Upon her election, Dinah made an immediate commitment to fostering equality, saying:
It is a great pleasure and privilege to be returning to Magdalen, where I spent three happy and unforgettable years as a student. I look forward to fostering a diverse and welcoming community of scholars, where lively debate, and mutual respect and support encourage our students to fulfil their enormous potential, personally as well as academically. Magdalen has in recent years made very substantial progress in broadening access to the unmatched opportunities which it offers. I am determined to do all in my power to ensure that Magdalen is as accessible and inclusive as it is exceptional.”
Dinah’s election to the presidency is a tribute to all the women documented on these pages that fought for equality at Magdalen and throughout the wider university. It shows that, despite large obstacles, change can happen.
Across the last 40 years, undergraduates have changed the norms and culture of the college for men that they inherited. Indeed, their work helped to pave the way for wider leadership changes.
Many students at Magdalen after 1981 descried how their student life was shaped by the BBC television adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s novel Brideshead Revisited. In interviews, women recalled how they were captivated by the opportunity to participate in this dreamy culture of aristocratic privilege combined with ‘80s excess’. Brideshead was a frequent reference in student journalism of the mid-1980s; some students even adopted the habit of walking around Oxford with a teddy bear.
In other ways, women challenged the most visible and exclusive traditions of an all-male college. Several students in the 1980s and 1990s recalled reacting against a dominant, sometimes aggressive, all-male culture of sociability by setting up equivalent female drinking societies. One interviewee explained that ‘I set up an all women drinking club… I don’t know if it was any better or worse than them, because I was then aping that male pattern of behaviour, but I was just so cross with the thing that I thought I would do something in opposition’.
One way to create meaningful change was through sport. Women had long been excluded and mocked for taking part in sporting activities. This satirical print from 1869, for example, mocks an imagined future in which women could be athletes. The outrageously dressed women cricketers and archers were on the front cover of Punch magazine’s pocket diary.
The illustration was part of a comic tradition of mocking women who held power. Men enjoyed laughing at women who comically took on unthinkable roles and unfamiliar authority, whether as politicians, lovers, or sportswomen. These prints must have entertained Herbert Henry Gilbert because he pasted them into this album of ephemera that he began in 1857 when he was a Magdalen undergraduate.
For some, such attitudes persisted well after the end of the 19th century. In the first year of co-education 1979-80, Magdalen College Boat Club did not have a women’s boat. Women instead rowed with other colleges.
One article from Michaelmas 1980, however, announced that the ‘Maids of Magdalen’ would take to oars. Read the full article in the gallery below:
In the article, Dominique Jackson described women’s rowing, humorously, as a daring adventure and mocked College assumptions that women were, ‘as all you Magdalen men well know, a rare and delicate breed’. If rowing was a ‘masochistic ritual of keeping college spirit alive and kicking’, women felt it was important to be part of this ritual.
Inclusion was not just about rowing, but also the prestigious social life of the Boat Club. At the end of the article, Jackson exposed this inequality with the provocative question: ‘Why were the men’s Novice Eight invited to the Boatclub Dinner and not the Women’s?’ In oral history interviews, some female rowers recalled in later years that the efforts and successes of women’s boats were celebrated less than men’s.
The photograph above shows the ‘Maids of Magdalen’ in action. It was taken during the annual intercollegiate rowing race, known as Summer VIIIs. The photo in the College’s Archive is not labelled: do you remember Magdalen College Boat Club in 1984? Can you help us identify the rowers? If you can, please email email@example.com!
In 1987, women founded Magdalen College’s Alternative Rugby Club. One of the founders recalled that ‘we thought it unfair that the boys had more boozy dinners than we did’. In imitation of the men’s rugby club dinners, women who played either cricket or hockey for Magdalen were invited to attend the Alternative Rugby Club dinners.
This photograph shows women who attended the dinner that was held just before Christmas 1987. As the invitations specify, women who attended were expected to follow a dress code of ‘Black tie and shorts’.
In more recent years, sporting opportunities have become less gendered. Magdalen College Oxford has a tradition of playing an annual men’s rugby match against its linked college, Magdalene College Cambridge. In 2017, the JCR President Hannah McNicol updated this ‘tradition’ by ensuring that a wider range of sports were represented. She organised equal representation of women’s sports, so as to ensure that women were more than ‘spectators’.
This new tradition has continued. The photograph above shows the winning Magdalen mixed netball team in 2019. In the most recent Magdalen v. Magdalene event, 13 teams played. These included mixed hockey, mixed lacrosse, mixed darts, women’s football, and men’s rugby. 170 Magdalen students travelled to Cambridge. Oxford won 8-5 overall.
Attempts to increase inclusivity were not limited to sport though. In the 2000s, some students began to articulate a new vision of Magdalen ‘inclusivity’. They rejected the dominance of the ‘rugby lads’ culture’ in social spaces; one female JCR President recalled how not everyone felt ‘comfortable with that kind of place’. The two term cards pictured below reveal some of the changes in the social life of the Junior Common Room (JCR) across a period of 17 years. The Women’s Group was very active in 1995 (on the left), but was not visible in the recorded events in 2012 (on the right).
JCR film nights were central to College life in 1995, but by 2012 students could easily watch films in their rooms. The JCR’s Welfare representatives grew much more active across these decades. The first LGBT rep was introduced to the JCR committee in 1991, but it was only in 2012 that their events were featured prominently on the term card.
In 2018, JCR President Calla Randall further increased inclusivity by expanding the representation of College’s community in Hall. Hall is College’s most important and formal space where students, staff, fellows, and guests eat together.
The commissioned portraits ‘celebrate the extraordinary diversity of Magdalen’s community’. The JCR received 283 nominations in 2018 and selected 25 current members of Magdalen who made ‘notable contributions to the community’. The two portraits you can see here are Yethrib Mohammed, a medical student, and Claire Shepherd, the Head Gardener. These two are just a few examples from a fascinating collection.
These photographs hang alongside the historic oil paintings in Hall. College plans to update these images as the Magdalen community evolves over time.
These changing norms have had a lasting legacy. Many women who studied at Magdalen in recent years have said that they never encountered college ‘drinking societies’ or an aggressive ‘lad culture’, both of which had been prominent in the memories of earlier generations. These more recent students valued mixed and inclusive sociability that was not always centred upon alcohol.
Finally, attempts to increase inclusivity within the college have naturally expanded to potential students. Over the last 40 years, academic competition for places to study at Oxford University has intensified. In the first co-educational cohort in 1979, 186 students applied to Magdalen and 104 students were offered places. In 2018, 813 students applied for about the same number of undergraduate places.
Oxford’s open days and outreach work have contributed to the growth in applications. Since the 1970s, students and tutors organised school visits, targeted at comprehensive schools. In 1995, the Alternative Prospectus pictured below was the first paper initiative that sought ‘to demythologise Oxford and attract students that might not normally apply’. Magdalen students hoped the prospectus would communicate directly with potential applicants and copies were sent to ‘a thousand state schools’.
Women were identified in 1995 as one minority group. On this page, current students encouraged women to apply, with the message that ‘You have nothing to lose, but a hell of a lot to gain, and you are certainly as good as the next candidate, especially if he’s wearing trousers.’ As the fourth female JCR President, Fiona Thompson hoped that ‘Perhaps the fact that I’m female may encourage other women to apply, I think it can only be a positive thing’.
The Alternative Prospectus from 2018-19 shows the range of experiences and perspectives that current Magdalen students sought to present to potential applicants. Over the last fifteen years, gender alone has not been an explicit focus of College’s outreach work.
Today, the College’s dedicated outreach department organises visits to Magdalen throughout the year. The photograph pictured above shows one such outreach visit to Magdalen in 2018. More than half of pupils at the girls’ comprehensive school in the London Borough of Brent have a first language that is not English and one-third receive Free School Meals.
In this photo, a current student ambassador gives a tour of College to Year 10 students and their teachers. Outreach visits typically also include a class taught by a Magdalen academic, a talk about applying to university, Q&A with current undergraduates, lunch in Hall, and a visit to another Oxford college or museum. Magdalen organised 85 of these regular school visits in 2018-19.
Magdalen has had an outreach officer since 2012. In 2019 a second outreach officer was appointed as part of a significant expansion in the scale, range, and impact of College’s work to increase access to Oxford. Partly as a result of these ambitions, the undergraduates who began studying in 2020 are more diverse than any previous year-group recorded in College’s statistics. 53 per cent of UK domiciled students are female. 68 per cent come from state schools. 23 per cent of the incoming students are from areas with low progression to higher education and 23 per cent are from socio-economically disadvantaged areas. 22% are of BAME heritage.
The UK maintains profound and persistent educational inequalities. Since 1979, many people have worked to challenge gender inequality, so that women now also benefit from the outstanding education that Magdalen offers. Magdalen is committed to increasing the presence of other currently under-represented groups within the College community. It is hoped that Magdalen will continue to be changed by future generations of students who have the opportunity to live and study here.
The governance and appearance of College have changed relatively little since 1979. Those who studied here have, however, used the outstanding opportunities that Magdalen offers to learn to remake norms, attitudes, and authority, particularly within the undergraduate community. Individual and collective acts have had a lasting impact on everyone who is part of Magdalen today.