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Photograph of 'Conversation Piece' by Chloe Dewe Matthews, 2013.

Undergraduates, Postgraduates and Fellows:

How women influenced college life

‘A boy’s college that was allowing women in’ was one undergraduate’s memory of Magdalen in the mid-1980s. 

The norms and culture of an all-male institution persisted long after women were equal members of the college. Yet, with time, things did start to change. On this page, you can see how women changed the life of the college as undergraduates, postgraduates, fellows, and lecturers.

Undergraduate Life

Undergraduates’ responses to institutional conservatism were diverse and creative. Sometimes women enjoyed being part of an institution that many later described as a ‘male public school transferred to Oxford’. At the same time, women mocked, ignored, and transformed these privileged social norms.

Another undergraduate described Magdalen as ‘welcoming, but in a sense of benign neglect’. ‘Benign neglect’ enabled gender inequality. Women made up 20 per cent of the first co-educational cohort in 1979. Over the next decade, the number of women applying to Magdalen increased. Women made up 30-40 per cent of undergraduates admitted; for many, daily life heightened a feeling of being ‘in a minority’. Female undergraduates were also half as likely as male undergraduates to achieve the highest result of a First-class degree. This pattern of academic marginalisation was mirrored across the University.

Initially, women’s presence alone was newsworthy. In the gallery below, you can read an article entitled ‘Women in Magdalen (?)’:

This article presents the views of Vanessa Spence, a first-year Philosophy, Politics, and Economics student in 1981. She articulated two criticisms that were common in newsletters and that lasted in women’s memories: frustration at College’s assumptions about women’s ‘special needs’ and the social pressures placed on the small number of female students. Technology transformed the design of student newsletters in the 1980s. Irrespective of the printing, scurrilous stories and sexual scandal were a constant presence.

For some students, the policing of behaviour was not a joke. One Magdalen undergraduate in the mid-1980s recalled that ‘there were few roles you were allowed to play as a woman’. She remembered, with sadness, that there were ‘great, amazing women’ who ‘pushed up against that’, but did so at a ‘cost to themselves’.

Thanks to the College Archive, we can also discover more about the day-to-day life of Magdalen’s first female students. One such student, Louise Garcia, came to Magdalen to study zoology in October 1984. She had a close relationship with her grandmother and they exchanged letters every week or two. ‘Nanny’ kept her granddaughter’s letters and even most of the envelopes. This personal archive creates an unusual and valuable record of aspects of the everyday life of one undergraduate student. In the gallery pictured below and the transcript, you can read Louise Garcia’s experiences at Magdalen in the early 1980s.

This letter dates from the final week of Garcia’s first term at Magdalen. She describes many routines and feelings that would be familiar to other first-year undergraduates across the last 40 years.

What it was like to do academic work is often invisible in the College’s archive. Garcia’s grandmother was not familiar with Oxford, so Garcia describes the experience of studying more explicitly than students did when writing to each other. In this letter, Garcia revealed to her grandmother that she had had a ‘nasty feeling that amongst all these clever people here my work would be rather mediocre’. She also captured the intensity of work. She had ‘rushed through’ a ‘forgotten’ assignment during a ‘1-hour lecture on dinosaurs’, before experiencing the delight of being told by an ‘awe-inspiring’ tutor that her tutorial work was ‘excellent’.

By the early 1990s, students started to challenge in print the misogynistic and homophobic attitudes of some of their peers. An article in The Alternative pointed out powerfully that ‘Not everyone…appears to see the difference between a laugh and sexual harassment’. As part of a shift towards ensuring that women were ‘taken seriously’ in the early-1990s, the article pictured below set out the aims of a new Women’s Group.

Article listing the aims of the newly founded Women’s Group, early 1990s. MCA O2/1/N1/65

In this article, Mererid Davies explained that it was a ‘relaxed forum for women’s interests and concerns’ that sought to shape policy and enable socializing. As Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher left office, the Women’s Group felt the need to underline that ‘We’re not looking for card-carrying feminists in particular, and we’re certainly not man-haters!’

Katrina McGrath’s article on 15 years of co-education, 1994. MCA O2/1/N9/6

In the 1990s, the JCR also published handbooks to welcome incoming students to Magdalen. After 15 years of co-education, Katrina McGrath described how women ‘have set their many and varied marks on this place and it is alive with our creations’ (pictured right, click to enlarge).

Drawing on the Eurythmics’ feminist anthem ‘Sisters are doin’ it for themselves’, she explained there was ‘Not a hint of male domination in the bar, nor in sport, nor drama, nor in tutorials’. Freedom and opportunity were the essence of 1990s optimism. Magdalen had a ‘great community of women’, but ‘You control what you do’.             

Since the early 1990s, about 45 per cent of Magdalen undergraduates have been female. In 2019, after 40 years of co-education, the incoming first-year undergraduates included more women than men for the first time.

Gender inequality in results decreased from the 1990s, but continued to fluctuate in favour of men. It is only across the six years since 2015 that an average of 42 per cent of both female and male students at Magdalen have achieved Firsts on graduation. All assessed written work is anonymised, but – in contrast to relative gender equality in Final exam results in recent years – men across Oxford remain more likely to be awarded a First-class degree.

Today, students work harder and reach higher academic standards than they did in the 1970s. Women’s abilities and dedication were essential to this academic transformation. Many former students believe that they learnt ‘how to think’ at Magdalen. They remember enjoying studying with tutors who ‘were only interested in the content of your brain’. Women talk about tutorials as the space where they gained life-long skills: they learnt ‘how to write powerful arguments’ and they realised that they too could ‘be bold’.

Copyright: Magdalen College MCR

Postgraduate Life

Graduate students are hard to find in the College’s written archives.

In 1991, the President of the graduates’ Middle Common Room (MCR) explained to new students that its ‘principal role is to provide a social antidote to the characteristically solitary nature of graduate work, and to forge a sense of community from students who might otherwise feel in limbo’. Many graduate students spent more time in their University department or library than they did in College.

In seeking to forge a College community, graduate students in the 1970s pioneered the partial inclusion of women in Magdalen’s social life. In 1971, Magdalen’s graduate men were granted permission to invite women studying at other colleges to become ‘honorary members’ of the MCR.

MCR Graduate Garden Party, Summer 1975. MCA CF/1/57/5

The photograph pictured above was taken at a graduate garden party in summer 1975. It was taken four years before College was made co-educational, but shows this more informally mixed social life of the Middle Common Room (MCR). The photograph includes women who studied at other colleges, but who had been invited to be honorary members of the Magdalen MCR. Partners were also invited to MCR social events such as this drinks party.

The photo is also striking because of the diversity of fashions and styles. Many photos of College events from the 1970s reveal uniform dress codes to which men appeared to adhere. Interestingly, it was stored with pictures of the MCR in Magdalen’s Archives, but without a date or names. It has only been possible to catalogue the photograph accurately thanks to help from Magdalen’s alumni community across the globe.

Once women were admitted as equal members of College from 1979, relatively few female graduates were offered places at Magdalen. After ten years of co-education, only one-quarter of the graduate community was female. Graduate women were also more likely to be Masters students who studied at Magdalen for less than one year. One D.Phil. (Ph.D.) student recalled how few graduate women there were in College in the later 1980s, but remembered the MCR as a ‘real social hub’. Others found that men in the MCR failed to treat women as serious intellectual equals.

The number of graduate students at Magdalen has doubled since 1979. It is only since 2017, however, that relatively equal numbers of women and men have been admitted to the graduate community.

Graduate students always brought more diverse cultures and perspectives to Magdalen. In 1979, 45 per cent of new graduates were from beyond the UK. Two years later, one student described how ‘Magdalen prides itself as being a college with a high intake of foreign students, and a cosmopolitan atmosphere’. One such graduate from overseas was Neil Guthrie. After completing his BA at the University of Toronto, Neil Guthrie was awarded a scholarship to study for a doctorate in English literature at Magdalen. Below, you can see one of the albums that he used to document his four years as a graduate student from 1985.

Pages from Neil Guthrie’s scrapbook, 1985. MCA ACC2018/170

The annotated albums preserve the minutiae of everyday life that many students throw away. Here we can see his ‘Hall season ticket’ and the agenda for a Middle Common Room (MCR) general meeting. Guthrie even pasted his late gate key into an album!

These pages from Hilary (spring) Term 1987 document some of the informal social events that Guthrie attended. Most of the social events were hosted by women. The range of paper invitations from the 1980s reveals a rich culture of student sociability. Some invitations are formally printed. Others feature ‘trendy’ 1980s designs. Many are humorous, for instance offering those ‘living in a cultural desert’ the chance to ‘come and get wasted’.

Across the last 40 years, Magdalen social life has revolved around informal gatherings in student rooms and shared houses, such as this invitation scribbled on an index card. Although most students recalled occasionally socialising in public spaces, it was the ‘fun’ of sociability in these personal spaces that was most vivid to interviewees. Memories of these friendships altered remarkably little between generations: cooking together; wine; tea parties; drunken take-aways; and talking.

Sharon Kraus’ article on Magdalen postgraduate life in the Stag magazine, 1993. MCA O2/1/N3/ 20

Another perspective on Magdalen postgraduate life can be seen in Sharon Kraus’ article in the Stag magazine in 1993 (pictured right, click to enlarge). Sharon was the MCR’s Women’s Representative that year and her article was by no means typical of student journalism.

Sharon Kraus explained that ‘I’d never really thought of myself as a woman before coming to Oxford, let alone a feminist’. She had felt ‘androgynous’ while studying at Sheffield, but at Oxford she was shocked to find that gender mattered. On the facing page, ‘The Diary’ captures some of the activities and sexist attitudes that perhaps angered her.

Kraus also described becoming a feminist as a graduate student through the books she read at Oxford. In contrast to her undergraduate studies, her views changed through ‘reading Simone de Beauvoir, Marilyn French, Mary Daly’.

Magdalen undergraduates in the 1980s recalled that their reading lists seldom included women’s writing or lives. Some were frustrated by this absence. In Vanessa Spence’s Stag article in 1981, she argued that Magdalen women would be ‘better catered for by giving them more adequate representation in the academic syllabuses’, including through studying women’s history.

Some fellows agreed. In 1984, an English tutor introduced a ‘section on feminism’ and ‘women’s writing’ to the College library. At celebrations to mark the first decade of women at Magdalen in 1990, alumni donated ‘books on women’s themes’. In interviews with recent humanities students, many recalled being inspired to make women’s lives and gender inequality a central part of their degree. For some students, fellows, and alumni, academic reading and lived experiences of gender illuminated each other.

Thanks to the work of students like Sharon Kraus, today’s graduate students enjoy a somewhat more diverse environment. The photograph below shows the Middle Common Room (MCR) Committee that represented Magdalen’s graduate students in 2019:

Photograph of MCR Committee, 2019. Copyright: Magdalen College MCR

After 40 years of co-education, Scarlett Harris was, unfortunately, only the MCR’s ninth female President. The committee, however, does broadly reflect the MCR community today. In the current committee, women fill just under half the positions, including Vice-President and Treasurer. The Women’s Officer, Hannah Rana, has organised frequent events, including panel discussions on ‘Women’s Social Entrepreneurship’ and ‘Women in Academia’.

The MCR organises weekly social events, including informal Sunday brunches, the Friday night ‘Liquid Lounge’, and regular exchange dinners with graduate students in other Oxford colleges. In this photo, the committee have dressed up for their annual summer banquet. It is interesting to spot how co-education has encouraged a greater range of styles and colours – irrespective of gender – within the black tie events that students enjoy.       

Photograph of 'Conversation Piece' by Chloe Dewe Matthews, 2013.

Fellows and Lecturers

For 500 years from 1458, only men were paid to teach, write and think at Magdalen.

Anonymous letter by ‘Don’s Wife’, Isis, 11 November 1959. MCA O2/1/N11/2

Such longevity inevitably created resistance to change across the university. Indeed, in the 1950s there was clearly a mountain to climb to change many attitudes. This anonymous letter (pictured above) describes what it was like to be the wife of an Oxford academic in this decade. In it, ‘Don’s Wife’ recorded her frustration anonymously in the student magazine, Isis. She wrote in support of criticisms made by a young woman studying at one of the women’s colleges.

The writer believed that Oxford’s ‘mystique of male supremacy’ meant that the ‘really intellectual woman is a freak to them’. The anger articulated by ‘Don’s Wife’ mirrors the frustrations expressed by many married women who felt trapped by domesticity in the 1950s. ‘Ladies’ – including female academics – were permitted to socialise in Magdalen only on specified nights in the year. ‘Don’s Wife’ believed that co-education ‘just couldn’t happen in a million years’.

By the 1950s, however, some women had been excelling academically at other colleges and universities for eighty years.  If College was to appoint the best teachers, some Magdalen fellows realised that they needed to also appoint women. Elizabeth Ann Smart was the first woman to teach at Magdalen. In typically gendered language, she was praised by a male law tutor as ‘the best female student that Oxford had seen in two generations’.

As a temporary lecturer, Smart taught Magdalen students law from 1958 to 1961. In the photograph pictured below (click to enlarge), she is celebrating the end of the law students’ Final exams. These formal dinners maintained a ‘black tie’ dress code that created the appearance of male uniformity. Smart stands out visually in her pale patterned dress.

Photograph of dinner to celebrate law students’ final exams, 1961. Elizabeth Ann Smart, the first female lecturer at Magdalen, is the only woman in the picture. MCA B/3/29

After a career break as a mother, Smart was appointed to be the first law fellow at St Hugh’s College, where she continued to develop her distinguished academic career. Her pioneering appointment was followed by appointments for lecturers in English (1963-67) and Anatomy (1978-81). All these women taught alongside about 50 men, most of whom had permanent positions. Lecturers never had any formal power in governing the College.

Lizzie Fricker’s photograph in the Magdalen SCR photograph album.

It was not until 1979 that female academics began to be appointed as fellows. These fellows have equal democratic power as members of Magdalen’s decision-making body. 31 of the 56 women elected to fellowships at Magdalen since 1979 have been research fellows. These three-year positions can transform the future of an early career academic. But, research fellows – like students – have little time to effect long-lasting change within the complex power structures of College.

For decades, a minority of female fellows had permanent contracts that enabled them to research, teach, and change Magdalen. The philosopher Lizzie Fricker is one of this minority. She was the first and longest-serving female tutorial fellow at Magdalen.

Elizabeth Fricker (1952 – ), Fellow 1980 – 2017, P0305. This portrait hangs in Magdalen College Dining Hall.

Fricker became a Junior Research Fellow at Magdalen in 1980. She was the second woman to be elected to the fellowship. The photograph above right (click to enlarge) comes from the informal photograph album that fellows maintain in the Senior Common Room (SCR).

Fricker was briefly a college lecturer, before becoming fellow and tutor in philosophy from 1987 until her retirement in 2017. In 2017, College commissioned the oil painting pictured on the right by Nina Mae Fowler (click to enlarge), which now hangs in Hall. She remains an ‘inspiration’ to many fellows. In common with other previously all-male institutions, female academics who have worked at Magdalen recall a wide range of experiences. Some fellows over the last 40 years had ‘almost entirely a positive experience’ or have ‘not felt as though gender has been an issue in College at all’. Others describe having felt ‘silenced’ so that it was ‘very difficult to make my voice heard’ or stifled by a culture of institutional ‘arrogance’ and ‘monopolised power’.

The steady growth of women as lecturers and fellows at Magdalen can be seen in the graphs below. These graphs show the proportion of women amongst Magdalen’s fellows and lecturers from 1959-2018.

Data taken from Oxford University Calendars, 1959-2018

The light yellow bars show the percentage of lectureships held by women. By the 1980s about one-quarter of these temporary teaching posts were filled by women. Today there are equal numbers of female and male lecturers at Magdalen.

The shorter dark blue bars show the percentage of fellowships held by women. The pace of change within the fellowship has been slow. When students criticised the shortage of women within the fellowship in 1988, the President was optimistic that ‘there have been large changes within the student body and I’m sure that those changes will filter through’.

The small percentage of female fellows has unfortunately been reflected in their limited presence in college artwork. Magdalen has a 20th-century tradition of commissioning informal group portraits of fellows, known by the 18th-century name of ‘Conversation Piece’. In 2013, Magdalen fellows noticed the absence of women in such portraits. The documentary photographer Chloe Dewe Mathews was commissioned to create this Conversation Piece, pictured below. It portrays seven current or former female fellows.

Photograph of ‘Conversation Piece’ by Chloe Dewe Matthews, 2013. From left to right, it shows Laurie Maguire, Susan Iversen, Alison Etheridge, Christine Ferdinand, Lizzie Fricker, Clare Harris, and Shearer West, in the Colonnade of the New Building.

Earlier Conversation Pieces represented Magdalen’s culture of informal sociability, in which men dined together in jovial candle-lit rooms. In 2013, female fellows were portrayed, seemingly isolated from each other, in the elegant coldness of the New Building’s Colonnade. This portrait now hangs in the Summer Common Room and forms an important female presence on those walls.

At first glance, therefore, it seems that lots has changed at Magdalen since the anonymous ‘Don’s Wife’ penned her letter in the 1950s. Despite this progress though, it is clear that further change is required. Since 2000, the fellowship has increased in size, but women continue to make up only 15-20 per cent of the Magdalen fellowship. Although the percentage of female lecturers has reached parity with men, generational change has clearly not yet transformed the relationship between gender and authority within the fellowship. As we shall see on the next page, though, changes in leadership across college may start to alter this historic imbalance.