Hurrah for the Hildabeestes

21st March 2003 at 00:00
I'M not sorry about the Hildabeestes. There may be some exasperated sighing over the undergraduates at St Hilda's College, Oxford, who campaigned in lilac to keep the college single-sex.

There may be something incongruous in preserving female modesty by parading in T-shirts saying "Let men in? Bollocks!" It is undeniably true that tens of thousands of students live perfectly happily in mixed halls, and that the long stand-off at St Hilda's has pushed it down the academic table.

But yes, on balance, I'm glad the refuseniks won. There has to be some sanctuary for those who want a single-sex environment to study in. I would actually approve if there was a men-only college too, as long as it wasn't the richest. If we value diversity, we should value St Hilda's.

For women's colleges had a special atmosphere. There was something in the air at my own - St Anne's, in the early 1970s. It was a compound of cosiness and idealism, earnestness and high spirits: a whiff of Margaret Rutherford and Joyce Grenfell, with darker, more powerful undernotes of Pankhurst and Iris Murdoch. It grew out of the history of women's education, and the bitter struggles of the late Victorian and Edwardian eras. Women suffered insult, belittlement, and obstruction in their battle to win entry to the higher ranks of academe. A bishop preached in a sermon that bluestocking women would become infertile, because blood needed in the womb was diverted to the brain.

When the Oxford Home Students began attending lectures (they were not allowed to take degrees) there was one occasion, not I think entirely legendary, when a don arriving for a lecture where only women had turned up sniffed, and said "Oh, nobody here" and left.

The women soldiered on, underfunded and resolute: determined to be doctors, scholars, teachers. Many gave up the chance of family life because they dared not take their eye off the ball: one of the most touching things for a woman of my generation, in a public job, is to get generous letters from old, old ladies from forty years before saying "It's good that girls like you can have children and a profession. Good luck to you. We couldn't." One old Girtonian had refused a proposal of marriage because her fiance felt that if she continued her studies as an ophthalmologist his well-connected family would cut him off, so disgraceful was a working wife. The literary lot did a bit better, but only just. It is a mistake to think that the Lady Longfords and Virginia Woolfs were typical of their age.

So the women's colleges and their dons always had a sense of their proud and stroppy history. Years ago, Lady Margaret Hall put on a play about its early days and unearthed a wonderful anthem beginning "Joy, joy, joy, joy, the battle is won! No more despised and oppressed We shall argue and learn with the best!" The women who founded those colleges made them learned, rigorous, and questing, but also comfortable and warm. When I think of a women's college, I see worn but clean carpets, soft chairs, pale gold scuffed bookshelves and kind canny women with sharp eyes for an unhappy girl. They didn't have endowments or rolling acres of college property or cellars full of port or Shakespeare First Folios to flog when the chapel roof fell in: but they had spirit and dedication and you wanted to live up to them.

There is another reason not to discard all that history forever. Even though most women's colleges have bowed to economics and changing mores and let the clumpy boys in, there are still families - notably Asian - who might impede their daughter's higher education if the only way she could get it was by living hugger-mugger with young men. We may snort, but it happens. In the recent TV soapumentary about St Hilda's, the most impressive undergraduate was the Indian medical student. In one of the most telling sequences, elderly women reminisced about curfews and the rule that young men could not drink tea in a room with both a bed and a girl in it.

This, one of them pointed out, was not because the dons were prudes but because, without such rules, parents of that chaperoned age would simply not have let their girls study. Such parents are far, far fewer now, and mainly Asian; but there has to be somewhere for their daughters.

In all eras, the denizens of women's colleges have loved to roam beyond the walls and prowl the wider university in search of men. That way, finding broader society than if they had stayed inside a co-ed college with the guy down the corridor. So that's another tradition that would have gone west if the Hildabeestes had not been stubborn. I suspect the citadel will fall eventually, but a stay of execution is welcome. Floreat St Hilda's.

It is a link with history.

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