Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Actually, we call them "women's colleges"

by Molly Borowitz

So. I go to Cambridge now.

Actually, it feels a lot like Princeton—a quiet academic backwater, a quirky town built up around a prestigious university, just a short hop from a bustling cultural center. Except—oh wait—I’m a grad student. And I’m in England. And I live in an all-women’s college.

In the 1860s, after more than 650 years of existence, the University of Cambridge finally decided (albeit grudgingly) to admit women into its ranks. Unsurprisingly, progress was slow: the foundations of the first women’s colleges, Girton (1869) and Newnham (my college, 1872), enabled women to attend university lectures—at the lecturer’s discretion, of course—but they weren’t awarded degrees in recognition of their studies until 1947.

Almost all of Cambridge’s colleges went co-ed during the 1970s (although there were a few holdouts—for instance, Peterhouse, which resisted until 1985, and whose male residents processed through the streets dressed in black on the day that women finally entered the college). King’s, Clare, and Churchill were the first to admit women, in 1972. Girton admitted its first male residents in 1977. Oxford, too, surrendered to the tide of mixed education; in 2007, the last of Oxford’s women’s colleges admitted men. But Newnham? Not a chance. As of today, Cambridge is the only university in the United Kingdom with colleges that do not admit men.

Call me a crappy feminist, but I was not thrilled to have been assigned to a women’s college. However, after two weeks here, I am forced to admit that I like it. Newnham is an incredible historical force—alumnae include Rosalind Franklin, Jane Goodall, Sylvia Plath, Emma Thompson, and Germaine Greer—and also a breathtakingly beautiful space. When you gather in the period rooms or stand in the sunken rose garden, you can picture young women in nineteenth-century dress reading diligently from dusty volumes, living quietly in an ivory tower, a little oasis in the midst of the odd fraternal-but-solemn, academic-gown-wearing Cambridge atmosphere. The isolation must have been complete: Newnham boasts one of the most extensive college libraries at the University, mostly because the men’s colleges didn’t want to share their books with the female students.

These days, of course, living here doesn’t preclude you from interacting with men. I see them in all my lectures and seminars, at various social events, and often in my own house (because most of my housemates have boyfriends). There are male friends and visitors all over the place—in the library, on the grounds, in the dining hall—and, as best I can tell, they feel completely comfortable here. The concept of an all-women’s college under the aegis of a mixed university doesn’t seem to strike Cantabrigians as incongruous, nor do they regard it as outdated or somehow inferior.

Of course, there is the occasional sexist joke. Amongst the undergraduates, Newnham is affectionately known as the “Virgin Mega-Store,” and it’s commonly held that during early-morning fire drills there are as many men as women standing outside the dorms, often wrapped in pink dressing-gowns or girls’ overcoats. But on the flipside, women reign supreme here. All the buildings are named after women, the administrative staff is comprised of women, all the resident Tutors and Fellows are women, the Principal and all the College authorities are women, and so forth. (Of course, there are male employees and tutors, but they constitute a very small minority, and women occupy all the highest positions.)

Obviously, as a young feminist, I like to see women empowered. It is objectively cool to live in a place where everyone you are expected to respect, admire, or emulate is a woman. And Newnham is beautiful, warm, and welcoming. I am very happy here. However, I still think Cambridge’s women’s colleges present a problem for women’s equality in the university. As long as there are spaces reserved exclusively for women, it will remain possible for us to be diverted into a separate sphere of success. Or perhaps, to put it another way, the women’s colleges create an alternate stage upon which Cambridge women can be recognized and acclaimed for their successes (e.g., women scholars get buildings named after them at Newnham, New Hall, or Lucy Cavendish, rather than on the University grounds at large). And as long as women’s colleges exist, it will be possible for the strong and brilliant female scholars, teachers, and leaders here to be set up as role models exclusively for Cambridge’s female students, rather than for all Cantabrigians. I don’t think Newnham will be admitting men any time soon, but until that time I wonder whether it will be possible for its residents and alumnae to move beyond the legacy of “Cambridge’s women” in order to contribute to that of Cambridge itself.


At October 13, 2009 at 11:50 AM , Blogger Vertigo said...

I just finished my MPhil from Cambridge last September and I also was a member of Newnham!! I have this blog on my Google Reader so imagine my pleasant surprise.
I can tell you that Cambridge is a VERY sexist place, and at the end of the day you will LOVE Newnham and the safe place it provides. I think being a member of Newnham was the highlight of my Cambridge experience.

At October 14, 2009 at 11:30 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Cambridge is a city, not a town as written above.

I had to laugh at the Peterhouse 1985 parade - would have loved to have seen (and jeered at) that :)

Enjoy and make sure you get around and see more of the UK as well while you are here.


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