Last women standing
Another women-only Cambridge college goes mixed
Do the remaining ones have a future?
LUCY CAVENDISH is different from other Cambridge colleges, both in its modest appearance and its character. “We’re not hierarchical, we’re very open and friendly, we’re not pretentious,” says Dame Madeleine Atkins, its president. Yet it is soon to become a bit less distinctive. On March 12th the college announced that from 2021 it will accept men. (It will also admit under-21s for the first time.) That will leave only two women-only colleges in Cambridge: Murray Edwards and Newnham. Oxford lost its last in 2008, when St Hilda’s opened its gates to men.
The colleges were set up to end the male monopoly at the universities, with Girton College the first in 1869, some 79 years before women could officially be awarded Cambridge degrees. At Newnham and Lucy Cavendish all fellows are women, but male ones are allowed at Murray Edwards. None of the colleges has the sort of restrictions on male guests that once forced amorous visitors to vault college walls. Still, in an article in Varsity, a student newspaper, a columnist recalls telling teachers about her destination: “They thought I wanted to become a nun or was a ‘full-on feminist’.”
The colleges have made much progress in their founding mission: 49.5% of the Cambridge undergraduate intake is female, and women are now more likely than men to attend university. It was this that prompted the change of policy, says Dame Madeleine. In addition, the number of mature students has recently plummeted, partly because of higher fees, making life tricky for a college dedicated to them.
Few applicants are keen on women’s colleges, either. Two-thirds of the most recent undergraduate intake at Murray Edwards originally applied to a different college. “The biggest challenge is getting across the idea that students are not cut off from men,” says Dame Barbara Stocking, its president. She believes that the college’s job is to prepare young women for a working world dominated by men by encouraging them to take risks, and that it will only be finished when there is true gender equality.
To inspire students, Murray Edwards has a collection of more than 500 works by women artists, including Tracey Emin and Barbara Hepworth, as well as an “enrichment programme” that builds connections with alumnae. Students at Newnham are encouraged to take a similar approach. Visitors to the college’s website are greeted with a quote from a recent graduate: “I am now part of Newnham’s tradition of producing strong, witty and rebellious women.” It is, however, a tradition that is becoming increasingly unusual.
This article appeared in the Britain section of the print edition under the headline "Last women standing" (Mar 14th 2019)