The story of Somerville as one of Oxford’s all-women colleges is a good lens through which to reflect on the road to women’s education at elite institutions, writes Uma Mahadevan-Dasgupta.* 

I have always read Virginia Woolf’s “A Room of One’s Own” as a brilliant essay about women writers and their need for financial independence. After coming to Oxford on a fellowship, I realised how sharply Woolf’s essay also comments on systematic barriers to women in elite higher education, and how these barriers kept women impoverished over the centuries.

Woolf’s metaphors are everything. In stylish stream of consciousness, she writes of sitting by the river when, like a tiny fish glinting the water, a thought begins to take shape in her mind. Excited, she leaps up and begins to walk. But she is immediately confronted by a man who waves his arms violently to get her off the grass. “His face expressed horror and indignation… He was a Beadle; I was a woman. This was the turf; there was the path. Only the Fellows and Scholars are allowed here; the gravel is the place for me.”

Women couldn’t possibly be Fellows or Scholars, and therefore they couldn’t possibly walk on the grass.

Woolf’s response is mild but withering: “The only charge I could bring against the Fellows and Scholars of whatever the college might happen to be was that in protection of their turf, which has been rolled for 300 years in succession, they had sent my little fish into hiding.”

No one writes about male privilege quite like Virginia Woolf. Over and over, in her fiction and essays, we note the dry irony with which she contrasts the free and expansive lives of the mind of Great Men with the lives of women that are filled with everyday minutiae and restrictions: “If the spirit of peace dwells anywhere, it is in the courts and quadrangles of Oxbridge on a fine October morning… the mind, freed from any contact with facts (unless one trespassed on the turf again), was at liberty to settle down upon whatever meditation was in harmony with the moment.”

Unless one trespassed on the turf again.

A series of thoughts about Charles Lamb and John Milton’s Lycidas leads her to the library where the manuscript of Milton’s great poem itself is available – “that famous library where the treasure is kept” – but again, she finds the doors closed to her. A gatekeeper tells her that a woman cannot enter alone, but only with a Fellow, or a letter of introduction.

I am sure every woman, everywhere, can relate with goosebumps to Woolf’s furious response: “That a famous library has been cursed by a woman is a matter of complete indifference to a famous library.”

The third example that Woolf muses on is food. She notes that male novelists do not dwell on the mundane details of what is served and how. They can afford to take it for granted. Nevertheless, there are stark differences. At the men’s splendid luncheon, “the wineglasses had flushed yellow and flushed crimson; had been emptied; had been filled.” On the other hand, at the women’s college, the food is plain, and ends with biscuits and water, with no brilliantly-coloured wines, for this is a college of modest means, not endowed with wealth and property like the centuries-old men’s colleges. 

Layers of accumulated privilege

All this greatness, Woolf notes, is the result not only of wealth and property, but also a massive amount of physical exertion. Drily, she unpacks the layers of accumulated privilege on which the dreaming spires have been built: “Once, presumably, this quadrangle with its smooth lawns, its massive buildings and the chapel itself was marsh too, where the grasses waved and the swine rootled. Teams of horses and oxen, I thought, must have hauled the stone in wagons from far countries, and then with infinite labour the grey blocks in whose shade I was now standing were poised in order one on top of another. And then the painters brought their glass for the windows, and the masons were busy for centuries up on that roof with putty and cement, spade and trowel.”

When Woolf finally comes to the women’s college, there is no manicured or domesticated grass here, but a kind of wild beauty. “The gardens of Fernham lay before me in the spring twilight, wild and open, and in the long grass, sprinkled and carelessly flung, were daffodils and bluebells, not orderly perhaps at the best of times, and now wind-blown and waving as they tugged at their roots.”

The wild gardens of Somerville College at Oxford remind me of Woolf’s imagined Fernham. The story of Somerville, which was started as one of Oxford’s all-women colleges, is a good lens through which to reflect on the road to women’s education at Oxford. Set up in 1879, the mission of this progressive modest campus is specifically to include the excluded. Founded as a non-denominational college, it continues to be one. It has divested from fossil fuels. At a time when the world is seeing a refugee crisis, it is a University College of Sanctuary. Delightfully, anyone at Somerville, including visitors, can walk freely on the grass. In the dining hall, one is surrounded by portraits of women. The college itself is named after Mary Somerville, a remarkable self-educated public intellectual who was both an artist and a scientist, and whose signature was the leading name in the first petition to the British Parliament demanding votes for women.

While the centuries-old men’s colleges own deer parks and wine cellars – and one college reportedly owns property from Oxford to London – Somerville has none of these. What it does have is one of the largest college libraries in Oxford because when it started, women were not allowed to use the Bodleian. Somerville’s library is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

None of this was easy. As Woolf points out with bitter irony, women’s colleges did not have the benefit of great endowments and wealthy patrons. Nor was the university going to make things easier. Even after women were finally admitted as students at Oxford, it was a rough and uneven road to education. Though Somerville was started as a Hall in 1879, its small group of women students were not allowed to attend lectures or obtain degrees. Lectures were opened to women at Oxford only subject by subject, over several years, and not without misgivings and heated debate. Some men attending a lecture at Christ Church were reportedly so alarmed by the arrival of women for the lecture that they ran away. Examinations were opened to women at the university only in 1884.

Cornelia Sorabji at Oxford

Nevertheless, the women persevered. When the pioneering Cornelia Sorabji arrived at Somerville in 1889, she was breaking many glass walls: she was the first Indian woman to graduate from Bombay University; the first to study at a British university; the first to study law at Oxford; and, returning to the country of her birth, the first woman advocate in India and a social reformer.

It was only in 1920, more than 40 years after the University of London, that women were finally allowed to take degrees at Oxford. Although the Sheldonian Theatre, the university’s beautiful Congregation Hall designed by Christopher Wren, was already two and a half centuries old at the time, it was the first occasion when women were receiving their degrees under that grand painted dome. It was an emotional moment. The writer and pacifist Vera Brittain described the atmosphere in the hall as “tense with the consciousness of a dream fulfilled”.

Somerville’s campus grew with the contributions of its stellar community of teachers, students and alumni, who included not only women like Indira Gandhi and Margaret Thatcher, but also leaders in other fields like the Jamaican physician Cicely Williams, known for her research into the severe form of protein malnutrition known as kwashiorkor, and first director of the WHO’s Maternal and Child Health division. When the Somerville scientist and crystallographer Dorothy Hodgkin won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, she used a part of her prize money to set up a nursery on the Somerville campus. 

For many decades, Oxford implemented a quota limiting the number of women students to a quarter of men students. This limit was removed only in the late 1950s. At the time, the principal of Somerville, Janet Vaughan, remarked: “In a world which seems to do nothing but erect barriers, it is a pleasure to see one knocked down.”

It was only in 1959 that women’s colleges at Oxford were given the full status that had previously been limited to the men’s colleges.

Change has come slowly to Oxford, and challenges continue. In 2019, women made up half of all undergraduate students for the first time. Women are still underrepresented at higher levels, as heads of departments, and on boards. According to the university Gender Pay Gap Report for 2022, Oxford continues to have a mean gender pay gap of 18.1%, and a median gender pay gap of 11.1%.

One returns to Woolf’s reflections on the long shadow cast by centuries of discrimination: “I pondered why it was that Mrs Seton had no money to leave us; and what effect poverty has on the mind; and what effect wealth has on the mind… I thought of the organ booming in the chapel and of the shut doors of the library; and I thought how unpleasant it is to be locked out; and I thought how it is worse perhaps to be locked in.”

*Uma Mahadevan-Dasgupta is a Chevening-Gurukul Scholar 2022 and member of Kellogg College whom Somerville College was delighted to welcome several times during the course of her studies. She is a member of the Indian Administrative Service and kindly gave us permission to reproduce this article after it first appeared in The Hindu on November 8th 2022. 


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