The theme of International Women’s Day 2022 is to ‘BreakTheBias’, as we imagine a gender equal world that is diverse, equitable, and inclusive. In the heady utopian days of the 1960s, when the pioneering educator and experienced non-executive Dame Professor Elan Closs Stephens (1966, English, see Bio at end) attended Somerville, such a world seemed possible, if not inevitable. So why hasn’t it happened?
To answer that and other questions, Professor Stephens joined our current JCR Women’s Officer, Rosie Seymour (2020, English and Spanish), for a conversation between Somerville women across the generations.
Rosie: As women’s officer for the Somerville JCR, I feel that women’s causes are very much at the forefront of Somerville students’ thoughts, whether that’s protesting against spiking or attending the feminist society which I’m proud to lead. I wonder, what are your memories of feminist movements or causes related to women’s issues during your time at Somerville, particularly given that it was a women’s college at the time?
Elan: Well, first of all, it was a completely different time, because I came here in 1966. So this was the beginning not just of women’s liberation, but a whole liberation movement. We were, I would say, the first generation to benefit from Beveridge: we were in good health, we had a national health service, we had aspirations and a free university education, including grants for living as well as fees. So we felt somehow that everything was possible, and I think that women’s liberation felt like part of that, not least because we were the first ever generation, post ’63, to have the pill.
My generation felt, I think, like we were in a very different place to women of the fifties – women like my mother, who was a teacher, yet had to give up her permanent teaching post immediately after the war, because the men were coming back. Now, obviously, nobody wants to say that those men shouldn’t have had a job, but the fact is that it came at a cost to professional women. And we were the generation that really didn’t feel that people should be going down that route – we felt that getting a career was our right.
It was a good time for women to feel enabled. It was the time of the anti-Vietnam protests, Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex was a much-thumbed book, Germaine Greer’s book (The Female Eunuch) came out the year after I graduated. And yet, when you look back on the pop scene at the time, the way groupies and so forth were treated, you have to question whether that liberation didn’t also come with quite a lot of exploitation both in the sex industry and everywhere else.
So there was a cost to it all. What’s more, I don’t think we ever solved the fundamental question, which is how, as you grow older, are you supposed to have equality without compromise? To answer that, we needed to go to the root and find out what are the enabling factors in wider society as a whole that allow you to be punished, in inverted commas, for having a family – and I don’t think we ever managed it.
Still, it was a huge leap forward. When I look back on my upbringing, at the constraints of women in the fifties, the assumptions about married women, how few of them ever worked, and the constraints of their lives in terms of what they were allowed to do – by comparison, the sixties was the first time people were allowed to have a life for themselves, you know? At the time it was tremendously exciting, but there are issues that are still unresolved to this day. So, a mixed time, I would say.
Rosie: You mention some cornerstone feminist works that were published in the sixties as part of the second feminist movement. I know you were an English student during your time at Somerville, like me, so I wonder if you have any particular literature you’d like to recommend either by women or empowering of women?
Elan: Well, there are two I’d love to mention. One is not a particularly feminist bit of literature per se, it’s more a diary of a particular period. But when I was 16 or 17, I read the Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain. And obviously she wanted to break away from a debutante’s lifestyle – she came came from a fairly privileged background, she wanted to go to university. But then her story became enmeshed in the First World War, the death of her fiancé, and so forth. However, the thrust of the stuff at the beginning of the book is very much her desire to lead a more professional career – and the fact is that she chose Somerville at that point because she’d read that it was a more radical, non-denominational, kind of freer society than some of the other women’s colleges at that time – which I think was probably true.
When I first read Testament of Youth, I’d never been to Oxford. I’d never been anywhere very much. And I thought, “Well, I’ll go to Somerville.” So that was a mixture of a kind of feminism and aspiration, plus the fact that it’s a book worth reading in terms of the fact that it’s a very good read.
The other book, or rather writer, whom I’d like to recommend is Deborah Levy, mainly because I’m older and she’s older. She writes beautifully about living by oneself and carving out the pleasures of being alone. My husband died when he was 43 and I was 40. My children were ten and seven at the time, so I’ve had a pretty individualistic path, one where I’ve made my own decisions within the constraints of having to think about the two kids. As I’ve grown older, and the kids are now long gone with children of their own, I’ve found you have to think deliberately about the things that give you the pleasure, and I think Deborah Levy is an example of somebody who explores that question with great skill.
Rosie: She sounds wonderful, a little bit like Jeanette Winterson, perhaps? And I absolutely relate to your reasons for choosing Somerville. I thought it was the only place for me because, while I knew there were other colleges with a strong tradition as women’s colleges, Somerville stood out as the only one that’s always had female principals, and I feel like you can see that influence all around you here. I feel like it still shapes who we are in a way that’s really inspiring.
Elan: Well, it’s feminism intertwined with a lot of other things, isn’t it? For example, I was here in 1968, so we were thinking not only about the Anti-Vietnam protests, but also Czechoslovakia. I should also add that this college was there at the forefront, putting up a fund to get somebody from Czechoslovakia to come and study here. I noticed recently you’ve been doing the same thing with refugees from Syria and Afghanistan, helping people who are at the bad end of history through no fault of their own, just as Somerville has always sought to do.
Rosie: Absolutely. We’re still a very politically involved college. I think that people my age, my generation as a whole, are politically very involved, in part thanks to social media, in part due to a recognition that we’re facing global problems on an unprecedented scale. No one can say, “Oh, it’s not my problem,” because it manifestly is. We’re seeing that right now with the support for the people of Ukraine, the bake sales and donations. think there’s definitely, and you see with the turnout, the bake sale and everyone kind of clubbing together.
Elan: How wonderful. When I came here, for my first year, we had a very remarkable principal called Dame Janet Vaughan. Dame Janet was a medical scientist, one of the very first people into Belsen after it was liberated, where she researched blood changes in the victims of starvation. But she was also a woman of incredible sympathy and leadership. As an impressionable 18 year old, I just thought she was a very, very remarkable woman. It was a privilege to meet her and come to know her and to have an end of term interview with her. It sounds like this is a tradition that’s still preserved, which I’m glad of, because unlike a lot of bigger universities, Somerville was always a very intimate place where you do get to know tutors and principals in a very real way, and I did with her.
Dame Janet inspired me in a way that has remained with me for 50 years, which is quite remarkable when you think of it. That’s why I’m so pleased when I see some of the stuff that Jan Royall now writes in the Somerville magazines, telling us how she has embraced the radical position and is putting it front of mind. She seems to me to have embraced the ethos that I knew here 50 years ago. It does seem to me to strike a chord for somebody was there during my time.
Rosie: It’s true that Jan really does want to be involved with all our student movements. She aligns herself a lot with us and really cares about what the wider JCR community is doing, and she’s very interested in women’s issues and has a lot of conversations with me about events that we can put on to support these causes. But what about your life after Somerville? Can you tell me a little bit about your early career and how literature factored into it, as well as your political identity?
Elan: I was very conflicted during my time at Somerville about whether I was a hundred percent academic. Mostly, this is because I came from a very working class area where people who had a little education were also leaders, whereas in Oxford as a whole, there seems to be more of a gap between highly intelligent people and leadership people. It was a gap I hadn’t encountered, coming from a poorer background, so when I was approached about a job in the newly formed Wales Arts Council before I graduated, I decided to start off there. At the same time, there was a thing called the Wales Books Council, which dealt with Welsh language books and which helped to distribute, edit, and create proper jackets and professional illustrations, particularly for children’s books. So, for a time, I was part of these two ventures that were in their infancy.
Then there was a drama development starting in the university there, and that was brand new again. Once again, somebody said, “Are you interested in applying?” So I began again on the ground floor of something completely new. I think I’ve always had to sort of see where the path is leading in a sense. It’s not a well-charted path, but it’s terribly exciting because you’ve got carve it out for yourself. I think that’s been pretty formative, and it proves I quite like things which are not yet fully settled – which is pretty much the antithesis of corporate life.
Rosie: One of the careers I’m thinking of is museum curator, which I had heard was still quite male-dominated, at least at the top. But I went to a talk yesterday where I learned that the new Keeper of the Archives at the Bodleian is their first woman since 1600-and-something. Do you feel that the arts are still quite male-dominated?
Elan: I sometimes feel that a lot of the resistance has gone underground simply because it’s not the done thing to say it out loud anymore. But if you scratch the surface a little, there’s still a lot of it about. Of course, it’s not as overt as it was. I became acting Head of Department very quickly, when I was 34, and I was the only woman member on the University Senate at that time. I remember standing up to talk to a particular point and somebody in a very loud stage whisper said from behind me, “It’ll be embroidery next.” Well, you know he wouldn’t say that today. But within society as a whole, I think there persists the same resistance to women having careers.
I find it wrong, for example, that if you’re a woman of 40 competing for a professorship and you’ve published five things, while somebody else has published six because they didn’t take maternity leave, that’s not taken into account. The same point applies with things like childcare and pensions; why is the former allowed to limit one’s development as a woman, either through prohibitive cost or the culture in some industries that obliges women to sacrifice time with their children in order to look successful? And if your pension is calculated as an all-career average, yet doesn’t take into account the loss of income you experienced through taking time to raise a family, how is that fair? These are issues that perhaps don’t strike someone as being worth fighting for when you’re young, but they exert a real negative force on women’s lives that is quite toxic.
Rosie: Could you tell me a little bit about the initiatives you’ve led to help women in the workplace and particularly women in the arts?
Elan: Okay, well, I think there are two ways of working. One is the protest engine and one is from the inside. Now, the inside is more hidden, but due to the nature of the career paths I’ve taken, that’s where I’ve been. So, as head of my own department, I was able to ensure that we appointed and promoted women more equitably. Then as a non-executive director of the Welsh government’s Board, which was the Board of the Permanent Secretary, I was able to be there as a member of their remuneration committee and advocate for the promotion of women and equality issues – though I have to say, terms and conditions in the civil services are probably better than in a lot of other corporations.
Within the BBC, where I’ve spent much of my career recently, there’s been a lot of pain, a lot of women who felt that there was almost unconsciously a big gap between pay awarded for similar jobs. And as a member of the Board, you would expect me to be very supportive on those areas. I’ve also had the privilege of living through devolution in Wales that has ensured more women members of the Senedd led by women such as the Deputy First Minister Jane Hutt. And, of course, I hope I led by example as the first woman Chair of the public broadcaster, S4C.
Rosie: To end, might I ask what your hopes are for the future with regard to gender equality and female empowerment within the arts and creative industries?
Elan: I think the arts industry, and especially the bit I’m most involved with now, which is the creative industries and media, have – despite some pay gaps – had a very honourable tradition of women being able to make their way as directors. To name just a few, there are Beryl Vertue, who died last month, yet founded the company that made Sherlock and, in Wales, the company Bad Wolf, which did the recent Dark Materials series, was founded by two excellent women, Julie Gardner and Jane Tranter. So it’s been a women-friendly industry.
However, to bring it away from gender for a moment, I do believe that the industry won’t succeed unless it actively creates opportunities for individuals of either sex. During Covid, the majority of relief went to organisations, not individuals, and our freelancers have had a difficult, traumatic time. As such, the question I would like to ask is, “How much do we value the arts in the UK?”
The emphasis in schools now is on STEM subjects, which of course are essential. But the lack of respect for things like music, drama, expressive arts, art and art history, all these things – when you look at the profile of the UK in the world, it’s our creativity that we’re known for, the fact that we have plays and theatres and actors that are world-renowned. And yet, somehow, for 14 year olds, 15 year olds, 16 year olds now, it’s not viewed as an occupation. That message – that the arts are not a career worth pursuing – is deeply negative. There have been several studies of the fact that people graduating in arts-related degrees, tend now to be wealthier than my time, when people like the Angry Young Men and Caine and Finney were all coming through with their working-class accents and interests. That’s all stalled now – so my question is how serious are we about developing the arts, not just for women, not just for men, but for all genders?
Rosie: Absolutely. I heard someone saying once, I can’t recall where, that we need science in order to survive and develop in society, but if we develop without a society and the art that drive and unite it, then we’ve lost our humanity as a whole, which I really firmly believe in.
Elan: Yes, and I also think we tend to undervalue the sciences as something completely logical. In fact, there are leaps of imagination and accidentalism within sciences that emanate only from creative minds. I think it’s at our peril that we make those avenues narrower or emphasise one as antithetical to the other.
Rosie: That seems a good note on which to end our conversation.
Elan: Doesn’t it?
Biographical Note: Dame Professor Elan Closs Stephens (1966, English) is an educator and experienced non-executive specialising in cultural and broadcasting policy. An Honorary Fellow of Somerville, Dame Elan is currently Pro Chancellor of Aberystwyth University, the Non-Executive Director for Wales on the main BBC Board, the Chair of BBC Commercial Holdings, the Electoral Commissioner for Wales and the Chair of the Welsh Government’s Public Leaders Forum. She has served as Chair on many cultural bodies, including S4C, the British Council’s Wales Advisory Committee, Chwarae Teg (which promotes economic development for women in Wales) and the Stephens Report, which examined the financing and structure of the arts in Wales for the Welsh Assembly Government. She kindly gave up an hour of her time before Somerville’s Foundation Day lecture, for which kindness she has our enduring thanks.