Thursday, March 31, 2011

April 29, 1884 --- Women at Oxford

In a rowdy session that follows months of anguished debate, the Oxford Convocation, ruling body of the ancient University, votes to admit women to "Honors" programs leading to a full degree. The first women's halls at Oxford - Lady Margaret and Somerville - had opened in the late 1870's but the young ladies could not sit for exams and would only receive diplomas, not degrees.

Acceptance was slow in coming. Ruskin would not have women in his art classes, claiming "they would occupy the seats in mere disappointed puzzlement." Not for nothing is Oxford known as "the home of lost causes" and opponents of women's education mounted a furious campaign to defeat the resolution. The ultraconservative don, J.W. Burgon (right) waxed wrathful in a sermon at New College, Oxford: "Has the University seriously considered the inevitable consequences of this wild project?" Specifically, in a curriculum dominated by "the classics," Burgon fears exposing women to "the obscenities of Greek and Roman literature ... the filth of old-world civilization." He ends his sermon with the prayer, "Inferior to us GOD made you; and our inferiors to the end of time you will remain."  Thomas Case, master of Corpus Christi college, warns: "Sound learning and the midnight lamp will be succeeded by light literature and the art of conversation at tea-parties."

It is the most crowded meeting of the Convocation in years, undergraduates eagerly take all the remaining seats. The traditional voice vote, ayes and nays, results only in an indiscriminate roar. The members must file out through two doors, proctors taking the head count. The result is 464 for the question, 321 opposed; it is received "with great enthusiasm."

Noting that Cambridge, Edinburgh and the University of London had already admitted women to their degree programs, The Times reports that it was obvious that the Convocation was "not prepared to leave the direction of women's education in other, and as all Oxford men are bound to think, less competent hands."

A modest victory for women at the university level; still, women could not take degrees at Oxford or Cambridge until 1920.

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