Oxford college fighting to keep men out

May 13, 1992|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,London Bureau

OXFORD, England -- It is hard to know if the young women of Somerville College are standing for the future or against it.

But one thing is certain. These women know what they want. They want no men in Somerville.

They have made their feelings clear to the governors of the college, who want to begin admitting men next year. The reasons for this decision are not known publicly. Catherine Hughes, the principal, declines to speak to the press.

Unofficially it is said that a coed Somerville would draw the kind of students likely to lift its academic standing, which, according to one report, has been slipping.

The women here don't take kindly to these implications. "We have our share of tops," said one undergraduate, referring to those who have done the best in their fields of study in the entire university.

She and others have organized a resistance.

They've put up a formidable defense of the status quo. They've deployed lawyers. Britain's National Union of Students is supporting them legally and financially.

"We're giving them legal advice and financial aid," said Laura Matthews, a spokesperson for the NUS. "We don't tell them what to think."

On Monday, they took their lawyers before the Chancellor of Oxford University, Roy Jenkins, to argue that the school cannot legally go coed since the endowment money was raised for the education of women.

They also complained about not having been consulted, and even argued that it would take an act of Parliament to integrate Somerville College, because that was what it took to get women admitted to the male colleges at Oxford two decades ago. Today the whole university is about 40 percent female.

Lord Jenkins is expected to decide the issue in the next couple of weeks.

The students have taken a referendum among the college's 336 undergraduate and 86 graduate students. "Eighty-four percent want to remain single-sex," said Deborah Sherry, a 27-year-old law student from New York.

They've decorated the college, a short bicycle ride from the center of town, with signs that read: "Somervillians say NO."

And they have disturbed the peace of Oxford. For the women of Somerville know that this Eden of academia, this home of reason, truthand science, is still a place where men receive, as if by natural right, most of the deference.

Somerville is one of the two remaining single-sex colleges among the 26 undergraduate colleges within Oxford University. St. Hilda's is the other. Somerville is also one of the newer colleges on this 800-year-old campus. At 113 years old the paint is hardly dry. Yet the ranks of its graduates have a glitter that might make Harvard blink.

"We've produced four prime ministers," says Sian Thomas, a 21-year-old biology student from Newcastle whose first name is Welsh for Jane.

Indira Gandhi of India studied here, Sirimavo Bandaranaike of Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and Golda Meir of Israel. So did Margaret Thatcher, who reportedly expressed support for keeping Somerville female.

Is Mrs. Thatcher popular here?

"She is now," says Ms. Thomas.

It is not that the women of Somerville don't like men. Nor are they really segregated from them; their classes are with men. It's only their dormitories that are single-sex. And that is not entirely true either.

"We can have men in our rooms," assures Ms. Thomas. "They can even stay overnight."

The women behind the resistance to the sexual integration of Somerville -- Ms. Thomas, Ms. Sherry, Caroline Derry, Suzanne Parker and Katie Baxendale -- all believe women's colleges provide a necessary atmosphere for growth, a special period of incubation in the company of their own sex to develop the kind of strength to get on in a world still by and large run by men.

The same arguments were heard in Baltimore several years ago from some of the women who wanted Goucher College to remain a single-sex school.

As Caroline Derry puts it: "What you have here is a thriving environment for women, an environment that produces strong women who go out and become prime ministers."

They also become writers, like Iris Murdoch, or Nobel chemists, like Dorothy Hodgkin.

Such an atmosphere of insulation is needed, all the women agree, because of the way Oxford is. This is where the "old boy network" was invented.

"I am a very outspoken person," says Ms. Sherry. "But in the tutorials [tutoring sessions] I find professors leaning much more to the men."

Ms. Thomas, who is vice president of the the Oxford Student Union, complains: "Women don't get as much respect. In meetings, if you speak out, men say you are strident."

It is a view shared by some men. One geography don said: "The position of women in this university is appalling. To be fair it is changing some, but at a glacial pace. They are years behind most universities in the proportion of women on the teaching staff, about 14 to 15 percent, certainly not 20."

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