I received an email yesterday from Clare College, Cambridge about the high profile events being planned by the college to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the admission of women into the college. The email invited me, along with other members of the college, to come together and celebrate the college for taking ‘the momentous decision to end centuries of inequality by welcoming female as well as male students’.
Clare College was founded in 1326, and women were not admitted until 1972. Students famously wore black armbands in mourning at Magdalene College, the last all-male college to admit women in Oxford or Cambridge, when it finally admitted women in 1988. Surely the first thing that springs to mind, when one thinks about the fact that women have only had this superficial badge of equality for 40 years within the highly celebrated 800 year history of the University, is ‘that’s not very long’.
This is very recent history. But it seems strangely to have been forgotten. The anniversaries potentially provide a great opportunity to highlight the fragility of the achievement. But the triumphant tone of the planned celebrations is troubling. Musical recitals and high profile speakers will buff the College’s reputation to a high gleam. Alumni will be wooed. These plans obscure the significant struggles of women in working together in challenging institutional sexism, and towards being admitted to all-male Oxbridge colleges. But, perhaps more importantly, the plans also hide persistent institutional sexism and the fact that women still face huge inequalities and injustices today. This leads dangerously to a complacency and a belief that equality has been achieved, and therefore submerges the need for action.
At Cambridge, female undergraduates are still advised to write ‘like men’ so that they do better in their exams. As CUSU’s admirable Women’s Campaign state on their website, many of these challenges are national, but many are also specific to Cambridge. They rightly highlight the fact that ‘there is a worrying disparity between women’s and men’s exam results, with men in many subjects receiving more firsts than women, despite the fact that this gap is not evident at most other universities nor at A level’. They also note that ‘many subjects, particularly those within the sciences,are predominantly male’ and interestingly for the anniversary, state that ‘despite the fact that there are still three all female colleges in the University, women students have only recently begun to make up 50% of the undergraduate student body with at least five colleges still containing well under 50% women’.
In light of all this, surely we should be remembering the struggles of the past, in order to challenge sexism of the present. To refuse consoling and celebratory narratives in favour of justified anger and further struggle. Because after all, forty years is not very long.