How the first women broke the all-male mould at Oxford University
5:00pm Tuesday 15th April 2014
By Rachel Bayne
5:00pm Tuesday 15th April 2014
By Rachel Bayne
FOR most students, their arrival at Oxford University is filled with nervous anticipation.
But, Daphne Dumont, from Prince Edward Island in eastern Canada, had the added pressure of being the first female student to arrive at Wadham College.
Ms Dumont was one of the first women to study at the Oxford college in the year that five male colleges went co-ed.
In 1974, the five colleges at Oxford University offered 100 places to female applicants in a bid to take the first steps to make the university a co-educational institution.
Brasenose, Jesus, Wadham, Hertford and St Catherine’s were the first male colleges to admit female undergraduates.
Previously, female students could only study at the five female colleges, which were granted full collegiate status in 1959.
St Hilda’s College was the last of Oxford’s single-sex colleges and started admitting male students in 2008.
Balliol College was the first college to elect a woman as fellow and tutor in 1973.
Ms Dumont, who now works in Charlottetown, was featured in the Oxford Mail on October 5, 1974.
The 61-year-old lawyer said: “I had a curious reaction to it having come from North America.
“I was a little disorientated by it, because I came from a fairly mixed college.”
Ms Dumont arrived in Oxford to study law at Wadham College after studying for a philosophy BA at the University of Ontario.
In her interview with the Oxford Mail in 1974, she said: “When I arrived here, the bursar told me that I was the first woman. I’m astonished, because in Canada where I have been studying, university colleges are mixed as a matter of course.
“It seems to me that it’s happened here about 300 years too late.”
Ms Dumont decided to apply for Oxford after studying on a summer course at Corpus Christi College.
A keen rower, Ms Dumont was a member of the Wadham College ladies’ team who were Head of the River in 1976.
She recalled: “By sheer hard work and labour, Wadham College was the first-ever boat that crossed the line in Eights Week in 1976.
“I was in the bow, so I was the first to cross the line.”
Ms Dumont received the Order of Canada in 2012 and plans to return to Oxford in September to be reunited with former friends.
She added: “The University spent two or three years’ planning bringing in the statutes, so that they could accept the women.
“The deal was that it would be a five-year experiment.”
Fiona Greig, a freelance TV producer, rowed in the first-ever Jesus College women’s eight in March 1975.
She loved sport at university and said: “In my first year, the college got together a women’s eight. That was really exciting. We got bumped fairly early on, but it was the taking part that counts.”
The PPE graduate said: “One of the reasons I applied to Jesus was because it was one of the colleges going co-ed.
“I don’t think I would have wanted to go to one of the female colleges. Part of the fun of going to university was to mix in with everybody.
“I was one of the first from my school to apply to Oxford and I didn’t know what to expect.”
Ms Greig has fond memories of her time at the university, and said: “When you are 18 and there are lots and lots of boys who want to talk to you, it is fantastic.”
Since university, she went on to work as a producer and director for Yorkshire TV.
Looking back, she remembers that: “In Jesus, the college went to a lot of trouble to make sure we were comfortable.”
Ms Greig added: “I feel privileged now.”
Professor Gilliane Sills, 70, an Emeritus Fellow of St Catherine’s College, was the first female Fellow at the college.
Mrs Sills was appointed as a Fellow by special election in 1974 and went on to work as a Tutorial Fellow in Engineering Science.
The 70-year-old worked at the university until 2005.
For Mrs Sills, her first year of leading tutorials at St Catherine’s College was a steep learning curve.
She said: “When I applied for the post at Oxford, it was to teach engineering.
“My PhD was in engineering, but I had never taught it at undergraduate level.
“I would have to work into the small hours of the morning preparing for tutorials. But it is a very rewarding way of teaching, because you really found that you got to know the students rather well.”
The engineering professor was awarded a BA in mathematics from the University of Exeter in 1965, and a PhD in engineering from King’s College London.
She added: “I do remember being very well supported by the college. Everyone was very helpful.
“I remember Alan Bullock, the Master, asking me if I would join the domestic committee at the college.
“He took great pains to explain that he wasn’t asking me to join the domestic committee because I was a woman.”
Mrs Sills is a member of Woodstock Music Society and lives in Botley with her husband Richard, 73.
Out of about 40 fellows at St Catherine’s College in 1974, Mrs Sills was the only woman.
She said: “It was a surprisingly long time until all of the colleges got more than just a very small number of women fellows.
“The whole idea now that the colleges would be single sex seems a very strange one.
“I think they are better institutions because of it.”
Place in history
For more information on these events and how the colleges will celebrate 40 years of co-education, visit: www.alumni.ox.ac.uk/ page.aspx?pid=3561
Uni 'is still unfair'
Sarah Pine, the Oxford University Student Union's Vice President for Women says that while a lot has changed in terms of equality, women still have a different experience to men.
She said: “The culture around Oxford is still based on traditions and structures that were not built to include women.
“Everything from the lack of women in portraits on the walls to the gendered gaps in finals grades puts women at the margins.
“Whilst women have made massive gains over the past 40 years, I still felt the reality of inequality whilst studying here.
“Since then, there are more women tutors, more initiatives for women, and (hopefully) fewer incidents of harassment.
“However, that doesn’t mean we have now reached an egalitarian paradise.”
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