When I saw the e-mail from my alma mater, I knew what was coming: Murray Edwards College (University of Cambridge), one of the few women-only university colleges left in the UK, has opened admissions to men who identify as female. Men really can go anywhere they want in this world, including to a college founded and run to support women’s education.
The President of the College, Dame Barbara Stocking, apparently felt no obligation to explain the College’s decision to make such a radical change of policy without having consulted alumni. A cynic might ponder whether the timing of the announcement—immediately after a fundraising campaign directed at alumni—was entirely coincidental. Providentially, the student who phoned me and took my credit card details did not register the details properly and I received a letter asking me to have another go at making a donation. I have declined.
Dame Barbara Stocking was, however, very keen to explain why the decision was absolutely correct:
We are a College that is open to all outstanding young women and so it is absolutely right, both legally and within our set of values, for anyone who identifies as female to be able to apply to study with us. Society is changing and there is now a greater understanding of the complexities of gender. In order that we remain true to our mission of being open to all outstanding young women we recognise that it is right for anyone who identifies as female, regardless of their born gender, to be able to apply to study with us.
Alumni were cordially invited to contact the college with any concerns, but the decision had been made and the assumption is that any right-minded person should be absolutely delighted about it. Well, I do have one small concern and that is this: my proudly feminist college has just argued itself out of existence. I am not alone in having noticed this: Germaine Greer condemned the move as ‘ridiculous’ and she did so with good reason. If we really do buy the idea that gender is completely fluid, and that dividing the population into male and female based on mere biology is repressive, it is inexcusable to have a single sex college at all. The logical conclusion to the College President’s own rhetoric is to do the decent thing and go mixed.
I am all in favor of mixed colleges at university level, but I am also acutely aware of just how necessary an exclusively female college was in Cambridge when Murray Edwards (then New Hall) was founded. In the Fifties, Cambridge had a lower proportion of women studying there than any other British university, and whilst women were permitted to study on a par with men, many still faced mockery from male students and the contempt of professors who ignored them in lectures. New Hall, like other women’s colleges, offered an environment in which women were encouraged and supported in their studies, inspired to be future leaders in their different fields of expertise.
When I studied there—at a time when a women-only college felt like an anachronism—I was struck by the incredible level of support we received and the challenges we were given by professors who believed in us. One of my most vivid memories of arriving at Cambridge was of the low-key ceremony in which we all signed the matriculation book. In a short speech, the President told us that, unlike so many other Cambridge colleges, there were only a few famous names written there—but it was our task to change that. In generations to come, would matriculating students see our names written in that book and think, ‘she studied here!’? In a modern college surrounded by nearly eight hundred years of history, we were being called, literally, to make history. If I had not attended a women’s college, I am not sure it would ever have occurred to me that they had any point at all.
The tragedy about the college’s decision is that it is divisive and undermining for the sake of it. Murray Edwards is one of only three single-sex colleges in Cambridge, which leaves a mighty twenty-eight mixed colleges for applicants to choose from, regardless of how they might ‘identify’. It is difficult to see how any student is disadvantaged by a women’s college choosing to remain a college for women (women who identify as male are not, as far as I am aware, excluded from the college). The college is making a statement, but not the statement of openness and inclusivity it seems to think it is making.
The message being given out here is quite straightforward: If society has changed so much that gender is no longer important or even comprehensible, it is time for a college based on the needs of one gender to go. Ironically, Murray Edward College has no place in the brave new world it is so enthusiastically celebrating.