Observant readers of the Women of Peterhouse blog will have noticed a recent update to the cover photo: a snazzy extract from a newspaper headline reading: “Inside chauvinism’s latest fallen bastion’ (Daily Express, Monday March 21st 1983). The rest of the article is no less exciting, so I thought I’d share some extracts with you…
The article is written one year before the first woman graduate student was admitted to Peterhouse, and two years before the college statues were altered to admit women undergraduates. “Express girl” Liz Gill reviews the college atmosphere. She writes: “The velvet-lawned quad still slumbers in the spring sunshine as it has for almost seven centuries. […] But beneath this picture of tranquility seethes the ferment of revolution. It has – whisper the word in the dusty corridors, take a sip of vintage port to steady the nerves – voted to admit…WOMEN.”
Liz Gill stresses that Peterhouse’s change of heart is pragmatically motivated: “Peterhouse […] can no longer attract enough good men to maintain its standards.”
More than this, Liz Gill’s article emphasizes the hostile reaction to the admission of women at Peterhouse: “The attitude is similar to that of the Romans with the barbarians at their gate. Indeed, the frostiness of the official response makes the Russian Embassy look as welcoming as the Rovers Return in comparison.” Hugh Trevor-Roper, the then Master of Peterhouse, is described as being “positively icy” on the subject, quoted as saying: “I have lectured the Fellows not to talk about it.” A cold war reference and a Peterhouse Master refusing to allow fellows to talk about women – you don’t need the newspaper date to tell you that this is 1983.
Liz Gill gets a minimal response from porters and staff on the topic – no surprise in this atmosphere – but one anonymous waiter “was more forthcoming. ‘Everything is so traditional here,’ he said. ‘They even voted against a cafeteria. Goodness knows what effect a bunch of women will have. It’ll be uproar.’
Meanwhile fresher Nat-Sci Bruce Robinson is the only Petrean student voice in the article. He tells Liz Gill: “‘I chose Peterhouse because I wanted a single-sex college. I went to an all-boys school and I’m used to that sort of environment.’”
Reading this article in 2015, it stands as a reminder of how shamefully recent it is that Peterhouse was an institution that stood for the exclusion of women from education. The more positive flipside of this is that in 2015, the world described in this article is (mostly) comically alien. Peterhouse has definitely come a long way in a short time, a fact that it is good to bear in mind in the run up to Saturday’s 30th anniversary women’s dinner.
And of course, it could have been worse, we could have been Magdalen. Liz Gill’s article closes with the bleak statement from a Magdalen spokesman that they have no plans to admit women: “We will be the last place for freedom of choice.”
– Ellie Myerson (Women’s Officer)