[Credit to Jodie Walker, Peterhouse librarian, for rediscovering this article]
As a follow up to the recent Women of Peterhouse resurrection of the 1983 Daily Express article, ‘Inside chauvinism’s last fallen bastion’, I bring you an equally telling Times article, ‘The fellows pushing salad revolution’ (March 19, 1999)
Despite being written sixteen years later than the previous article and fourteen years after the admission of women undergraduates, this article initially stresses the lack of change that has occurred in Peterhouse. “Like the sediments of geological time that make mammals look like arrivistes, the 700 years of the college’s male prehistory are very visible. Portraits of jowly men stare down at students as they eat in hall. The armchairs in the college library are heavy and leather, like a gentleman’s club. And the only pictures of women around the college are the Burne-Jones stained-glass windows depicted Chaucer’s The Legend of Good Women’. Well, this description might be all too recognizable to current Petreans.
But the article goes on to more positive ground, to talk about the eight women fellows at Peterhouse. In true 1999 fashion, it writes: “like the new women MPs in Tony Blair’s government and unlike Chaucer’s good women, the women are not dutifully acquiescent but are determined to make a difference to the institution.” The article describes the stir caused by the first all-female high table: “Nobody, not even the Peterhouse students, had quite realised before how many women fellows there now are.”
Oh, and the ‘salad revolution’ of the headline is perhaps not so exciting as you might have hoped. It literally does refer to the “vegetarian alternatives and salad” which have been added to the “heavy schoolboy fare” offered in the canteen.
The article comments that it was difficult to change Peterhouse partly because of its traditional strengths in engineering and history, which it describes as “stereotypically male subjects”, and gains optimism from the appointment of women fellows in a range of subjects, namely physiology, history, English, French, mathematics, zoology and biochemistry: “the college is not complying with traditional expectations of stereotypical female subjects in its new appointments”. The Peterhouse women fellows at that time were: Susanne Dickson, Natasha Glaisyer, Sophie Jackson, Mari Jones, Anna Kohler, Naomi Langmore, Jennifer Wallace and Sarah Walters.
The article notes, “The women meet regularly for informal dinners and discuss, among other things, ways of developing the culture of the college. Proposals vary from the wild to the feasibly sensible.” Unfortunately the ‘wild’ proposals are not recorded in the article, so we can only speculate about that!
Jennifer Wallace is quoted as saying, “We need somebody who can speak on the governing body with the authority and gravitas that age can bring”. (Jennifer Wallace is still a fellow in English at Peterhouse – and sits on the governing body herself.)
At that time, the ratio of male:female postgraduates was 60:40, and roughly 70:30 among undergraduates, which the article praises as an improvement, although the fellows rightly demanded more.
The article closes with a question: “So what about a female master next time and a lead from the top down?” The changes for the better that have occurred under Adrian Dixon show that male leaders can (and should) take a role in pushing for gender equality. But with the appointment of a new master on the cards again, the potentially radical change a female master could bring to Peterhouse’s image feels as relevant now as it did in 1999…
– Ellie Myerson (Women’s Officer)