The Oxford Ladies' Colleges


The Oxford Ladies' Colleges


An essay providing a detailed account of women's day-to-day life enrolled at Oxford College. The author insists that her life is not too different from any other girl in society by providing accounts not only of her education, but of her social life: athletics, leisure time, and debating societies.




November 1888


essay (gender politics)


pp. 32–35


By a member of one of them

Perhaps few things are more curious than the popular views on ladies' colleges in general, and the motives which actuate those girls who go to them in particular. At present the movement in favour of a University education for women is still young enough, and the number of these availing themselves of the opportunity is still small enough, to make the girl in a country neighbourhood, who is known to be "at college," an object of curiosity — not, perhaps, unmingled with distrust — to her circle of friends and acquaintances. On the one hand, it is thought that any one who goes to college must, of necessity, be the conventional bluestocking, or at least possessed of very exceptional abilities. "How clever of you to be there!" was once said to me by a lady (whom I had not previously supposed to be exceptionally foolish) on hearing that I was at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford. Some people, again, suppose that all girls at college must be intending to take up teaching as a profession. This is by no means the case, nor is it at all desirable that it should be so. Quite the reverse. Any one who has ever lived in a ladies' college knows quite well that there is always amongst a considerable number of the students (the very name almost suggests it) a tendency towards what the Spectator, criticising a recent article on Newnham College, called "a spirit of dowdyism," and this tendency can only be counteracted by a large admixture of the outside world — the world which is not professionally connected with education technically so called — the world which has other interests, frivolous interests, society interests — which, above all, does not make its sole aim the furtherance of the Cause (with a capital C) of the higher education of women. Again, some people, still more ignorant, have supposed that the chief object of the students is to imitate as closely as possible the manners and customs of undergraduates, or to amuse themselves with their brothers and cousins and with their brothers' and cousins' friends. This I need hardly say is quite untrue; but that such ideas should be common amongst people, not specially stupid or specially prejudiced, shows the widespread ignorance which prevails with regard to ladies' colleges in general, and the Oxford colleges in particular. It is by no means true that all the girls at Somerville Hall and Lady Margaret Hall are exceptionally clever — the fact is almost too obvious to be worth stating; nor does the atmosphere of Oxford, as my lady-friend seemed to suppose, necessarily produce this result; a short acquaintance with the performances of the average pass-man would be quite enough to dispel that illusion for ever. Nor, again, are these girls all destined for the teaching profession; indeed the proportion of intending teachers is only, at the outside, about one-half. Why then do girls go to college? may fairly be asked; and it is difficult to give any one answer to the question. Perhaps it would be truest to say that the greater number are attracted by the larger life, the more real education, the manifold interests which life in a community must always afford, and by the atmosphere of culture attaching to an old historic university. To some, no doubt, the education strictly so called is the first object, to others the society of girls of their own age and the pleasures of the life generally furnish the chief inducement. Hence there are girls who care most for work, girls who prefer a certain amount of society, girls who boat and play tennis, and so on; nor is it by any means necessary that these classes should be mutually exclusive. A college in which they insensibly shade into each other, and in which no one class is especially prominent, would be the ideal girls' college.

Every girl at college has her own room, which, with the aid of screens and pretty hangings, is by day converted into quite a charming sitting-room — so successfully in many cases, that visitors might very well go away with the impression that it is put to no other use. With regard to furniture, only the bare necessaries of life are supplied; the rest is left to individual means and taste; and, indeed, so variously is this exercised that a survey of the rooms affords a most amusing field for guesses as to the characters and pursuits of their respective inmates. One room was chiefly remarkable for the enormous amount of flowers which its owner contrived to get into it, making it appear as if she perpetually inhabited a conservatory. Two girls with a taste for natural history used to fill their rooms with all kinds of live pets, a white rat and a slow-worm being amongst the number, but this menagerie met with small favour from their immediate neighbours, as may easily be imagined. The chief adornment of another room consisted in a large collection of fur rugs, thrown over every conceivable article of furniture. Some are so full of knick-knacks that it seems doubtful whether their inmates can really have room to do anything serious, whilst a few affect a severe simplicity, which they fondly imagine is in keeping with literary and studious tastes. In every room may be seen the inevitable tea-cups, and many are the cheerful parties which assemble to partake of the beverage popularly supposed to be so dear to the feminine mind. Besides the private rooms there is the library, where magazines and papers are to be found, where general notices are posted up, and where many after-breakfast half-hours are spent — as some say, wasted — in talk. Then there is the dining-room, the drawing- room sacred to visitors and to the meetings of the various societies; and in Lady Margaret Hall also a small gymnasium and a chapel.

From the smallness of the numbers it is comparatively easy for all the members of a college to know each other more or less intimately. There is naturally more constant daily intercourse between them, and, according to present arrangements, they certainly live much more together than is the case in the men's colleges. The day begins with chapel at eight a.m. A register hangs outside the door, and every one attending is expected to place a mark after her name; frequent absence, therefore, tells its own tale in a long line of blanks to all the world, if there be any of that world curious enough to inquire into the matter. Though a good deal of latitude in this respect would probably escape notice, it must be allowed that, taking into consideration the cold and darkness of December and January mornings, the standard of virtue is remarkably high. Indeed, so irksome did the general punctuality become to some of the weaker brethren — or rather sisters — that they announced their intention of being late on principle a certain number of times a term, lest the standard should be allowed to become too high for poor average humanity— an intention which, I may say in passing, was conscientiously put into practice. After chapel comes breakfast, which is served in the dining-room for all together, late-comers having to take their chance of finding their coffee cold, though the quarter of an hour's chapel gives them a chance of overtaking the earlier risers. By nine o'clock most people begin work of some kind or another; indeed, some exceptionally industrious individuals insist on producing their books before that hour and sitting down in the library — the common after-breakfast resort — with a stern determination depicted on their countenances to wage war against all vain and frivolous conversation. Such conduct is, however, commonly considered an offence against unwritten social laws — even the most serious-minded of students might reasonably be expected to give up twenty minutes to the interchange of ideas with her fellow-creatures, and these would-be industrious people usually find themselves either compelled to give in or driven ignominiously from the field. So great, however, did their number at one time become, that one individual, more frivolously disposed, was obliged, in self-defence, to found a society which she entitled the "Society for the Cultivation of Graceful Leisure." This society required of its members that they should never, upon any consideration, open any instructive book before nine a.m.; should use all available means to prevent others from doing so, and should spend at least a part of each day in doing absolutely nothing as gracefully as possible. Sad to relate, however, this philanthropic attempt was a failure, for the president could never induce more than one member to join her society — a just reward possibly for her obvious inconsistency in founding a society after having previously avowed herself the enemy of all societies.

From nine till one o'clock is spent in work of some kind, either in reading at home or in attending lectures at the men's colleges, that grant admission to women, or at the lecture-rooms of the Women's Association. It is not many years since the first college lectures were opened, and a good deal of amusement was afforded to those who earliest availed themselves of the permission to attend, by the evident astonishment, and in some cases consternation, which their advent occasioned amongst the undergraduates. One college tutor relates that on going down to his lecture-room one morning he found, to his surprise, all the men congregated outside the door, on opening which two ladies were discovered sitting in solitary state, probably quite as shy, if the undergraduates had only known it, as they could possibly be, and with much better reason; indeed, it does take a certain residence in Oxford to get used to being always so very much in the minority. On entering the hall of another college for the first time a very audible whisper of "Qu'est-ce que c'est que ça?" reached the ears of the two or three girls who made their appearance. The Association lecture-rooms are so skilfully hidden that the uninitiated visitor to Oxford might easily spend an hour hunting in their immediate neighbourhood without the smallest chance of ever lighting upon the object of his search. The recipe for finding them would run some-what in this wise: Go down a street which apparently leads nowhere, follow a blank wall until you come to a most insignificant-looking doorway, through which you pass into a back garden; then, before you, you will see the lecture-rooms of the University Association for the Higher Education of Women! Never was a finer name bestowed upon a less imposing-looking building! These rooms have gone through many strange vicissitudes. They were originally a Baptist Chapel, then a mission chapel attached to St. Giles' Church, and finally they have been converted to purposes wholly secular, and are distinguished as the coldest and worst-ventilated lecture-rooms to be found in the University of Oxford — probably it might with truth be added, in any University whatever. It is sincerely to be wished that all friends of female education possessed of full purses and susceptibility to draughts could be induced to spend an hour or two there on a wet winter morning; then, indeed, the question of where to get funds sufficient to build new and suitable rooms would be answered once and for all.

One o'clock finds every one wending their way home to lunch, which can be had at any time from one till two, and is a quite informal meal, people coming and going exactly as they please. From lunch till afternoon tea-time is almost always given up to amusements of some kind — boating, tennis, and the like. In summer there are the University cricket matches to go and see, for those who are fortunate enough to have brothers or friends to take them; and in winter there are afternoon concerts, friends to visit, and ten thousand and one things to do — more, in fact, than can ever be crowded into the eight weeks' term. No one but the most persistent hard-worker would ever dream of spending these precious afternoon hours in reading, unless it be in the hopelessly wet days, far too plentiful, alas! in an Oxford autumn. The chief out-door amusement is certainly tennis; boating is entirely confined to Lady Margaret Hall, whose members have a boat on the Cherwell; and even amongst them the numbers are further restricted by the requirement of a swimming certificate before permission to use the boat can be granted. Still, many can and do spend a great deal of their time on the river, finding much amusement even in winter in boating over the flooded meadows, dodging the various obstacles which come in their way. There are both winter and summer tennis-courts, and every term a match is played between the two Halls, amidst much cheering and excitement. So far the victories have been pretty evenly divided, and neither Hall can claim any remarkable superiority. But the great event of the tennis year is the annual match against Cambridge. This is played in some private garden in or near London at the beginning of the Long Vacation, and always attracts a large number, both of past and present members of the various colleges. It must be confessed that Cambridge is most frequently, though not always, the winner; but against this may be placed the fact that its numbers are at least four times as great at present, so that Oxford may fairly hope to do better in the future. In the matter of in-door amusements there have been various changes of fashion. At one time games of all kinds were exceedingly popular, at another time dancing; but the forms of entertainment which have found the most lasting favour are certainly amateur concerts and theatricals, especially the latter. The musical members of the college generally give a concert once a term, to which a certain select few of the outside world are invited; but the concerts cannot compare in popularity with the theatricals, which are got up to cheer spirits depressed by the fogs of the winter terms. Some of these performances have been, to say the least of it, ambitious; Shakespearean plays have been performed with a good deal of arrangement and adaptation to the capabilities of a very modest stage, and much histrionic talent hitherto unsuspected has been thereby brought to light. In excuse for such presumption it must be said that these performances are strictly private, the audience including hardly any outsiders but members of the other Hall. More impromptu performances of charades and the like are often got up, sometimes as an entertainment for wet afternoons, and sometimes when an inspiration occurs to some inventive genius which she can prevail upon her friends to put into execution.

To pass to more serious matters, in these, as apparently in all colleges, there exist any number of societies for every kind of object. Lady Margaret Hall, indeed, is far less rich in this respect than Somerville Hall; but still, even there, there are societies enough and to spare. One of these was a sort of mutual improvement society, which met originally once a week, but which has now become less energetic, and finds that two or three meetings in a term furnish quite as much improvement as its members appear capable or desirous of receiving. This society sometimes devotes its energies to reading plays of Shakespeare, but more often captures some unlucky or good-natured individuals and compels them to discourse on all manner of subjects — the Fourth Dimension, the Italian painters, the history of music, Plato's views on the immortality of the soul, and what not. In striking contrast to this society there exists another, which engages in the domestic occupation of making clothes for a Home for factory-girls. At one time, too, there flourished a Browning Society, which, however, like its larger namesake in the University, though from a somewhat different cause, came to an untimely end. It owed its decease mainly to the fact that its president would insist on holding the meetings late on Sunday night, when the world in general was sleepy, and having had enough of sermons, whether in poetry or prose, was unable to rise to the heights of Browning, preferring arm-chairs, and the peaceful study of character in the persons of their immediate friends and neighbours. Last, but by no means least, must be mentioned the Debating Society, in which the two Halls unite, and which, with the addition of a few outsiders, numbers some fifty or sixty members. This society has a president and secretary elected afresh every term, and conducts all its debates with an orderliness and a strict attention to rules of procedure, which might favourably compare with the conduct of other public bodies of a similar nature. After the private business has been disposed of, the president reads the motion before the House, and calls upon the "honourable proposer" to state her case. She is immediately followed by the “honourable opposer," both these being allowed either to read papers or make speeches, according to their own wishes. Then comes a discussion for about an hour, which, like Gratiano’s "grain of wheat hid in two bushels of chaff," produces generally two or three really good speeches, and an “infinite deal of nothing.” In passing, I should like to inquire why it is that every one when speaking in public thinks it necessary to assume an appearance of such excessive modesty and self-depreciation. Certainly any chance auditor of the Somerville and Lady Margaret Hall Debating Society might reasonably wonder why the majority of the speakers should ever open their lips at all, since two out of every three seem invariably to preface their remarks with the sometimes wholly unnecessary assurance that they have really nothing to say worth hearing, and do not in the least understand the motion before the House. Nor, so far as I can learn, is this practice of making a preliminary apology, and then proceeding to state their views at length, by any means entirely confined to the members of the society in question. The subjects proposed for debate are many and various. Literary debates were at one time much affected — e.g., "That the Nineteenth Century is the golden age of English prose," or "The comparative merits of the female characters of George Eliot and Shakespeare," but they seldom produced very lively discussion. Debates on the political and social questions of the day, on the other hand, wax frequently long and furious. One on the Disestablishment of the Church, particularly, produced much good speaking on both sides, and considerable excitement; whilst another crowded House a short time ago acquitted Mr. Gladstone by a large majority of exercising a degrading influence on modern politics. The greatest amount of amusement is, however, produced by the discussion of some of those more vague and general questions, on which every one can, on the spur of the moment, bring forward a few ideas, and about which no one has any very definite or deep-rooted convictions. Experience shows, too, that the more paradoxical the motion, the better speaking it will usually produce. To leave large holes in your logic is a sovereign recipe for stirring up the lazy, and firing them with the desire to prove their quickness by fastening upon the weak places in the arguments of the more public-spirited proposer. A very lively debate was raised by the motion that "Every man or woman who does not like gossip is inhuman," and the motion was carried by an overwhelming majority. Another motion, "That the chief end and aim of life ought to be the cultivation of graceful leisure," was chiefly remarkable for the strenuous and almost unanimous opposition it called forth, and for the expression of serio-comic alarm which it elicited from an influential member of the society, who affected to see in it a tendency in the direction of — cigars! as a suitable substitute for which, guaranteed to produce the same soothing effect upon the brain, she hastened, amidst shouts of laughter, to propose crochet!

But notwithstanding the evil fate both of this motion and of the Society for the Cultivation of Graceful Leisure, it must not be thought that this element is entirely absent from life at the Halls — far from it. Indeed, when the May term is gracious and liberal with its sunshine, and the garden presents as it does a bank, only needing the aid of cushions to turn it into a most inviting couch, whatever theories may be held on the subject, it is certain that the cultivation of leisure, whether graceful or the reverse, is extensively practised. Here is the place to spend those delicious hours of the late afternoon, sometimes pretending to work, but more often sinking lazily into a sort of lotos-eater-like frame of mind, without making any pretence of doing anything whatever. But unfortunately, or perhaps for the sake of work fortunately, our much-abused English climate does not, even in Oxford, lend itself very often to a lotos-eating existence, and in the winter months these same hours, between five o'clock tea and dinner, are a very favourite time for work. Five o'clock tea, or rather four o'clock which is the usual hour, is a great institution. The rooms are too small to admit of any social gatherings more ambitious than tea-parties; but of these in the winter terms there are always plenty, and it is wonderful to see how many people may with contrivance be squeezed into twelve feet square.

Chapel follows the quarter-to-eight dinner after a short interval, generally devoted to visiting friends in their rooms; and nine o'clock finds every one at liberty to read or amuse themselves as they please. Then is the time for the meetings of the various societies, until the sound of the half-past ten bell sends every girl to her own room to work or to sleep, according to the exigencies of approaching examinations or the laziness of her natural disposition. Of definite rules and restrictions there are very few — so few, indeed, that outsiders frequently appear to amuse themselves with inventing fresh ones, and solemnly assuring inmates of the Halls that such-and-such rules are in force there, refusing to believe that these rules exist purely in their own imagination. Every girl is able to do pretty much as she pleases in the matter of going out, visiting her friends and the like; though notice of intended absence from dinner is required, and she is expected to return home by about eleven p.m., and to report herself on her return to the Lady Principal. With a chaperon approved of by her she may visit brothers and friends in their rooms, and though dances in term time are not allowed, the girls may and do frequently dine out, go to the theatre, or to any of the various evening parties and entertainments with which Oxford abounds. Indeed, beyond the fact that they vary their amusements with a good deal of really hard work, for every girl is expected to work for some examination or other, their life differs very little from that of any ordinary girls in society, nor is it by any means necessary that because a girl goes to lectures in the morning she should not do her best to look nice and to talk pleasantly in the evening — a truth which might with advantage be more extensively recognised, not only by the outside world, but by the members of the colleges themselves. The conventional bluestocking is certainly by no means the type to which they need wish to approximate, and the lesson of beauty taught by the fair sights and sounds surrounding them in their Oxford life has to do at least as much with the outward form as with the spirit within.