Melanie McDonagh

Women-only colleges were the original ‘safe space’

Women-only colleges were the original 'safe space'
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My old college, formerly known as New Hall, is women-only for its undergraduates. But now the term is expanding, as so often these days, to include anyone who, at the time of application, 'identifies as female', as well as the non-binary, those who really can’t make up their minds.

During my time in college, I shared a room with another girl; quite what it would have been like to share with someone aspiring to being a woman I don’t know…presumably entirely non-threatening but a bit odd.

The point about this women-only college is that it was meant to provide a bit of gender balance to the male majority in the overall university population – which must by now be getting near parity. But it was also, in the old sense of the words, something of a safe space, a place you could retreat to, a female sanctuary where you could hang out with the girls. It was also popular with some students from Islamic countries for obvious reasons. There were a couple of lesbians, but that was about sexuality, not sex. Having been to a convent school myself, I rather liked the single-sex environment.

I’m not sure the college founder, Dame Rosemary Murray, would have embraced those aspiring to be women as well as actual women. She was old school, and she had a take on gender that seemed to me pretty bracing, viz, that a woman is intellectually as capable as a man, and can aspire to exactly the same subjects on exactly the same basis as a man, and could compete on equal terms. She was a chemist, the first woman vice-chancellor, and scary with it.

The college now, apparently, seeks to ensure that first class degrees aren’t awarded on the basis of brilliance or originality, so much as on other bases, on the grounds that women can’t compete on masculine terms. Oh please.

As so often, Germaine Greer had just the right approach to the issue. 'If New Hall really don’t believe that gender is binary, then they really shouldn’t be a single sex college,' she says. 'Their position is ridiculous.' Quite so.