A brief history of the admission of women to Clare College
By Professor Volker Heine
The decades after WW2 saw huge changes in Cambridge, as in Britain more widely. In Clare College, these included laying out a third of our investments for founding Clare Hall as a separate new graduate college with provision also for academic visitors, and Fellowships for academic staff in ‘rarer’ subjects, where demand was lesser for undergraduate supervision.
Another big step was, of course, to change our statutes to include women among the students and Fellowship.
Opening of Thirkill Court
Opening of Thirkill Court
In 1958, Eric Ashby (pictured) was elected as Master - one could say with the purpose of bringing the College into the 20th century...! John Northam was Senior Tutor, a wonderfully humane person and equally forward looking, followed by Charles Feinstein (pictured, below) who took over in 1969 during the later stages of the decision on becoming co-educational. Incidentally, I was elected a Fellow in 1960 for teaching the physics students, and hence was involved throughout these decisions.
The first full Governing Body (GB) discussion on the subject took place in around 1963, with another in 1966. In each case, a small committee which included students had visited co-educational Halls of Residence at other universities, and that committee had circulated a report about practical and educational matters. Each occasion had seen some extremely strong opposition, but under Ashby’s and Northam's leadership and that of other senior Fellows, the ethos of Clare was that what was important was not the views of individuals, but whether future generations would judge that we had acted wisely. Thus there were no cliques, and no vote was taken at those two discussions.
In the meantime, several other issues were addressed and changes made. Culturally and legally they stemmed from the fact that with the reduction of the age of majority from 21 to 18 after World War II, the students were no longer ‘in statu pupillari’ (under guardianship). Undergraduates and graduates were added to various committees, and as observers on Council and the GB. 1968 was the year of student uprising around the world, and Ashby asked the students of Clare, “What do you want?” They stopped to think, and then responded with, “co-education.”
What followed was a very serious GB discussion near the end of the Lent term of 1969, again with a committee report, after King’s and Churchill Colleges had announced their decisions to go co-ed. This discussion was without student observers, but Ashby said that, with the students having placed the subject at the top of their wish list, we had to answer them and take a vote. So we did, and to our great surprise we had a slightly over two-thirds majority for the inclusion of women. We just about fell over ourselves in surprise, because the opposition to this had been so very intense. Of course, no-one will ever know how and why people voted, but I think the fact that the students were in favour was a contributing factor with some Fellows. After all, we were committed to do what future generations would consider as having been wise for the College, and our then students were a walking part of that future generation!
A set-back came in 1969, after further formal GB meetings with their own votes resulted in the loss of the required two-thirds majority. This came about for various reasons, including the absence of several key Fellows in favour, and the return of an elderly retired Fellow, who came up from his home on the south coast in order to vote against. Incidentally, I recall he died of a heart attack on his way home!
Well, this was a rather embarrassing public position. It was decided to give ourselves time to mull over the situation instead of immediately forcing the issue. Thus two further meetings of the GB to come to a decision were formally scheduled in the Lent term of 1970 with the possibility of changing the statutes. This timetable had been dictated by the need for the College's section for the University Admissions Prospectus to be in the hands of the Registrary by the end of that Lent term.
There was no further discussion at these two meetings, and the change of statutes was carried at last. Having made the decision, everyone more or less pulled together, and I felt there were again no cliques.People have sometimes expressed surprise that with the decision to go co-ed having been made in Lent term of 1970, it was October 1972 before the first women students actually arrived.
In the case of Clare, the legalities of changing the statutes was a rather lengthy process. As a result, our first female Fellows, Alison Sinclair (pictured) and Lucy King, were selected fairly soon after the votes in May 1970, and they were then welcomed into the community immediately, but their official election as Fellows did not take place until 1971 after the change of statutes had been completed. Furthermore, Clare needed that time delay to make several physical changes, almost all occasioned by the increase in total student numbers. The Governing Body felt very strongly that, rather than reducing the number of male undergraduates to accommodate women students, the size of the student body as a whole should be somewhat increased. Thus there were implications for the number of beds needed, plus catering facilities and more.
Some Fellows worried about Clare’s academic standards, as there were fears that some candidates may have been put off by the change. Regarding that question, the message from other universities with co-ed Halls of Residence was that we need not worry! The reality of course was that we shot instantly to the top of the hit-parade for applicants-per-place (both men and women) with the young people of both sexes wanting to go to a co-ed College. The young just had to have one look at our bridge and the decision was made that Clare was everyone’s idea of a darling Cambridge College! Ken Riley [a former Senior Tutor and current Fellow Emeritus] has told me that there was an immediate increase in the annual student intake, with the proportion of women initially 30%, rising over the years to 50%.
The obvious prime need, of course, was for about 35 more bedrooms, and the addition of the attic rooms in Old Court and Memorial Court date from that time. Another was the building of the Buttery for meals, plus the creation of the Bar and JCR under the Chapel.
Another less obvious ‘must’ was the heating in Hall, which at the time consisted of 4-inch iron pipes running the two long sides of the Hall, with bench seats screwed to the wall above them. The problem with this set-up was how to get in and out of sitting on those benches in a way appropriate for male and female students? I was greatly amused how one day there had appeared a notice on the screens from the Steward, Nevill Willmer at the time, which read: “Gentlemen are requested not to walk on the tables.” I wish I had souvenired that notice! The alternative way of getting into or out of the wall benches had been to crawl under the table. This was considered also not to be appropriate among the young ladies who chose to wear skirts! Anyway, the new heating and the purchase of oak dining chairs were the solution. The cost per chair was enormous – comparable to that of a full armchair! But note how wonderfully strongly they were constructed: we are still using them nearly 50 years later, and I can only remember ever seeing one with wobbly joints.
In addition to some improvements to plumbing facilities, some more changes elsewhere around the College were also carried out. But these were minor, with the sets in Memorial Court and Thirkill Court being regarded as already fit for purpose. In the first year (1972) that the women students came, they were housed in separate staircases from the men, but it soon became apparent that most of them did not want that. A mixed College meant mixed staircases, although for a while one women-only staircase was retained for those who wished it, which shrank to one floor on one staircase, and then disappeared entirely.
In conclusion, the time between the final vote by the Governing Body in February 1970 and the arrival of the women students in 1972 was a period of considerable activity, and of course since then there has been no looking back, regarding academic quality and every other aspect of students’ and Fellows' lives. The intervening years have seen exceptional women students, as well as several Senior Tutors, Chaplains and other key College figures. I am pleased that, fifty years on, this decision has been recognised quite as we had hoped, as being very wise for the College.