How good are universities for women?

Over the last 4 weeks, as academics and professional staff at over 60 universities across the UK have gone on strike in defence of a decent pension, teach-outs on a multitude of subjects have been held, on the streets, in parks, student unions, and other off-campus venues. Renewal ​is posting some of these on our blog, to showcase what academics have been teaching outside the university. In this talk, ​Natalie Thomlinson asks how good universities have really been for women, and how unviersities’ record on gender can be improved. This talk was first given at a teach-out organised by UCL UCU on 26 February 2018.


I was asked here today to say a few words about the history of gender and universities in Britain. Now, 15 minutes is not very much for a subject that many books have been written on. But I wanted to use this opportunity to ask a wider question: have universities been good for women? And in whose interests have universities historically worked?  Perhaps you know something already about the history of universities and women, in which case you will already know that universities have not always been – and are often still not –  comfortable places for women.

As a historian of feminism, I have often taught Virginia’s Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own and Three Guineas to my students, and I’m going to be returning to Woolf over the course of the next ten minutes, because she has a lot to say about education and women in these works.

In Three Guineas, in response to a fictional correspondent who has asked her for a guinea to help rebuild a ladies’ college, Woolf ironically replies that she knows that ‘the value of education is amongst the greatest of all human values […]. First there is the fact that the great majority of the men who have ruled England for the past 500 years, who are now ruling England in Parliament and the Civil Service, have received a university education.’1

If you know anything about Woolf, you will know that she didn’t rate the job they have done.

I say this to bring to attention the fact that universities have historically both been places of intellectual resistance to, but also of the reproduction of a profoundly unequal social order. We, as radical academics or students, are very happy about thinking about universities in this first way, but I am constantly surprised by our relative lack of attention to the ways in which universities can perpetuate the very inequalities that many of us wish to dismantle. We are gathering today to fight not just for lecturer’s pensions – though I am quite keen on that –  but to to fight for education. But what sort of education is it that what you want to fight for?

Firstly, I want to think as much about who is not in this room as who is. Universities are shaped as much by who they don’t let in as who they do. The wrought iron gates at the entrance at Gower Street to UCL function not only to let you lucky UCL students in; but to keep others out. I want to think about the fact that across the course of the twentieth century, universities have not been places that have accepted women in great numbers. The discrimination started early, when in many local authorities, the pass mark for the 11 plus for girls was higher than it was for boys. Either at the grammar school or at the secondary modern, women’s education was shaped by the expectation of domesticity and dead-end jobs. As feminist scholar Eileen Byrne had argued in her 1978 book Women and Education, most women were put on a course that led them on to ‘the inexorable tramline to training over a hot stove or a cold typewriter.’2 For working class women, a state-sponsored education has predominantly been not a tool of emancipation, but a way of keeping them in their place. 

Some statistics.  In 1920, only 24% of students were women – by 1968, this had barely risen to 28%.3 Working-class women only attended in minute numbers: in 1912, only 91 state scholarships to young women to go to university were awarded across the entire country, and one must assume that the vast majority of these were to lower middle-class rather than working class women.4 Things have of course changed since – by the 1990s, women began to outnumber men on some undergraduate courses for the first time. But it is well to remember that even today, university remains something that only a minority of young working class women experience.

What about those young women lucky enough to get here? What do they learn? Who are they taught by? To this last question, I can say that things have moved remarkably quickly since the late 1980s, when only 3% of professors in the UK were women.5 But even today, only 24% of professors are women6 – and there are only 95 female professors from an ethnic minority background in the whole country.7 Within my own field of history, statistics from the Runnymede Trust tell us that there is just one female professor from an ethnic minority background – Joya Chatterji at Cambridge – and not a single one from a black African or Caribbean background.8 HEFCE statistics demonstrate roughly equal numbers of men and women at the lowest grades of research assistant and entry level lectureships, these numbers decrease the closer you go to the top – though, given the current shower we have in charge, whether the fact that only 20% of Vice Chancellors are women is a cause for concern or a point of pride is perhaps debatable!9

As to what they learn – well, in terms of my own discipline of history, Woolf’s famous call for women’s history in A Room of One’s Own – first published, we should not forget, in 1929 –  has perhaps only been unevenly answered in the UK.

‘What one wants, I thought – and why does not some brilliant student at Newnham or Girton supply it –  is a mass of information; at what age did she marry; how many children had she as a rule; what was her house like; had she a room to herself; did she do the cooking; would she be likely to have a servant? All these facts lie somewhere, presumably, in parish registers and account books; the life of the average Elizabethan woman must be scattered about somewhere, could one collect it and make a book of it. It would be ambitious beyond my daring, I thought, looking about the shelve for books that were not there, to suggest to the students of those famous colleges that they should rewrite history, though I own that it often seems a little queer as it is, unreal; lopsided; but why should they not add a supplement to history? calling it, of course, by some inconspicuous name so that women might figure there without impropriety?’10

In the five years since I finished my PhD, I have seen only three lectureships and one professorship in specifically gender history advertised in the UK. Now, of course, this is partly because in British universities, historians tend to be categorised primarily by their geographic area, so there are actually far more gender and women’s historians working in UK universities than this suggests. I myself am officially a lecturer in modern British cultural history (for even if you work on political women as I do, you are always a’ cultural’ historian and never a ‘political’ one). Still, only eleven years ago it was possible for me to complete a degree at what that claimed to be largest history teaching faculty in the world in Oxford – there were more than a 100 staff –   without having the option to be able to take a single paper in women’s or gender history. The history faculty at the University of Cambridge currently runs 34 parallel research seminar series on subjects as diverse as English legal history and African economic history, and yet does not have a single seminar strand devoted to the history of women, gender or sexuality.11 My feeling is that students access to women’s or gender history across the country is vastly uneven depending on the institution you are at. I’m pleased to say that my own department offers many courses in gender history. But even then, we need to think about which women’s histories we study, and it seems to me that the lives of working-class women – and particularly of black and ethnic minority women – are still understudied by both historian and the students who study with them. (Nor, it must be said, was it a focus for Woolf, for what ‘average Elizabethan woman’ had servants?).

And this content of curriculum is central if we are to think about what the very purpose of a university is. Woolf asks her correspondent in Three Guineas to ‘consider very carefully before you begin to rebuild your college, what is the aim of education, what kind of society, what kind of human being it should seek to produce.’12 In Three Guineas, Woolf famously imagines a new sort of college, one that teaches ‘Not the arts of dominating other people; not the arts of ruling, of killing, of acquiring land and capital,’ but one that should teach ‘the art of understanding other people’s lives and minds.’ Such a college should not bestow honours such as degrees but foster a love of learning for its own sake. Its staff, she famously wrote, should be drawn from the ‘good livers’ as well as the ‘good thinkers’.13

But then Woolf runs into a problem: ‘What is the use of thinking how a college can be different…when it must be a place where students are taught to obtain appointments’, she writes. ‘Students must be taught to earn their livings.’14

I laughed when I re-read this passage this weekend, as it made me think of the imperatives of that wonderful word my institution (and others) are so fond of: employability. I am told by my employers that I must embed employability into each of the modules that I teach. Now, of course I want to teach my students practical skills. Of course I want them to get jobs when they graduate. And given the amount that they have to pay to come to university, it is not surprising that students are anxious that their university education indeed proves to be value for money. But I often think; who exactly am I supposed to be making these students employable for? Is teaching my students to be critical of the world they inhabit; to question the inequalities of class and gender and race that shape our world, truly compatible with shaping them into good citizens who will go and get a job at say, a firm in the city and take part in an economic system that will lead to the reproduction of those same inequalities? Is it actually possible for me to do both of these things? Is the point of a university simply to churn out students who will become property-owning democrats who pay their taxes, who won’t cause a fuss, who won’t question or complain?  Here, the function of universities as both sites of social reproduction and of radical critique are in direct conflict with each other. We must understand that, as Woolf suggests, to conceive of universities as places that are simply instruments for furnishing students with a piece of paper as a ticket to a job is to foreclose the possibility of university as a place where a radical critique of the world in which we live is possible.

Woolf moves on to say, ‘No guinea of earned money should go to rebuilding the college on the old plan; just as certainly none could be spent upon building a college upon a new plan; therefore the guinea should be earmarked ‘Rags. Petrol. Matches.’ And this note should be attached to it. ‘Take this guinea and with it burn the college to the ground. Set fire to the old hypocrisies. Let the light of the burning building scare the nightingales and incarnadine the willows. And let the daughters of educated men dance round the fire and heap armful upon armful of dead leaves upon the flames. And let their mothers lean from the upper windows and cry ‘Let it blaze! Let it blaze! For we have done with this ‘education’.’15

Now – Woolf actually steps back from this conclusion in the end, and so – the good people of Gower Street will be pleased to hear –  do I. Please don’t burn down UCL! Woolf suggests that, as earning the educational qualifications that allow women to take part in the public sphere is the only way in which women will practically be able to effect social change, women must make their peace with universities and try and change them from within. This is, it seems to me, still the most practical course available to us in the 21st century. How we remake universities to be places that work for all women – working-class women, black women, gay women, trans women – rather than places where we simply reproduce inequalities should be something that we all should be discussing at far greater length. After all, you want to be able to defend an education that is worth fighting for.

​Natalie Thomlinson ​​is lecturer in modern cultural history at the University of Reading.

[1] Virginia Woolf, Three Guineas , p.24.

[2] Eileen Byrne, Women and Education, London, 1978, pp.186-210.

[3] Carol Dyhouse ,‘ Education’ in Ina Zweiniger Bargielowska (ed.), Women in Twentieth Century Britain, Harlow, 2001, pp.119-133, 121, 127.

[4] Ibid., p122.

[5] Hansard Society, Women at the Top, London, 1990.



[8] Ibid.

[9] ;

[10] Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own, Harmondsworth, 1993, p. 41


[12] Woolf, Three Guineas, p.32.

[13] Woolf, Three Guineas, p.32-33.

[14] Ibid, p34.

[15] Woolf, Three Guineas, p.34.