On Friday 25 October we launched our year of events marking the 40th anniversary of women being admitted to St John’s.

Over the course of the upcoming academic year we are planning a wide variety of events both relating to this historic milestone, and focussing on our ongoing commitment to equality and diversity by looking ahead to what the future holds. For our first event, however, we were looking backwards, discussing the history of women at St John’s, but in particular the events of 1978-9, when women were first admitted to the College.

The panel of speakers at the event, chaired by the President, consisted of Professor Ross McKibbin, who had been on Governing Body at the time when the statutes were amended to admit women, Professor Carolyne Larrington, one of our first female fellows, and two alumnae who were among the first co-ed cohorts at St John’s – Sue Vermes and Ruth Huddleston.

Professor McKibbin gave an illuminating insight into the discussions that took place prior to women being admitted, including how the College reacted to ‘going mixed’. It was encouraging to gain the impression that women becoming members of the College had generally been a welcome change, and that there had been several other positive outcomes resulting from women being admitted.

Following Professor McKibbin’s speech, we got a glimpse of the student’s perspective of the changes thanks to a talk from Sue Vermes, who was one of the very first women admitted to the College in 1979. Sue gave some fascinating views of what life was like as a woman in a College that had once been the preserve of men. The only woman studying Classics in her year, Sue did feel that she was in many respects different to her peers given her background, but was grateful to her tutors for their support, particularly in encouraging her to embark on a career in teaching.

Our vision of the College that women arrived at in the late-70s and early-80s was further enhanced by an enlightening talk from alumna Ruth Huddleston, who came to St John’s in 1980. She provided us with plenty of anecdotes about her time at Oxford, many of which suggested that being one of the first women in the College may have been more of a challenge than some people had expected. Illustrated with images from an impressive personal archive of flyers, minutes and photos, Ruth’s talk allowed us to develop a greater appreciation of the significant changes that have occurred since women were first admitted.

A different perspective again was provided by Professor Carolyne Larrington, who became a tutor at St John’s in 1989. Professor Larrington was very keen to promote equality within both the College and the wider University, and set up a women’s tutors’ group which raised issues such as sexual harassment codes, maternity pay for College staff, female representation on committees, and asking non-sexist questions in interviews. Alongside changes in the experience of female students in Oxford, the past few decades have also seen substantial changes for female members of staff – including their representation on Governing Body, and amongst the Heads of Oxford Colleges.

Following the talks, the panel answered thought-provoking questions from the audience, and the President asked each speaker to reflect on their hopes for equality in the future.

We are hugely grateful to all of our speakers for their fascinating comments and observations on the history of women at St John’s, and are very appreciative of their contribution to such an insightful start to our anniversary year. 

The History of Women at St John's