Do women’s colleges still redress gender disparities in education, or do they simply reinforce sexual segregation'
Sometimes it is more radical to be conservative. When Oxford’s only women’s college recently voted against turning “bisexual” (as a mischievous don put it once), most of its students and alumni lauded this decision as the proper one. The governing body of St Hilda’s College has failed, yet again, to achieve the majority required to change its statutes and admit men as students and fellows. And almost 60 per cent of its undergraduates have supported this outcome. It was the same story when the idea was mooted in 1997, although a much higher proportion of students had wanted status quo then. Somerville College — with three fearful prime ministers among its alumni — opened its doors to men in the mid-Nineties. Out of the two women’s colleges in Cambridge where Virginia Woolf delivered her famous Room of One’s Own lectures at the end of the Twenties, only one retains its single-sex status today. There are now only four women’s colleges in Oxbridge. They see themselves as upholding not only a particular academic and collegiate ethos, but also as addressing —— and redressing — the imbalances which persist in what remain largely male-dominated universities. All these colleges were founded towards the end of the 19th century in response to specific historical needs and energies focussed around the education of women. And somehow, at the beginning of a post-feminist century, these needs and energies are still being perceived as deserving a special institutional space for themselves.
Women’s colleges get less funding in Britain. They are also unpopular among a significant number of young women wanting to go to university, who perceive such places as dour old nunneries that would deprive them of healthy competition and fun. St Hilda’s has therefore overridden pragmatic opposition in keeping itself single-sex. Moreover, the most avant garde of writers, scientists, politicians and professionals have described their years in this college as some of the happiest, freest and richest in their adult lives. This, in a society which seems to have won most of its battles against sexual inequality — victories that ought to have rendered such colleges redundant and impractical.
Such victories remain unachieved at a far more basic level in India. Here, too, women’s colleges embody specific reformist principles forged at crucial moments in the history of women’s education. The persistence of inequality and segregation, and the prejudice against women going out to study or work in a man’s world make these institutions havens of opportunity for women in whose lives the basic freedoms are still the fruit of struggle. In Calcutta, for instance, Bethune, Brabourne, Gokhale or Loreto are proof of the need for such colleges even among the urban middle classes. But it may be worth speculating what a referendum in some of these colleges, particularly in the more elite ones, might reveal about how students and teachers actually feel on this issue. In a country where women’s reservation in legislative bodies is being endlessly debated, do such institutions fulfil a real and abiding need, or do they simply reinforce segregation, rescuing women from discrimination only to subject them to another kind of protective authoritarianism'