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Women in The Union

Celebrating 60 years since women were admitted as members in their own right

Contributed by Molly Mantle (Ex-President, Hilary 2022 - St Hugh’s College)

‘I can't think of any greater triumph among women in the modern world’, remarked Joseph McCulloch, former Rector of St Mary-le-Bow church, ‘than to become the first woman president of that terrible stronghold of the male – the Oxford Union’. It is perhaps true that the Oxford Union, like a great many institutions in the United Kingdom, has long harboured a complex relationship with women. It has been at once radical in its support of women’s suffrage, and vehement in its denigration of women’s ability to think and speak. It has barred women from dining and drinking and even dragged them from the chamber  while later hosting debates with an all-female line-up of speakers, welcomed internationally famous women and elected 39 of us to the Presidency. In our bicentenary year, we reflect on the last century’s fight for women’s voices in the world’s most famous debating society. In that fight, women added two words to the Union’s great guiding principle: free speech, for all.

When Millicent Fawcett became the first woman to address the Oxford Union in 1908, members sat at her feet, crowding the floor and gangways of a packed chamber. Though Fawcett’s proposition, that The Government should be urged to remove the electoral disabilities of women, lost, it did so narrowly. The 31 vote margin was perhaps a testament not only to her arguments but to the changing tide of opinion. The debate was repeated just one year later, and again in 1912, with no female speakers. In 1922 a motion to extend suffrage finally passed, but whilst the Union on the brink of its centenary apparently supported universal female suffrage — in principle —it would be a further forty years before women would be welcomed to the Society on equal terms.

In the Michaelmas of 1926, Lucy Sutherland became the first female undergraduate to speak in the chamber, and the third female president of the Somerville Debating Society. Student journalists for The Isis commented that ‘they were almost converted’, despite strongly disapproving of ‘ladies speaking in the House’. Her opposition to the motion that ‘Women’s Colleges Should Be Razed To the Ground’ nonetheless failed.

Around fifteen women would speak in the Union in the first half of the twentieth century. Though the speeches themselves were often met with praise, the speakers themselves were often pigeonholed. Observations from Union members of the time show women could not escape the perception that they were successful only when either copying men, or when cartoonishly feminine. A 1941 debate record measures a female speaker as ‘quite as good as men’, whilst three years earlier a surprised observer considered one woman ‘the embodiment of arguments for admitting women as debating members’. Yet there was still much work to be done to overcome the supposition that women only sought a competitive advantage when debating by using their ‘feminine wiles’. For instance, in 1937 a Miss Ethel Mannin was said to have made ‘very good use’ of her gender on the basis that she proceeded to wave a handkerchief during a debate, a gesture clearly designed to ‘captivate’ her audience.

During this time, very few women used the chamber as a pulpit for their own cause, but instead organised a separate women’s debating club, first in 1931 and again in 1949. In the 1940s, one campaign saw pamphlets in support of female membership thrown from the gallery at the request of the President.  In 1961, students Jenny Grove and Rose Dugdale disguised themselves as men to gain entry to the chamber, writing to the President afterwards to thank him for his hospitality. Whether a great many women actually sought membership at any time is of course unknown; David Walter’s Playground of Power notes that one woman present admitted that she campaigned on principle rather than through any desire to become a member.

During the 1950s, female speakers including Shirley Williams became more regular, speaking once or twice per term. However, as women made more appearances in the term cards, the Union’s debating focus turned inwards, as the fight over female membership became the dominant issue of the post-war period.

In his history of the Society published for its centenary in 1923, Herbert Morrah (Ex-President 1894–95, St John’s College) memorably quipped that whilst women were not suited to debating, they had ‘always been welcome in the gallery’. The extension of any further rights to women was consistently controversial, and over the last century, every stage of women’s involvement in the Union has been challenged. In 1934, the first debate was held on whether women ought to have so-called ‘Third Class membership’, which would allow them to enter the Union premises for tea during certain times. Though originally opposed, this was eventually accepted in 1935; at the same time, women were also welcomed as guests to meals in the Union restaurant. Max Beloff (Ex-Librarian) then proposed that women be admitted to Second Class membership, which entitled them to attend and speak in debates. Crucially, this did not permit them to vote, nor become substantive members but Beloff welcomed the prospect of debate speakers motivated by ideals other than their own electoral success. The idea was vehemently opposed. Whilst a motion granting women debating membership in fact passed through the House on two separate occasions in 1959 and 1961, each time it was later overturned by a second motion and a poll of the members respectively.

Throughout this period, the reasons put forward to oppose permitting the membership of women varied considerably. The great traditions of the Oxford Union were created and owned by men, it was argued, and any admission of women would threaten its great history. During the war, members were urged to vote against women’s debating membership in order to preserve the Society for the return of their peers who were away fighting. Others stressed the Oxford Union’s place as a sanctuary, raising concerns that the admission of women would interrupt the atmosphere of debates and that the Society’s facilities would be overrun with ‘chatter’ and ‘eternally occupied by nylons, high-heeled shoes and an aura of scent’. Indeed, during the debate on full membership, much discussion surrounded the problem of overcrowding – would women swarm the bar or simply allow their male friends to buy their drinks? The objection by far the most emphasised, by men and women alike, was women’s perceived inherent unsuitability for debate. Whilst Edward Heath once argued that women have no original contributions, others expressed concerns that their voices would simply not be heard across the chamber. Letters in The Isis argued that debate was unnecessary — women need not further display their intellectual shortcomings. Even the first female officer, Janet Morgan (Ex-Secretary, Trinity 1966 – St Hugh’s College), later commented that she believed men to be ‘better in debate than women’.

Whilst private objections were undoubtedly deep-rooted, the true nature of the actual debates on the admission of women on equal terms as men may be somewhat more difficult to ascertain. A truth often left unaddressed is the fact that when it comes to the formal debates, it is now difficult to know the seriousness of many of these objections, or the extent to which some speakers were driven by throwaway one-liners aimed at laughs and electoral favour. Perhaps students really were concerned that women would flood both the writing rooms with teary love letters, and the ballot boxes with their assessments of gentlemen candidates’ good looks. Both these suggestions were put to the House, and whilst they may well embody cruelly sexist attitudes of the time, they may similarly reflect the pedestrian misogyny of rowdy student debate on a dark Thursday evening.

In the early 1960s, a breakthrough would be reached, only to be delayed — as many things are in the Union — by the almighty Rules. A 1961 poll on debating membership at last saw a majority in favour of women. However, a supermajority was needed to amend this particular provision. In 1962, over two-thirds of the House agreed that women should be permitted to become debating members, and in Hilary of that year Lydia Howard (then chair of the Labour Club) became the first female ‘debating member’ to make a floor speech.

The admission of women as full members followed quickly on the heels of debating membership, through the means of two polls. The first fell just five votes short of the required two-thirds majority, a result attributed not to undergraduates but to the opposition of older, life members who returned to vote. A second poll in February of 1963 finally succeeded. After leading the campaign for female membership, Judith Okely of St Hilda’s became the first woman to join The Union on equal membership terms with men with the proposed changes literally cut and pasted into a 1963 copy of the rules that is still preserved in the archives today.

Yet despite gaining the right to full membership, the fight for full equality was still not yet won. Janet Morgan became the Society’s first female officer, admitting later that she had originally run out of curiosity. She would later become Treasurer and undertook her roles in a self-proclaimed ‘womanly way’, including taking time to help the Steward choose flowers, food and wine for debate dinners each week. Our first female president, Geraldine Jones (St Hugh’s College), was elected shortly afterwards, serving as President in Hilary 1968. Her victory which carried more than 700 votes allowed her to assert her mandate confidently, although she commented that her margin was likely greater than it would have been, were she a man. Jones was in fact elected on her second presidential run. She speculated in an interview printed in the Cherwell newspaper at the time that an Ex-Treasurer had told her that her election hinged on changing the type of sleeves she wore, or more specifically, hiding her ‘fat arms’(!) Regardless, Jones’ farewell debate ‘Vive la Difference’ [captured in the photograph above] perhaps illustrates her seemingly pragmatic approach to the achievement. Thirty eight women have followed Jones as President in the 56 years that followed her term of office, most famously Benazir Bhutto, later Prime Minister of Pakistan (assassinated in December 2007), whose portrait hangs in our chamber today.

Over the last half century women’s contributions have ensured our place in the Society’s rich history. In 1998, the Union was led by three subsequent female presidents, a first in our history, by Clare Dixon KC (Ex-President, Hilary 1998 - St Anne's), Eleanor Blagbrough (Ex-President, Trinity 1998 - St Hilda's), who presided over the Union's 175th anniversary celebrations, and Dr Helen Eastman (Ex-President, Michaelmas 1998 - Corpus Christi). Just over a decade later, Laura Winwood (Ex-President, Trinity 2010 – Hertford College) presided over one of her debates dressed as a man as a deliberate nod to Grove and Dugdale’s rebellion 50 years earlier, during her own ‘Women’s Initiative’ to inspire greater female participation; one year later, from Michaelmas 2011 to Trinity 2012, The Union was again led by three subsequent female presidents.

Almost a decade later, Hilary 2020 saw both the first all-female team of officers under Sara Dube (St Hugh’s College), and the first election in which all successful candidates for Librarian, Treasurer and Secretary were female, as well as the candidate for President, Beatrice Barr who served in Michaelmas 2020 (St Peter’s College). In Hilary 2018, Laali Vadlamani (Trinity college) chaired the first debate in which all paper speakers were women, and in 2022 — sixty years after women achieved debating membership — I was delighted and extremely moved to preside over the first debate in which all speeches, including from floor speakers, were given by women on 10th March 2022.

It is no exaggeration to say the story of women in the Union’s history is one of resolve and, at times, real courage. As Millicent Fawcett demonstrated over a century ago, it is also a story in the finest of Union traditions — one of great oratory and convicted debate. As the last female president of our first 199 years, I look to the future with a great deal of optimism and to a Union where we continue to uphold free speech for all.

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