Cambridge embodies sexism in academia

Hannah Wilkinson is in her third year at King’s, studying history. She is President of Unicef on Campus Cambridge and runs a women’s Christian Ministry. She enjoys following American politics as well as feeding a love of coffee. She hopes also to pursue post-graduate study in the US next year. She posits below that her experience of studying at Cambridge has been indicative of a prevailing sexism present throughout the academic world, both through the manner in which men conduct themselves in such an environment and the nature of what is selected for study. We have also published a response by the history faculty to Hannah’s article.

In 1929, Virginia Woolf wrote of her time at Cambridge, ‘I was a woman, this was the turf; there was the path. Only the fellows and scholars are allowed here; the gravel is the place for me’. While the institution has moved on from just admitting women to study, yet denying them official membership, it remains a bastion of gender inequality and a microcosm of a wider sexism prevalent throughout modern Western academia.

Cambridge has a chequered past when it comes to its relationship with women. From the point when women were granted first tripos admission in 1882 and forbidden from being awarded degrees in an 1887 Regent House vote, it took until 1921 for this to be reversed and a further 27 years to gain full university membership. It took a further 22 years later for the first female to be made a fellow; 24 years until the first three colleges admitted women as undergraduate students; and a staggering 40 years before the last college admitted women.

Obviously, women in academia have come a long way. Yet, it cannot be ignored that the Cambridge history course is dominated by a male, euro-centric view of the past. Ultimately, this creates an academic environment where the study of anything outside this perspective is simply reduced to the ‘other’.

The advice given by my school teachers to ‘tone down’ the feminist tone in my personal statement in anticipation that it would be men reading my application, aptly set the tone for the treatment of issues of women and gender throughout my undergraduate degree. As a bright-faced and naive 18 year old, I approached the study of history at university as an opportunity really to dig my teeth into areas of real interest – areas that I had not be able to fully explore throughout school. Imagine my dismay as I discovered some of the most important historians alive today struggled to grasp with what, to them, appeared to be a highly niche and irrelevant section of history – that of women. In fact, my dissertation (written in the third and final year) has been my first opportunity to conduct extended study of women.

This is not to say that issues of gender did not arise throughout my undergraduate studies; on the contrary they arose frequently but were rarely dealt with care or genuine interest. In every paper, from modern British political history to 18th Century social history or, even Roman history, gender and women are boxed into one weekly essay, to be ticked off from the supervisor’s course list as completed for that student’s term. What is more, the one specific paper on the history of gender offered to students in their third year – focusing on the histories of femininity, masculinity, and on the role of women in Victorian Britain – was dropped from the course when I finished my second year.

Instead, it was replaced by a full paper on the history of masculinity. The one subsection within the gender history paper focusing on men was taken and extended into a full paper, replacing any directed or taught historical study specifically on women. This is all made worse by the fact that most other papers, by default, lend themselves to time periods or events that do not allow for historical study of women.

When asking a male friend of mine how his weekly essay was going, he bemoaned the fact that the essay topic was not of his particular interest and therefore it was a bit of a boring week. After further enquiry, I found out that this was his ‘gender week’, studying Women’s role in Soviet Russia. Now, let me be clear: there is nothing wrong with not being highly interested in this particular field. However, I could not push aside the uneasy feeling that, for me constantly studying men’s roles, if I failed to force myself to engage with history of the opposite sex, I would be in for a very, very long three years. My male dominated degree and male structured academic environment forces me to engage with the historical position of men most weeks, with little to no mention of women.

The omission of women from academic syllabuses is far from the only problem for women in academia. The treatment of women by often older, white men has to change if we want women to stay within the academic world.

My second day at Cambridge introduced me to the weird and wonderful realm of fancy dinners with Latin graces and an immediate exclusion of women from academic discourses. During our Director of Studies’ drinks, prior to Matriculation Dinner, myself and the two other women beginning our undergraduate history degree at our college, were completely isolated. Squeezed into the corner of the room, we watched as the six other male students stood in a circle having a political discussion, whilst the male academic member of staff facilitated and directed the conversation; inviting other men who entered the room into the circle and only speaking to myself and female colleagues to check we had enough wine. When we physically shoved our way across the circle, we were not immediately included into the discourse but rather we had ended the conversation, which quickly broke up into smaller conversations. My memory from my first academic dinner and interaction with staff and students at Cambridge is tainted by its beginning of being physically shut out of the male, academic conversation.

Obviously, studying history at Cambridge puts me in a very privileged position. One of the benefits of my degree is the teaching system. Often in one-to-one scenarios I do not have to worry about fighting to get my voice heard. However, I am not isolated from the negative impacts of male dominated academic community. I am constantly frustrated by male course convenors talking over their female counterparts, often displaying the worst cases of mansplaining – in fact in one class, a friend and I joked about how many times this took place in an hour-long class. I am tired of men in seminars dominating the discussion, taking up all the space and derailing the conversation when women contribute, downplaying their very valid contributions.

It is exhausting when my interest in gender history is, time after time, taken as a given because I am a woman, or is patronised by male academics in consequence. I am sick of week after week studying men – men’s actions, men’s thoughts, men’s wars. I am bored of reading white men’s words, arguments, and takes on events.

I want a more diverse education. I want to read more women, more women of colour, and study more LGBT+ history. I want to engage in an academic world which is not just open to all but that challenges discrimination rather than perpetuating it. If Cambridge wants to stay at the forefront of historical scholarship, they need to completely reassess the space given to the white men who dominate it.

Virginia Woolf more famously speculated that ‘for most of history, anonymous was a woman’. I am an historian and my name is Hannah.


7 thoughts on “Cambridge embodies sexism in academia

  1. Reblogged this on Site Title and commented:
    I’m happy to report that this was not my experience in the 1980s, though I was at Girton… but sadly have had similar experience at a friend’s party which consisted mostly of doctors and their wives… keep talking!


  2. Great article, well-written and eloquent. 100% agree. I’ve just graduated but knew a historian at Catz who constantly bemoaned the fact his female DoS dedicated more time to the female undergrad historians than to him, and would use it as an example to state that modern feminism is pointless and just “a group of insecure women complaining about photoshop in magazines” (true quote).

    We only started to vaguely discuss gender in Archaeological theory in my third year and it was pretty thoroughly addressed, but I think that’s because my supervisor was a woman. Cambridge and academia are rife with insidious sexism and it’s increasingly difficult to point out/explain, but you did it perfectly – thank you.


    1. Excellent article. I studied Law at Oxford then Business at Cambridge and am too sadly familiar with the fight to be heard and to receive equal regard for my opinions on a given topic. Well done you for having the courage to address this.


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