Single-sex colleges: the road to equality?Flickr: Steve Cadman

The single-sex college debate and whether or not we need them gets bandied round regularly across Cambridge, be it by smug John’s students deriding Murray Edwards’ less than picturesque buildings or the pooled Newnhamite who finds herself bereft of male company. Of course, I’m exaggerating a bit – and, as a Clare fresher from a mixed comprehensive, some may say I have little to add on the matter. I admit that the entire phenomenon is a mystery to me, having never experienced single-sex education myself. On arriving at Cambridge, I quickly questioned why we need such colleges. Do they serve a role in achieving gender equality or are they merely another symptom of the Cambridge 'bubble'; a university removed from the rest of the UK whose traditions have little resonance with today’s Britain?

Originally, the women’s colleges were key steps towards full female participation in higher education. The formation of Girton in 1869 was later followed by Newnham in 1870. Yet I was astonished to find out that it was not until ­­­1948 that women were afforded the luxury of a degree! The fact that Cambridge was the last university to afford its female members full admission is an indictment of the traditions we hold so dear. It is also the only British university to actively segregate women in this way. No doubt the single-sex colleges have played a key lobbying role, forcing us to embrace change. But, now that women are admitted into all colleges, have they now also made us resistant to change? Newnham claims on its website that it gives priority to the achievement, needs and potential of women, whilst Murray Edwards freshers are told that women's colleges will exist until the day gender equality is reached. However, although such motivations are clearly admirable, they seem to indicate how out of step Cambridge is with developments in modern feminism; this isn't a cause only women can fight for, as Emma Watson brought to the forefront of public attention with her recent appeal to men that “Gender equality is your issue too”.

However, I don’t wish to fully write off single-sex colleges. As a bastion for gender equality, they naturally promote other forms of equality as well and, as Annie, a Newnham student I sat down with to talk about the issue, said, they are “symbolically important” as a testament to the need for change. Annie also noted that she applied to Newnham because it felt like a fostering environment in an otherwise patriarchal institution, where the elitism she feared was less dominant. However, if women apply to Newnham or Murray Edwards solely because they fear the atmosphere of the mixed colleges, is this not also a reminder that it is the mixed colleges that should be the focus of change? It seems the fault for continued gender inequality in Cambridge doesn’t lie with the single-sex colleges, but rather with the mixed colleges, dominated by men, which are not doing enough to tackle gender inequality.

Yet I still struggle to comprehend the ‘unnaturalness’ of it all. I have found many things odd since coming to Cambridge, but the single-sex colleges most strike me as an anomaly. Many of Britain’s leading politicians, magistrates and senior officials are levied with the accusation that their public school and Oxbridge education means that they have no comprehension of real life, and the fact that a girl can spend her whole education in a single sex system is just another indication of how out of touch we are. Of course, single-sex college students do mix well with the wider student body and don’t adopt what I like to call “collegism”; insularly discriminating against other colleges solely because they’re different – the bane of any Homertonian's life and something the rest of us are all guilty of. Even so, Laura, a student I spoke to from Murray Edwards, claimed that life there “can be severely restrictive”, and her view is no doubt a widespread opinion, with Maggie adding that she doesn't think it necessary to protect women from men in this way.

Whatever my opinion, single-sex colleges are here for the foreseeable future. They do play a key role in encouraging some to apply to what they see as a patriarchal institution and have been vital in helping us reach the semi-equality of today’s Cambridge. However, true equality cannot be achieved unless men play a more active role. If we expect single-sex colleges to provide all our feminist backbone then the outlook is bleak. Although I don’t wish to condemn the colleges completely, I would like to echo Laura’s statement in that I find it "problematic that a supportive environment for women must exclude men”. I naturally favour mixed colleges but change is required on a university-wide level if the likes of Newnham and Murray Edwards are to open their doors to men.

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