The modified event pageTom Freeman

Confusion abounds over the breakfast organised at Trinity this Monday to celebrate 40 years of admittance of female undergraduates to the college. It was originally thought that breakfast in the college’s hall would be free and reserved for female and non-binary students only, although it then emerged that this was part of a confused series of communications and the breakfast is open to all.

However, the fact that the idea of an event from which men were excluded provoked such an intense backlash, in which the college’s Women’s Officer was compared to a leader of ISIS no less, highlights profound misunderstandings and misinterpretations. I am not at Trinity, but as female friends of mine at the college were intimidated into not speaking out for fear of similar recriminations, I feel inclined to step in on their behalf and articulate the thoughts they are afraid to express openly.

How many breakfasts do you think were served exclusively to male students in the 432 years during which women were barred from the college? To be honest, if Trinity really wanted to be regressive, they could go ahead and ban men from breakfast for the next 432 years. The idea of a breakfast reserved only for female and non-binary students would be for and about those students. Yet even an event designed to honour the presence and existence of female and non-binary students has turned into a conversation about men.

A broader struggle for gender equality which is inclusive of men can and should involve instances where space and time is reserved exclusively for women to discuss their experiences and find solidarity without the burden of explaining and justifying the reality of those experiences to men who have never encountered them. Female students of Trinity today eat their breakfast in a hall where they still make up only 30 per cent of the college’s population, surrounded by portraits of the men who make up the only group to which the college has traditionally ascribed intellectual value. Many of them will go on to tackle reading lists dominated by similar men.

Elizabeth I’s portrait is in the hall, yes, and the female and non-binary students will have their picture taken with it on Monday. But remember she hangs over the college hall’s dais only because the portrait of Henry VIII is on loan to the Fitzwilliam Museum. As Dr Myra Pollack Sadker, who pioneered research into educational gender bias in the States, wrote in 1994: “Each time a girl opens a book and reads a womanless history, she learns she is worthless.” The history of Trinity College does not teach today’s female students their worth. In a broader context, all members of the college, male students included, could and indeed should celebrate women’s admittance. General celebration is one thing, however. Community and solidarity is another.

The idea that on one morning on one day of the year the college might express to female and non-binary students exclusively that their presence in the college is valued, even celebrated, does not strike me as ‘regressive’. It appears that the initiative for this event, whatever its original premise was in the confused web of misinterpretations and administrative backpeddling we are now faced with, came from Trinity College itself, from the Dean and Senior Tutor. If only the University as a whole had expressed a similarly positive valuation of its BME students before placing David Starkey at the helm of its ‘Dear World...Yours, Cambridge’ fundraising campaign then we could truly feel optimistic about the University administration’s attitude towards traditionally marginalised groups in Cambridge.

A women-only event is not about banning men, devaluing them or making them “pay for past mistakes”, as one commenter on the event’s Facebook page protests, who goes on to say: “We don’t still hold the Germans accountable for what the Nazis did and it would be unacceptable to do so.” This is a fundamental confusion between unique individual responsibility and the society as a whole in which these individuals play a part. No one is holding today’s undergraduates personally responsible for the centuries in which women were excluded. But just as Germany has in fact made great efforts to shoulder the burden of its past, to preserve and interrogate records of its troubled history in museums and monuments, so too is it important for institutions like Trinity College to make the effort to celebrate the education of female students in a world which so long devalued their ability.

So yes, perhaps it is a nice idea that all members of the college, males too, would celebrate women’s place in the university. But to honour women and non-binary students separately demonstrates that they have worth and value regardless of their link to men. In a world in which female and non-binary identity has for so long been a source of denigration and shame, celebration and affirmation must fill that void of esteem. Neutrality is the goal, but its time has not yet come.