The cruel irony of Lucy Cavendish admitting men for the sake of "representation" is keenly felt.LUCY WEB EDITOR

When Lucy Cavendish College announced its decision earlier this year to go co-ed with the aim of "growing our College and supporting the collegiate University’s mission to increase access and participation for under-represented groups," many, including current students such as myself, were shocked. After the College's long-standing vision to advance women in male-dominated cultures, the cruel irony of Lucy Cavendish admitting men for the sake of "representation" is keenly felt.

To put the University's goal to enhance representation at odds with the aims of women's colleges is in bad faith.

The College unsurprisingly announced wide support for the change from a “vast majority of [stakeholder] respondents.” But, behind the scenes, many questions were raised about enrollment and the financial motives underlying claims towards inclusivity and representation. The College stated in its announcement that "women of all ages now have access to all Cambridge colleges as undergraduates, graduates and Fellows," implying that the need for a women's college like Lucy Cavendish is now outdated. If the College is serious about its claim that "it will remain part of our mission to support and promote women's education," it must recognize that to do so is a question not of how many women, but in what kind of culture and system women are advancing. 

The first step is to acknowledge that numerical representation is not enough ‒ not then, and not now. 

As a former officer in Lucy Cavendish's Students’ Union, I learned from and worked with students and administrators to build cultures of mutual care in which women could thrive. The space we created at Lucy Cavendish was a vision for what our environments ‒ learning, working, and living ‒ could be. We ate in our dining hall surrounded by the portraits of female Presidents and faculty, attended seminars led by female college faculty, and read in a library reading room filled with books penned by women. We were taught to reject the lessons implicit in most other environments, including many at our own Cambridge University: that women don't speak up in meetings, that we don't belong in positions of power, that we shouldn’t flaunt our knowledge ‒ all of this I knew to reject consciously, but at Lucy Cavendish, I felt what that was like. 

On both sides of the Atlantic, women have risen in response to threats posed by a rapidly changing political climate and women's colleges, intentionally or not, have become part of this movement. 

We were also taught the power of women wielding the pen. The College hosts regular discussion series on the writings and life of Virginia Woolf. (And one of our college guinea pig pets is named, delightfully, "Virguinea.") In A Room of One's Own, Woolf opens the scene with our very own Cambridge University. She describes the female narrator's horror at being forced off the grass without a male fellow, and forced out of the library without a male host. Thirty-four years after the book's publication, she would have been pleased to see Lucy Cavendish with a library full of women and open grass and gardens where women picnic, read, and study. 

She would have recognized, too, that what drove a small group of women to found a women's college like Lucy Cavendish in 1965 was never purely about numbers: it was about a larger struggle for social recognition and power. Today, that struggle continues, as we continue to be spurred by writers like Elena Ferrante who urge a 21st Century female vision of storytelling, politics and power. In the US, women's colleges have seen growing numbers of enrollment since the 2016 election, described by some as the "Trump bump." On both sides of the Atlantic, women have risen in response to threats posed by a rapidly changing political climate and women's colleges, intentionally or not, have become part of this movement. 


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To be sure, the University needs to urgently address its problem with racial and class representation. But to put the University's goal to enhance representation at odds with the aims of women's colleges is in bad faith. As institutions with a tradition of providing access to those who have been denied educational opportunity, women's colleges are especially attuned to inclusion. Research supports the assertion that women at women's colleges not only make greater intellectual and personal gains, but they also generally report more experiences with diversity, cultures of multiculturalism, and interaction with those from different economic and racial backgrounds.

Ultimately, Lucy Cavendish seems to have succumbed to mercenary forces that take away choice and vision ‒ as so often happens in domination, women and those with less power get the short end of the stick. The manner by which we lose Lucy Cavendish as a women's-only college marks not a step forward for representation, but a step backwards, a testament to the uphill struggle that we still face. 

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