Artillery Row

The wrong sort of women

View from Oxford: some new arrivals may feel less welcome than others

It is the time of year at Oxford when preparations are beginning to be made for the arrival of the next cohort of students—in this case the Covid-19 Class of 2020. After the chaos of the last few months it is impossible to predict how they will take to their new lives in their new homes, or indeed what those new lives will look like. 

These are headaches for Bursars and Accommodation Officers. Untroubled by such administrative burdens, the Junior Common Room committees have instead busied themselves with preparations for Freshers’ Week. Many incoming first years will already have been directed to their Freshers’ Pack online, which contains—or at least is meant to contain—all the information that they need to help them settle in and to start making friends. 

The old maxim that ‘there is no such thing as bad publicity’ does not usually apply in Oxford

A wise college Dean will have cast an eye over the material—not necessarily out of censorship, but to ensure that new and inexperienced JCR officers are not about to make some sort of embarrassing blunder that makes headlines of the wrong sort. The old maxim that “there is no such thing as bad publicity” does not usually apply in Oxford, no matter how much it feels like Barnum’s Circus from time to time. This year, however, St Anne’s—suburban, yet distinguished as the successor to the original Association for the Education of Women—has left the young people to their own devices. A message from the JCR Vice-President, Bilal Aly, addressed to the Freshers of 2020, reads as follows: 

Ever since its early beginnings as the Association for the Education of Women—the very first institution at the University to provide an accessible Oxford education to women—St Anne’s College has ensured that it remains at the progressive forefront. Our aspiration has always been to understand the world and change it for the better (although we do apologise for Melanie Phillips and Edwina Currie).

It does not take four teacher-assessed A* grades at A-Level to understand that, for Mr Aly, inhabiting the “progressive forefront” and effecting “change for the better” are evidently incompatible with being Melanie Phillips or Edwina Currie—for whose presence in the St Anne’s matriculation lists apology must now be made. 

Both women have courted controversy; both women are conservatives. Ms Phillips is hated by the left, and is author of the best-selling Londonistan: How Britain is Creating a Terror State Within; to say that she is not everyone’s cup of tea is a serious understatement. Ms Currie occupies a similarly divisive position in the national consciousness: she was a prominent Member of Parliament under Margaret Thatcher and John Major, and her political career was not exactly untainted by scandal. 

Nevertheless, Ms Phillips has also written The Divided House: Women at Westminster and The Ascent of Woman: A History of the Suffragette Movement and the Ideas Behind It, which one might think would count in her favour at St Anne’s, of all places. Ms Currie, meanwhile, observed to me that Mr Aly “clearly doesn’t know about my involvement in the struggle for gay rights in 1994, and the first House of Commons debate on the subject in 25 years, which I led.” She also pointed out that both women are Jewish. 

I asked the Principal of St Anne’s, Helen King, for her thoughts on the matter. The college’s Communications Officer, Jay Gilbert, responded to say that Mr Aly’s comments were not approved by the college—despite their appearance on its Freshers’ information page. Dr Gilbert also sent the following statement from the Principal, who first emphasised that “the tone [of Mr Aly’s message] is intended to be humorous and its contents are not subject to censorship by the College.”

Melanie Phillips and Edwina Currie are two of many successful and high-profile alumnae of St Anne’s. Both are known for being controversial on occasion, for relishing debate and for being robust in their opinions. We doubt that either will be surprised or perturbed that not all current students are fans of their political views. We look forward to being able to welcome Melanie and Edwina back to St Anne’s in the future, when we have no doubt they will be met with the usual warm and generous hospitality shown by academics, students and staff to all alumnae.

In the light of this I contacted Mr Aly, and asked why he had singled out Ms Phillips and Ms Currie; had he replied I would also have asked if he, too, would look forward to them visiting his—their—college in the future, and how warm and generous he thought their welcome might actually be. 

I am none the wiser, then, about why Mr Aly particularly chose to apologise—on behalf of his peers, whose mandate he holds—for the association of these two well-known, conservative, Jewish, women with St Anne’s College. I can only wonder if any conservative Jewish women among this year’s intake might perhaps find their new JCR Vice-President’s tone not quite as humorous, welcoming, and reassuring as their Principal thinks it was intended to be.

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