The ‘Death’ of Women-Only Education at Royal Holloway and Bedford College

A question that is often posed to me is, ‘But, what kind of history do you do?’  I used to not have an answer to that question, because I don’t have a specific area that I am particularly enthralled with.  However, when I got that question the other day, my friend piped up and answered if for me, ‘You do, like, history around here, right?  Like, local history.’  Finally, it was put into words.  Over the past few years every time I’ve gone to study in a new place, I immediately throw myself into learning about the history of that location and here in Egham it’s no different.  My Skills project last term was on life in Surrey in the Edwardian period based on postcards and the programme I am making for ‘The Public Communication’ is on the ‘hidden’ history of Royal Holloway.  I thus want to continue in this tradition and learn about why Royal Holloway College and Bedford College went co-ed in the 1960s.  I would like to explore the ‘death’ of women-only education in those two institutions and perhaps across Britain.

I come from a place that is known for its higher education institutions.  When I describe where I’m from, I’ll say Western Mass, you know, the Five College Area?  UMass Amherst, maybe?  UMass is usually the landmark people identify with, but of the other four schools of the ‘Five Colleges’, two of them are well-known female only institutions:  Mount Holyoke College and Smith College.  Both of these schools take great pride in being just for women (for undergrad, at least) and strive to stay that way.  Interestingly enough when I was applying to schools for my undergrad degree, three of the four schools I applied to where originally female only:  Endicott College, Lesley University, and Lasell College.  I chose to go to Lasell, where I learned that they didn’t go co-ed until the late 1990s.  Coming from that background, I am particularly interested in why Royal Holloway and Bedford went co-ed so early compared to schools in the United States.

I hope to interview Professor Caroline Barron, a former History professor of both Bedford College and Royal Holloway Bedford New College.  She also recommended that I get in touch with Dr John Prebble who was vice-principal of Bedford at the time of the merger of the two schools in 1985 and to look at the book Bedford College, University of London edited by J Mordaunt Crook.

The significance of this topic to public oral history will be that it will explore how the dynamic changed in higher education from just having females on campus to having both sexes.  Both Bedford and Royal Holloway were founded to provide women with an education equal to that of men, so why was it that they then let men join them?  As the topic is still within living memory and also coincides with the greater movement for women’s rights, I would like to understand how going co-ed changed the legacies of both schools.

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Hopes and Concerns, Chelsey Cain

Planning my interview has proven to be increasingly stressful and prompted more concerns that I expected originally.  So far the largest difficulty I had had to overcome has been finding an interviewee.  Because I recently moved to the UK from the United States, I have virtually no relationships with any adults in the area. Luckily, I have received a very promising lead from Dr. Matthew Smith at the Egham Museum and have a number of back-up options should that fall through.

My main concern is that my questions and the topics which I wish to explore may be seen as too probing or personal.  The woman I will likely interview was a child during WWII and her mother worked at a local ammunitions factory; I am interested in discussing gender during and after the war but I don’t want to step on any toes in doing so.  Also, I am interested in expressions of sexuality but do not know how to approach that topic in a delicate way.  I am hoping to gain more insight into this issue through the readings.

My second concern is related to my own abilities as an interviewer.  In an undergraduate class, I was assigned an oral life history as a final project.  We were encouraged to interview members of our own family (simply for ease of access).  I found myself unwilling to ask probing questions and struggled to stick with a definite them.  Hopefully, however, this can be attributed to a lack of training and preparation and also my relationship with the interviewee (my grandmother).

In terms of hopes for my interview, I would like to gain a greater insight into England during the Second World War.  Most of my knowledge on the topic is US centric so I am excited to see the topic in a new context.  I also hope that my interview will make the experience of war, especially one on such a large scale, seem more human to me instead of historical and academic; I hope that I am able to illustrate the importance of her experience, her story, and her voice.

On a much more personal level, I hope that this interview gives me a deeper connection with Egham and England in general.  Though a full-time student here, I still feel transient, like a perpetual tourist, and I trust that learning more about this community will change that.