Going Co-Ed

In 1965, 100 controversial students enrolled at Royal Holloway College; the very first male undergraduates. The decision to change from a female-only to co-educational student population was not an easy one, and required an amendment to the College’s official deed. But, was the transition easier for the students themselves?

Our oral history project, interviewing alumni from Royal Holloway College and Bedford College (which also accepted male undergraduates in 1965) provides us with a prime opportunity to explore the impact of the change to co-education, and the student’s feelings towards studying in a changing and expanding university. Did the female students already studying at Royal Holloway accept their male colleges with open arms? Or did they resent- or even fear- their presence?

As Royal Holloway college expanded in response to the Robbins report, its appearance and make-up was altered- but it will be interesting to ask if the feel and atmosphere of the college changed as well. Did Royal Holloway still feel safe? – and, interestingly, would the female alumni still have chosen to come to their college if they have known that male undergraduates would be introduced?

I am aware that the number of alumni participating in our interviews that experienced the colleges as both single-sex and co-educational will be relatively small. However, students who attended the colleges before or after the change can also provide us with important insight; did the mix of men and women (or lack of) influence their choice to come to Royal Holloway or Bedford?

Although our oral history project is unique to Royal Holloway and Bedford Colleges, the revolution in higher education that occurred in the 1960s was a nationwide trend, and our interviews offer an invaluable opportunity to explore the personal impact of a wider and more open education experience.

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Women in Science: Before the Interview

I face the problem of going into the interview without having much, if any, information on my interviewee. Whereas many of the other participants are alumni of Royal Holloway or Bedford College, my interviewee was did not attend either school, but is a current Mathematics professor at the university. Aside from that, I was unable to attain a CV as her copy of it had become misplaced. On the other hand, this divergence from other accounts can prove to be quite useful, or at the very least interesting. It will be comparison between university experiences for women. She will certainly have carried her experiences of her former university to Royal Holloway and will have a unique comparative view.

From brief communication back and forth, it seems that she will be willing to divulge and discuss more personal information, which will be better for seeing a fuller picture of her life narrative. However, this could potentially foreshadow her desire to appease me, as the interviewer, by trying to tell me the information that she believes I want to hear.

Distance and travel are not a problem as I am in halls of residence and we will be conducting the interview in her office on campus. The site for the interview was easily established, and she was very accommodating and understanding about the need for a quiet space.

A personal challenge as an interviewer is to non-verbally express my understanding and convey to my interviewee that I am following along with what they are saying. Another is to be comfortable with silences, to encourage the interviewee to reflect and share more. I am also anxious that I may come across a very emotional memory or a situation where the interviewee shuts down, and being able to respond ethically to the situation.


The Interviews

My interviewee is a woman who received a degree from Bedford College in Chemistry in the early 1950s. Before the first interview my two main concerns were something going wrong with the recorder and the experience feeling forced with lots of silences. Instead I found the woman to be forthcoming and the questions to develop naturally from what she said. Although I had prepared a few pages of questions as a security blanket I found that I didn’t need to look at them at all during the interview.

I feel much more anxious going into the second interview as now the onus is on me to interrogate the narrative she gave and draw out more insights. Given the ample ground covered in the first interview there are plenty of opportunities to do this. Some of the topics we discussed clearly leave room for more questions but she also mentioned many difficult times in her life related to depression, serious family illnesses and rifts. I’m concerned about how to address some of these issues in a sensitive way and also question whether some things should merely be left as casual asides by her in the first interview which do not need probing. Considering the purpose of this project how much do events in her later ‘post-science’ life need to be questioned? After having spent some time with this nice woman and talked about her present life and grandchildren over coffee and cake it feels really difficult to probe some of the more unpleasant aspects of her personal life even if they affected her professional one.


Thoughts Before the ‘Women in Science’ Interview

Within the next two weeks I will have completed my interviews for the Women in Science Oral History Project. Due to the fact that this is my first oral history project and that the history which I present will be vital to the archives at Royal Holloway, I have had to put a lot of thought into the processes leading up to the interviews.

Before contacting my assigned alumni I had to make sure I had enough background knowledge on her life and her education. From the information in her student files I discovered that my subject graduated from Royal Holloway in 1947 and went on to pursue further study at many prestigious institutions before landing a job in the medical research field. Therefore, she is clearly a very well educated and elderly woman and I will need to take both of these factors into account when conducting the interview

My assigned alumni had also prepared some short notes within the files that I was sent. Within these she expressed her concern over the content of the interviews. She specifically requested that the interview should be conducted under her maiden name and should primarily focus on her working life and education at Royal Holloway, not her private life. The subject’s privacy and wishes are of upmost importance within this process; therefore I will be complying with her requests. I hope to be able to gather interesting and relevant information while adhering to my subject’s wishes.

Speaking to the subject over the phone prior to the interviews was a great way for us to get acquainted with each other. I believe that our 20 minute conversation that included introductions, further explanation of the project and the arrangement of interview dates helped to put us both at ease about the upcoming interviews. She was even kind enough to send me very detailed instructions for the public transport I need to find her house. I am looking forward to meeting my subject for the Women in Science project. I believe that her long and seemingly very interesting life will make a vital oral history for the often-overlooked story of women in science.


The First Interview

As I begin to prepare for my first interview with a former Bedford College student, I do feel a bit nervous. I know little about the subjects that the interviewee went to school for and I am worried this might have some effect upon the interview. But I also know this is a major learning opportunity. I will have the chance to hear about her experiences and record them so others will also have the chance to hear about them as well. I recognize that this is an exciting opportunity.

I hope this interview provides insight into what it was like to be a woman in science at a time there were far fewer females who chose a career path in science. It will be interesting to hear about why the interviewee chose to go into to science and her experiences both in school and after graduating. I myself always had very little interest in science while in school, so I think it will be interesting to speak with someone who chose to go into the field. I want to know why she chose science and what motivated her. Since Bedford College has now merged with Royal Holloway, I hope the interview will help provide historical information valuable to preserving the history of Bedford College as it was before the merger. I am curious to see how the experience of university life has changed over time.

My concerns over the project are mainly due to the fact that I know little about the subjects the interviewee studied. However, I feel my anxiety is misplaced since it is not actually necessary for me to know all about science to conduct the interview. I was nervous at first to call to set up the interview, but after speaking with the interviewee, I feel much better. She was very friendly and I look forward to meeting her. I am glad I will have this opportunity and to gain experience with oral history.


How was Bedford College changed with the admittance of male students?

Through my interview with a Bedford College alumna, I am hoping to discover the differences between women-only education and mixed education.  Thus, the main focus of my essay will be on how Bedford changed once she went co-ed in 1965. As Bedford College was the first institution of higher education for women in Britain, I want to explore the reasons behind going co-ed, how that affected her public image, and how it affected the students.  I also hope to subsequently learn about higher education for women in the 1960s, the job market, and home life after earning a degree.

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From ‘Educating Women:  A Pictorial History of Bedford College University of London 1849 – 1985’ by Linna Bentley

The topic particularly interests me because in the US there is always a lot of discussion around historically all-female schools going co-ed.  Many of the all-female universities and colleges in the United States are extremely proud of their history and plan on staying single sex far into the future.  Therefore, it is very surprising to me that Bedford chose to go co-ed as early as 1965.

I also became really interested in Bedford College ever since I found out that she’s part of Royal Holloway’s legacy.  It really bothers me how she is often ignored and pushed to the back corner, when arguably she was the better school.  Everyone knows who Thomas Holloway is, he has a statue.  Elizabeth Jesser Reid?  Some poor looking residence halls.  I would personally like to learn more about Bedford from someone who attended the school and spread that knowledge to others.

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Elizabeth Jesser Reid.  Royal Holloway Archives.

I think that this is important in the wider context of public history because it is exploring an area that hasn’t really been explored within the public history sphere.  Bedford College has a really rich history and the majority of it is languishing in the Royal Holloway archives. There haven’t even been many books written on the subject.  I would thus like to bring to light her rich history and something that, I think, changed her image drastically.

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One of the few books published recently on the history of Bedford College.


The ‘Death’ of Women-Only Education: Will anyone talk to me? Will too many people want to talk to me?

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Plaque at 48 Bedford Square, London (originally 47).  Photo:  Alex Adams.

Through research for my other Royal Holloway and Bedford New College themed project, I have learned that the women of Bedford College have a lot to say.  That being said, the alumni office has yet to return any of my emails, which makes me a little nervous, but also tells me to find a phone number.  Due to the fact that Bedford alumnae seem to be quite feisty, I think I’m going to narrow my research down to just focus on Bedford as there doesn’t seem to be many people who could speak on behalf of both schools.  I am further interested in Bedford because I feel she is not showcased enough at Royal Holloway and I would like to make her more well-known to today’s generation of students.

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Bedford College Crest in Regent’s Park.  Photo:  Alex Adams.

I would personally like the interview to tell me more about Bedford College:  the history, the student life, what it was like to be in Regent’s Park.  I also want to find out what it was like to go from being the first institution in Britain for the higher education of women to a co-educational college.  I want to understand how the dynamics of learning changed and why it was felt that it was necessary to go co-ed.  Furthermore, I want to create a bigger tie between Bedford College and myself.  When I entered Royal Holloway back in September I understood that I was going to Royal Holloway, University of London.  Now I couldn’t truthfully say that.

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Royal Holloway and Bedford New College, University of London:  The official name of RHUL.  Photo:  Alex Adams.

As the interview is hypothetically supposed to be for a ‘public history audience’, I would like it to increase others’ knowledge of Bedford and the idea of women’s only education being opened up to men.  I’m hoping the interview will provide a brief history on Bedford, how Bedford was different from Royal Holloway, and how Bedford changed when she went co-ed.

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Queen Mary at the opening of the Tuke Building, Regent’s Park, 1931.  Source:  Royal Holloway and Bedford New College, University of London Archives.

My biggest concern right now is that I won’t be able to find anyone to interview, or too many people will come forward and I will have to turn them away.  I would love to turn this into a bigger project, but as I have already submitted a proposal for my dissertation, I’m just not sure that that would be feasible.  I have been in contact with Professor Caroline Barron and she suggested I attend a Bedford College alumnae event on March 21 and just ask for interviewees, which is a possibility.

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The Bedford Centre for the History of Women:  One way Bedford’s legacy is honoured.  Photo:  Alena Knaup.

Overall, I am not too anxious about my concerns and I am sure I will be able to find someone willing to speak with me.  All I need to do is put a little more effort into contacting the right people.