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.
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.
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.
One of the few books published recently on the history of 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.
Isla’s post also reminds me that I now need to prepare for the interview I’ve agreed to undertake. Some of that will have to be about method. It must be more than a decade since I undertook an oral history interview with a translator (it’ll be Sylvia this time). There is not much literature in this area. Luckily, however Bogusia Temple has just published a relevant article in Oral History (Autumn 2013, 14,2; 100-9). This article is much more than a ‘how to’; it raises key questions about how language produces identity, and shapes our worldviews. Bogusia also suggests ‘casting a wider net’ and considering other disciplinary insights into cross language work and translation.
I will also need to get up to speed with the history of Roma. Briefings by the Support Group help here. There are some excellent materials produced by the group, including from an earlier project with the Museum of London ( sadly the Museum no longer does this work). However, I will still need to identify other reading. I’ll begin by searching Google Scholar…