‘How Many Long Mirrors?’

On the eve of the 1960s, Britain used capital punishment, homosexuality and abortion were illegal, and animal testing of the pill had yet to begin. There was barely a concept of sex discrimination, let alone an act to legislate against it. Amidst attitudes that today would be considered completely illiberal, in 1959 undergraduates at Pembroke began compiling a report on the possible admission of women. In 1984, the first women students arrived at the college – the zenith of years of discussion and debate.

Last Tuesday, the launch of PemWomen@30 took place with a panel discussion entitled ‘How Many Long Mirrors?’: Reflecting on the Arrival of Women at Pembroke. Five speakers reflected on the moments preceding the admission of women: the petty issues, larger barriers and emotional experiences of those involved.

Click below for a full audio recording of the event

This change in Pembroke’s policy took place amidst a period of dramatic social change and student unrest. With few mixed secondary schools and women in a small minority at universities nationwide, Professor Ian Fleming (1956) pointed out that it was questionable whether there would be any women to admit at all. In the 1960s, there were still, he says, ‘tremendous barriers to treating women as normal people’. In late 1969, Pembroke undergraduates voted 9 to 1 that women should be admitted to Cambridge, but 2 to 1 that they should not be admitted to Pembroke.

This lack of widespread support for co-education at the College raises difficulties in judging those at Pembroke by today’s standards. It is hard to blame contemporaries for holding contemporary views. Those who remained opposed to going mixed were a product of their time. Lily Maxwell, the JPC Women’s Officer at Pembroke, commented that ‘How Many Long Mirrors?’ was about celebrating those that fought convention, rather than condemning those who could not confront the overwhelming current of society.

And so, by the early 1980s, Pembroke remained one of just three male-only colleges. In a sense, by accepting women later than other colleges, Pembroke admitted women to overwhelming support. Lady Adrian, who chaired the discussion, remembered other colleges going mixed half-heartedly, and the first female students suffering from widespread misogyny. Dr Barbara Bodenhorn emphasised that she has never encountered this kind of sexism as a fellow at Pembroke. By 1984, Pembroke was very much ready to be a co-educational college. When women joined, primarily trivial issues were at stake – how many long mirrors should be provided was one such issue.

IMG_3424 (2)Dr Sathiamalar Thirunavukkarasu, who in 1988 became one of the first female fellows admitted to Pembroke, remembers women being more progressive than men across all divisive brackets: race, religion, gender and geography. Admitting women not only made Pembroke’s undergraduate student body immediately more diverse, but it had an indirect effect in improving access for those from all backgrounds.

‘How Many Long Mirrors?’ demonstrated perfectly how much the College has changed in the past 30 years. Above all, the evening emphasised how diverse the effort to admit women was. Emily Dormund-Bean (2014) pointed out how touching it was hearing from two men – Dr John Waldram (1956) and Ian Fleming (1956) – who fought for so long to have women admitted.

Though this anniversary is serious, it has an immensely hopeful tone. There is still some way to go before full equality, as undergraduates Lily Maxwell (2013) and Holly Chetwood (2014) pointed out. With 24 women in a fellowship of 75, this is now most obvious at the post-graduate level. The next question facing members of the College, past and present, will be how much more we can change things in the next 30 years.

Helena Roy (Economics, 2013)