Celebrating International Women’s Day 2023

To mark International Women’s Day, and on the eve of the 50th anniversary of coeducation at St Catz next year, we turned to the College Archive to see how the pre-Michaelmas 1974 all-male College was anticipating the arrival of women.

In the St. Catherine’s Chronicle for the Academic Year 1973-74, the JCR President ended his report noting that “Nearly one-third of next year’s intake will be girls, so this is the last report from an all-male J.C.R. I am only sorry that it is not the first report from a mixed J.C.R.”

Earlier, in 1971, the College Master Alan Bullock wrote a letter to the College community confirming that the Governing Body had voted in favour of admitting women, writing that “Our decision was reached above all by the desirability of making an Oxford education available on equal terms to women as well as to men.”

Many thanks to the College Archives for the scan of the full letter:


The Admission of Women to St. Catherine’s

Members of the College and of St. Catherine’s Association will be aware that discussion have been taking place amongst some Oxford Colleges concerning the possible admission of women, as undergraduates, graduates and as Fellows of the College. You will want to know how St. Catherine’s stands, and we write to tell you that the Governing Body has taken an initial vote in favour of the admission of women.

A final decision must take the form of an amendment of the College Statutes, by a two thirds majority. We shall only take this decision when the practical arrangements, particularly for the examination of girls in conjunction with the women’s colleges, have been satisfactorily settled. But the size of the majority on a first vote is likely to ensure that there will be a two thirds majority at the end.

Some members of the Association will recall that the question of the admission of women is one that we discussed when the College was established. At that time we decided to let the matter rest as it was. We were making an important contribution to Oxford in establishing numerical equality between the arts and the sciences. We did this with the active help and support of the University and its Colleges. But we had enough on our hands, and did not wish to take the lead in a change which is only possible by agreement between a group of Colleges, in association with the women’s Colleges.

Since then there has been a general move towards the admission of women. Several Cambridge Colleges (King’s College, Gonville & Caius, and Churchill) have decided to admit women as graduates and undergraduates. The question has become the more urgent for Oxford. The lead has been taken by New College (which was founded in 1379) and the other Colleges taking part in the discussion are Brasenose, Wadham, and Lincoln. It would have been strange if, in these circumstances, St. Catherine’s had declined out of hand to take part in discussions with other Colleges which might lead to the admission of women. But equally we do not see ourselves as joining some temporary fashion. Nearly a century ago women were admitted to the University for the first time. Cambridge delayed the full admission of women to the University until 1948 – thirty years after they had been given the vote. This is all part of a long-term development, changing the position of women in society.

We could have resisted the trend and decided that whatever others did we should not change – or we could have postponed the issue and let others take the lead. But by a large majority the Governing Body decided that the academic arguments in favour of co-residence were decisive, and that it would result in gain rather than loss to the College community. Our decision was reached above all by the desirability of making an Oxford education available on equal terms to women as well as to men.

It was scarcely possible, before arriving at a decision, to consult our own members about a fundamental change in the College to which they belong. Nor, constitutionally, could the Governing Body divest itself of the responsibility or arriving at its own decision. But we are aware that our decision is of concern to you.

It is not the first time that St. Catherine’s has changed. Indeed it surpasses other Colleges in the speed of its advance and growth in little more than a century. In the changes for which the present Governing Body has been responsible we have always had the support and encouragement of our old members. We hope that we shall continue to have that support in the future.

October 12, 1971

Alan Bullock

Wilfrid Knapp
Dean of Alumni


The College library is also holding an exhibition to mark the day, featuring works from and about women, for example Women and the Irish Revolution, which looks at the crucial role played by women activists in Ireland after the Easter Rising.

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