Christ Church celebrates 40 years of women undergraduates

Logo - 40 Years of Women at the HouseForty years ago today, 22 pioneers became the first women to study as undergraduates at Christ Church. 

“Going mixed” was not a particularly smooth process for the House. The gradualist approach taken by most Oxford colleges became impossible from the moment of the introduction of the Sex Discrimination Act in 1975. Whilst the vote to allow co-education was close in Oxford’s Congregation, many men’s colleges were then quick to open their doors. However, because the University decided not to regulate whether and when colleges went mixed, there was no agreed timetable to do so in an orderly progression. 

At Christ Church, a vote had been taken on 25 May 1977 to amend the statute to open Senior membership to both men and women, and a woman Research Lecturer, Dr Penelope Challoner, was admitted in 1978. The first woman Student (aka, Fellow), Dr Judith Pallot, was appointed in 1979. Any further changes, including admitting women as Junior Members, would require a two-thirds majority vote, which did not happen until Michaelmas Term 1979. At the beginning of that year, only three of the men’s colleges remained single-sex: Merton, Oriel, and Christ Church. 

The first woman Junior Member was Dr Eeva John (née Lehtonen) who was admitted to the House in 1979 as a Senior Scholar for post-graduate study. Then, in Michaelmas Term 1980, the first 22 women undergraduates arrived. As the archivist, Judith Curthoys, writes in her splendid book The Cardinal's College: Christ Church, Chapter and Verse (2012): “the House thus resisted the temptation to remain untypical and gained a new lease of life, or lapsed into ‘modish idiocy’, according to one’s point of view.”  There are suggestions that the environment began to change immediately.  One of the young men who was at Christ Church in 1980 recalled that "overnight the sofas stopped falling, [a.k.a., being thrown out of windows] and....Christ Church [was] belatedly made safe for Beauty, Culture, and Modernity.” 

Matriculation photograph featuring the first women undergraduates

Christ Church's Senior Censor, Professor Geraldine Johnson, said: “In the forty years since the first women undergraduates arrived at Christ Church, our women students, tutors, and researchers have gone from strength to strength and have made significant contributions to their many varied fields. We salute them and also the many women who as non-academic members of staff have provided crucial support for everyone at Christ Church." 

Due to the pandemic, our original plan to mark this historic anniversary in September 2020 with a weekend of events has had to be postponed. We are pleased to report that the entire weekend programme has instead been moved to 17-19 September 2021. We are also looking forward to other events and initiatives over the coming academic year, including a women’s portrait project and a series of films about women at Christ Church. The first of these is now available and features Dr—now Professor—Pallot.

40th Anniversary lapel badgeWe would love to hear from all our alumnae about their experiences at Christ Church. We are planning to create a collage of photos, images and snippets, and an archive of written reminiscences, for everyone to enjoy at the September 2021 weekend. We cannot promise to return anything sent in so please only send copies, not originals, to the Development Office or digital copies to development.office@chch.ox.ac.uk. We will be thanking those who contribute by sending out a special 40th Anniversary lapel badge in return.