Admission of Women

One early rise in membership, that of 1927, has an interesting background: the admission of women to the society. This step was proposed as early as Hilary 1920, and at a meeting held on 26 April of that year the necessary amendments were passed with the proviso that “the admission of women students shall not prejudice in any way the holding of meetings in college rooms.” But the regulation which debarred almost all women from membership, and caused lengthy and spirited discussions for seven years, was that only female students of archaeology were entitled to join; in the absence of an undergraduate degree in archaeology this limited female membership to graduates. The discrimination was underlined when an anonymous woman reading Literae Humaniores applied to join:

“It was decided that the lady in question should be brought to excavations and if the Society was satisfied she should be proposed for election.”

Either the society or the lady in question was not satisfied, for there was no election.

A proposed modification in Michaelmas 1923 to drop the ‘archaeology’ qualification would have led, if passed, to no great easing of the situation:

“The Secretary (who was proposing the change) pointed out that there was a double safeguard in the proposed rule against the type of girl that was undesirable—the introduction by a don, and the proposing by the committee—as well as the fact that the strictures of chaperone rules needed considerable enthusiasm in the object before they could be fulfilled.”

After the failure of this scarcely less draconian amendment the secretary noted briefly:

“The real crux lay in the deep-rooted objection of the older members to the ‘eternal feminine’ and their resistance to have [sic] their style cramped.”

No progress was made for almost three years. It was now Trinity 1926; a motion to admit women was passed and the offending clauses in the Rules were deleted. An abortive counter-proposal to make attendance at three meetings or visits per term a condition of eligibility for women suggests that the fear of the “older members” was of the reputed fickleness of women. Success, however, was not yet complete. At the committee meeting of 25 January 1927, it was announced “that Miss K. Kenyon … had applied to the proper quarters for permission but had met with no reply.” It was decided “that no woman should be elected to the Committee until a number of women joined the Society sufficient to justify this step.” At the next committee meeting it needed the presidential casting vote to defeat a motion to substitute the word ‘plunge’ for the word ‘step’. The resolution of 25 January was a challenge, and at the next meeting of the society on 11 February, ten women, including Miss Kenyon, were elected members on the proposal of B. H. St John O’Neil. These were the first female ordinary members since two graduates in 1920. On 18 February sixteen more women, all from Lady Margaret Hall, were sponsored by St John O’Neil; by the end of that Hilary term 38 women had been elected and only 4 men; the secretary pointed out “that the personnel of the Society had recently changed considerably.”

The rout was almost complete when Miss Kenyon became president in the Michaelmas of that same year, but the women’s secretary was still supposed to look after all female interests. Gradually opposition to other women officers was eroded—the first excavation secretary was a woman—but the final obstacle to equality remained almost unnoticed for twelve years, and its removal was passed without dispute.