Four generations of Oxford women

The women in Eleanor Mills's have been going to Oxford for 4 generations. It's important, but not for the obvious reasons, she reveals.

Every family has their thing – in ours it was going to Oxford. As a child I was marched round the yellow stone quadrangles, usually in the rain, being told the history of the clan. This college was where Mum went, this one your Dad.  That gothic building was where Grandpa went, and over there – usually as we went by on a soggy punt – is Lady Margaret Hall (LMH) where Granny went unimaginably long ago. I grew up with the weight of that expectation.

I’ve always been particularly proud of my granny. Born in 1914, she went up to Oxford to read Chemistry in 1933. Amazingly, when she took up her place, she had never seen a Bunsen burner. It was only a decade since “undergraduettes” — as female students were then dubbed — had been allowed to take a degree.

‘Lectures for Ladies’

Women had been permitted to attend lectures and study since the 1860s, under a scheme dubbed “Lectures for Ladies”. But it took more than 50 years and quite a few punch-ups for women to be officially recognised as part of the university. Back then, the Victorian idea that women, like children and lunatics, were mentally incapacitated, was still all too prevalent. It took vigorous campaigning to make the case that women had brains too, that having a womb didn’t rule out a passion for the life of the mind, for scholarship, for learning. Like my grandmother.

These early bluestockings were described as “odious” but change was coming. In 1910, The Times thundered: “Oxford has recognised that she has daughters and some day she will give to them, as to her sons, the right to bear her name and wear her gown.”

Oxford: A family tradition

I’m proud to say that my family is living testament to that sentence coming true. My daughter Alice just got her A level results. This autumn she will go up to Brasenose College, Oxford to study English Literature, making her the fourth generation of women in my family – my granny, my mother, myself and now her – to go there.

Of course, I am bursting with pride. I know how hard she has worked and how ever since she was Hermione Grainger for World Book Day aged 6, she has dreamed of studying English Literature. I also know what privileged lives we have.

My daughter benefits from a shift in society

I am writing this not to brag but because my daughter’s success is not only her own, it is also a measure of the fundamental shift towards equality our society has taken over the past 90 years; these days women make up 54% of university graduates. Alice’s achievement has made me think about not only how much things have changed since women got the vote a century ago, but also what being part of that change was like for the women who lived it.

My experience at Brasenose, Oxford

When I went up to Brasenose to read English in 1989, my granny Patricia Mills would come up every term to take me out for lunch. In my room in college, I would make her a cup of tea. Then we would go to The Trout, a pub by the river, and reminisce about her time and mine. She loved it that I was at a men’s college (Brasenose along with Wadham and three others was one of the first to go mixed in 1972).

What my grandmother’s experience was like

She told me about the strict curfews and formality of her day. College gates were shut tightly at 10pm, overnight visitors were anathema and she had to have a chaperone on dates. Her days were a whirl of ball gowns, long white gloves, dinners and debates at the Oxford Union. It was there she met my grandfather, Kenneth Mills, and it was at a Commemoration Ball at New College that they got engaged.

I heard a lot about their courtship but I can’t remember her ever mentioning anything about chemistry. She gave up being an undergraduette at the end of her second year, leaving Oxford to get married. “Darling,” she used to say with a big chuckle, “I never regretted it!”. Orphaned in the First World War, she had been brought up by aunts and longed for a family of her own.

The way she told it, domesticity and marriage was the answer to all her dreams; but she never gave up the life of the mind. Until her death at 98, she completed The Times crossword every day, read The Spectator religiously and consumed endless books. She had a strong sense of duty and was still delivering meals on wheels to “the old dears in the village” (most of whom were decades younger than her) well into her eighties. She was a remarkable clever woman, but as with most women of her time, her focus was with her family.

My mother’s experience at Oxford

My own mother’s tales of being an undergraduate – in the mid 1960s – had more in common with my grandmother’s time than my own. She too talked of scaling walls to climb back into her college, Somerville (where she read law) after the gates were locked to keep out suitors. On one occasion she became impaled by her girdle on a window pane and was left dangling showing her knickers to her date.

For her, Oxford was an entry to a new world. She’d been brought up on a hill in the middle of nowhere, neither of her parents had been to university. She’d never seen an avocado pear – when her roommate asked her to prepare them for supper, she was stumped (this was pre Google!).

Learning sophistication…and sexism

As well as getting a crash course in sophistication, she dealt with her fair share of misogyny: a male Jurisprudence tutor told her sniffily:“I don’t teach women” and asked her to leave his tutorial. She also met her husband – my dad – at Oxford. They married  soon after they left.

“Back then, you had to get hitched if you wanted to sleep together,” she explained. My mum has always worked, her fierce intelligence and quickness took her from journalism on Queen magazine to academia as a psychologist (she took a second degree after I was born). Ultimately it led to her current work as a distinguished psychoanalyst.

She had five children; we’d sometimes breathe a sigh of relief when she exited the house to devote some of her immense energy to outside projects. I grew up knowing you could be a mum and a force in the world. Her generation were the first to try to “have it all”; she’s always maintained a strong sense of her own identity as a woman rather than a mother.

My experience at Oxford

By the time I went up to Oxford in 1989, we were told women had equality. Margaret Thatcher was PM, the Queen the Head of State, about a third of my once all-male college was female… we were fed a narrative that the gender revolution was complete. We were allowed to be there, weren’t we?

Yet as a woman I still felt an outsider. All my tutors were men (one unapologetically wrote me love poems, seeing it as a high compliment). I don’t remember any female dons at Brasenose. There were no portraits of women in Hall. We went on Reclaim the Night marches, but sexism was rampant.

A group of posh boys went through all the freshers pictures and invited the prettiest girls to smart parties. Most of the friendship groups centred around men. My friends and I were unusual in that we were a girl gang with men as satellites. These women are still at the very core of my life. I don’t know what I would do without them.

But unlike my mum and my granny, I didn’t leave Oxford with a husband. Around a third of my Oxford girlfriends never married; the rest of us got hitched in our thirties. I met my husband in India – he juggled fire. Unlike my mother and my grandmother, I have always been the main bread-winner in my family, alongside half of my Gen X contemporaries.

What Oxford meant to me

So what did Oxford give me? Certainly great friends, a belief in my own intellectual fire power and the confidence to forge a career in journalism. But being there also came with a weight of expectation. If I look at my husband’s friends from his time at Loughborough University, they seem much more content.  My Oxford cohort had opportunities but also pressure. We’d been selected to succeed.

Many of my Oxford peers seem haunted by the idea that they haven’t been as successful as they wanted or were supposed to be. They compare themselves to others incessantly and feel lacking. The weight of the expectation has caused many to buckle or been counter-productive. Ambition and happiness rarely sit side by side.

The downside of attending Oxford

I see that a bit within my own family. The achievement bar is set high. Four of my mother’s children went to Oxford – the youngest was the only one to plough his own furrow. We were jumping through pre-ordained hoops; sometimes family love could feel conditional on reaching that bar.

Over the last couple of years I have done much ruminating on the nature of happiness, on what constitutes a life well-lived. I was bred to believe it lay in external achievement and status. Now I know happiness comes from feeling loved unconditionally, from being seen and known for your essential self. Without that bedrock of love and support it doesn’t matter how many external baubles of success you accumulate, they will never fill the hole or make you happy.

My granny knew that all those years ago when she ditched university for love, and I hope my daughter knows that she is loved unconditionally too. I am thrilled that she is going to Oxford but I would love her just as much if she wasn’t. I know she hasn’t gone there for me but because it is the right thing for her. I know, I know.

Why my daughter selected my college

She is going to my old college, to study the same subject I studied. But I swear it is despite of me, not because of. She wanted to go to Brasenose because they have an amazing female Head of English and because her teacher at Camden School for Girls went there.

When I told her that I was writing this article she laughed. “Know what, Mum? I’m much prouder of being the first person in Dad’s family ever to go to Oxford than I am about being the millionth generation of yours”.

The importance to understand the past

Quite right, too. But in her confidence, in her sense that the university is the place where she can fulfil her academic dreams, under a woman tutor, and in her sense of ownership and ambition for her future, I also detect the hand of history. Alice and all the thousands of other young women going up to university this autumn can go there confidently because generations of women leaned in hard to open the door for them.

A century of progress towards equality is fulfilled in their arrival in these former male bastions. But without the women who went before they would not have this precious opportunity to fulfil their intellectual passions.

We should never forget that. And Granny, we salute you!

– Eleanor Mills

Alice Lock, 18 tells her motivations

Oxford: The word, place and all it contained has always held a kind of mythology for me. It’s Evelyn Waugh’s ‘Arcadia’, Lyra’s playground and the city of stone monoliths and great men that so terrified poor Jude the Obscure.

It’s also the place where my great grandmother studied chemistry and whose streets were terrorised by my mother in Eighties stonewashed jeans and cowboy boots, and her mother with her Sixties beehive before her. It is the university which my grandfather informed me – on my 18th birthday, somewhat prematurely given it was only hours after I’d taken the exam – that I would be the eighth generation of our family to attend.

Being a female going to Oxford

Eight generations of a family is an impossible privilege and a weighty expectation, but for me it’s being the 4th generation of women which means more. Even in 2021, I chose my college based on the female English don I would have. Thinking about Oxford’s years of history as I write this, I can’t help but think of Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own and the hundreds of Judith Shakespeares whose ghosts never walked the quads that I now will.

Looking before the history or family

However, Oxford for me was never about a family tradition or the history I am very lucky to have, both of which couldn’t really have held less sway over my decision to go up in October. Instead, I chose to apply for myself and myself only. The hours I spent on my personal statement, the weeks of revision for the test, the caffeinated, adrenalin-driven blur of October 2020; all this was not so that I could assume my place as generation eight but so I could spend the next three years of my life doing what I love and have wanted to do since I was a very little girl: reading and talking about books.

That’s the truth of it – while I may solidify the family reputation for my grandfather and provide bragging rights for them all, that is just a happy coincidence. First and foremost, as I walk through Radcliffe Square, it’s the 8-year-old girl who desperately wanted to be Hermione Granger that I’m trying to make proud, and the woman who she will eventually become.

– Alice Lock


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2 responses to “Four generations of Oxford women”

  1. Alison Smythe says:

    As a matter of interest which (if any) of the four of you had a partly or wholly private education?

  2. LG says:

    getting out a comfort zone seems to be a real challenge for Oxbridge people !

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