Scandal and segregation in the early years of women’s higher education

Helen Sunderland

Last week, Georgia Oman, a PhD student at Newnham College, Cambridge, kicked off this term’s programme with a fantastic paper on the gendering of space at the University of Wales, Bangor. It was a story of suspicion and scandal. Georgia used a notorious incident of a female student’s alleged inappropriate conduct and the libel case against the university’s Lady Principal which followed, to uncover deeply entrenched anxieties about interactions between men and women in co-educational institutions.

The attempt in 1892 to stop mature student Violet Osborn from befriending (and potentially corrupting) an ‘impressionable’ younger undergraduate drew on prejudices about class, nationality and age that were played out spatially. Because Violet rented private rooms in town – a cheaper option than university accommodation – she sat awkwardly in between the town/gown divide. The difference between students living in closely-supervised halls and lodging out was a moral as well as a geographical one.

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