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Vote 100: Spotlight on the sixties

'Bristol University women are excellent examples of the "go-ahead spirit" of the female sex in every university in England.' Winifred Shapland, the University Registrar, 1935.

In 1913, the University's athletic pavilion at Combe Down is burnt to the ground. The arson attack is believed to be the work of suffragettes. Students attack a suffragette's shop in Queen's Road in revenge.

In 1964, Professor Dorothy Hodgkin, future Chancellor of the University becomes the only British woman to win a Nobel Prize for Chemistry.

1 February 2018

How far have women’s rights come since getting the vote 100 years ago? The early 1960s saw a boom in the number of women going into higher education with over 26,000 girls at university. With the introduction of the contraceptive pill and revision of the Married Women's Property Act, things began to change for women in the UK. We asked Carol Southworth (née Smith) (BA 1965) what it was like for a woman at the University during the ‘swinging sixties’.

Our life was very different from that of students today. The number of women at university was still comparatively small, before the huge expansion of the university sector and the student riots of 1968, both factors which were to change universities significantly. Tuition was free and most people had some sort of award or grant, topped up by parents; even the wealthiest received £50 a year. A schooner of sherry could be bought for 2/- (10p), the cheapest beer in the Union Bar was 10d (4.5p).

The three women’s halls were Manor Hall, CIifton Hill House and Goldney Lodge. In the sixties, we were not considered to have come-of-age until we were twenty-one. So men were only allowed into Hall as visitors on Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays, for afternoon tea and then later in the evening. They had to sign in and if they had failed to reappear to sign out at the appointed time the formidable Portress would telephone to the corridor and demand that Miss X’s gentleman visitor report to her at the Lodge at once. Rules about admitting ladies to the men’s halls were far less rigorous.

During Rag Week, there was the annual 'Wills Raid', when, after their formal dinner, the gentlemen of Wills Hall marched en masse in their gowns across the Downs to Manor Hall and forced their way in. I have no recollection of any serious damage to persons or property! There were, however, some benefits to the gender imbalance; with a ratio across the University of about 1:4, one was never short of a partner for a ball or other social occasion. The social scene was lively! There were more serious activities like support for the Bristol Settlement, visiting the elderly and housebound and the weekly War on Want Lunches. The sixties had begun to swing, but not yet to excess.

The History Department had just under forty undergraduates in each year reading for Single Honours Degrees, of whom in my year I recall there were ten women. We followed a traditional course and I cannot imagine that any of us, let alone the academic staff (none of whom were female), would have had any idea of what was meant by a ‘female perspective’.  ‘Women’s History’ had yet to be recognised as had that of Africa or ethnic minorities. We studied nothing later than 1900. 

Careers advice for women had its limitations too. Expectations were still fairly low. Comparing notes recently with a Bristol friend we found we had both received the same advice: ‘My dear, you are going to get married and have children, so with a History degree become a teacher or a librarian.’ I became a teacher, but my friend carved out an eventually very successful career in the world of hotels, restaurants and conferences.

At times, we as women have struggled to be taken seriously and it was not until my generation was middle-aged that a substantial number of women began to breakthrough the ‘glass ceiling’ to reach the top jobs. The first woman to be appointed as a Lord of Appeal in Ordinary in 2004 and to become a member of the Supreme Court was our recently retired Chancellor, the redoubtable Lady Hale, who is of a similar age to me. She became the first female President of the Supreme Court in 2017. Expectations of women have risen. Women now have the vote, are protected by equality and anti-discrimination legislation and should have equal pay, but genuine equality in all aspects of national life has yet to be achieved.

Further information

2018 marks 100 years since Parliament passed a law which allowed the first women, and all men, to vote for the first time: the 1918 Representation of the People Act. We will be celebrating this important milestone in the UK’s democratic history throughout the year.

A major series of significant exhibitions and events are taking place to engage the public with UK Parliament and enhance the understanding of the struggle for the vote. These events will take place between February-December 2018.

Follow #Vote100 on Twitter to keep up to date.