The following is a true story:
In 1999 I was studying for a masters at Cambridge and attended the hustings for our new college reps. One girl was there wearing a tiny, St Trinian’s-style gymslip, suspenders and high heels, with her hair in pigtails. She finally got up to speak, prefacing her talk by telling us that the way she was dressed “isn’t to make a statement. It’s because I’m off to the rugby team’s naughty schoolgirls’ dinner later”. That matter having been duly sorted, she launched into her main speech.
This girl was standing for College Women’s Officer. A week later she was elected to the post.
So how far have we moved on since then? Well, today’s Daily Mail features an interview with Madeline Grant, an Oxford student who stood for election as librarian of the Oxford Union and was disciplined for making a reference to her tits in her election manifesto (“I don’t hack, I just have a great rack”).
The Oxford Union is of course not the same as the Oxford Student Union; the latter’s where you go for free condoms and cheap stationary, while the former’s a posh debating society. I know all this because in addition to completing my masters and PhD at Cambridge, I did my BA at Oxford (which makes me sound both academically impressive and a total twat. In later years, I’ve drifted more and more towards proving the latter assumption to be the most accurate).*
Anyhow, from what I remember of the Oxford Union, it was not a place that had anything left to be called into disrepute. Dodgy guests, naked ambition, debates on apparently “debatable” issues such as whether being gay was acceptable and whether state school pupils deserved their places at university at all … It was, to be honest, a wood-panelled shit-hole. And it was largely male-dominated. Males with plummy, overbearing public-school accents, who thought they were everything and had the privilege and power to make you feel like nothing. I don’t know. Perhaps it’s changed by now? But I seriously doubt it. Apart from anything else, it’s plonked right in the middle of Oxford University, and that seems the same as ever (i.e. about the same as Cambridge, which, equality-wise, is shit).
The year I arrived in Oxford history professor Norman Stone was making waves by suggesting that the reason female students didn’t perform as well in finals was because tutors always go for the pretty, rather than serious, bespectacled, ones. Never having been considered a “pretty one” myself, I wasn’t quite sure how to take it, but suspected that overall, this was bad. At around the same time my partner was arriving as an undergrad in Cambridge, just in time to witness male students at Magdalene College commemorating the college’s decision to admit women students in 1988. They did so by carrying a coffin round the quad, with “academic standards” written on it. Basically, it was all a bit fucked up. Unless you were in one of the women-only colleges, you were an impostor. And if you were in one of the women-only colleges, you were obviously a lesbian, and being a lesbian was BAD. The common room in my college always included a copy of the Sunday Sport. If a woman so much as touched the TV remote it was a strident feminist act. Most of the men I knew were lovely, and the tutors were great, but the overall atmosphere was a mess.
I look at Madeline Grant and I’m not surprised she’s made the news. The press have always been obsessed with Oxbridge girls and their tits. In my day the big name in Oxbridge-tittage was Jocelyn Witchard, who jumped naked into the Cherwell on May Morning and appeared in all the tabloids. There was also some girl funding her Oxford degree with pole dancing, and that got her into the Mail, but I forget her name (maybe that wouldn’t be such big news today, but there was something weird about it – some claim she made that being a pole dancer had “cured” her anorexia – anyhow, the whole thing makes me a bit sad). I was never an Oxford tit-girl. I did, however, once get into the John Evelyn column of the Cherwell student newspaper as a result of snogging someone inappropriate when I was off my face on lager. The truly pathetic thing is, a bit of me still thinks of that as the one time I “made an impression” at Oxford. That was my big achievement: accepting a sub-z-list celebrity’s tongue in my mouth while wasted on Stella.
So in all, I’m not surprised, but am still pissed off, that someone like Madeline Grant has become the whipping girl (ooh, saucy – felt obliged to get that in first) in an environment that needs to take a long, hard look at itself. God knows, voters probably were judging her on her tits; why the hell shouldn’t she be honest about the way things are and the way to get ahead? The only thing that disappoints me about her is the sheer weakness of her slogan: “I don’t hack, I just have a great rack”. I mean, yes, it rhymes, but where’s the pun? Where’s the library reference? You could have least got the word “stack” in there somewhere, and possibly added a suggestive reference to the Dewey System.
Well, what do I know? The “librarian” position at the Oxford Union probably has nothing to do with being an actual librarian. And this whole incident seems to have left me in the position of actually agreeing with the Daily Mail. Christ. Well, that seems a waste of a good education.
* I’m actually a life member of the Oxford Union. I joined because they often invite famous people to give talks and said famous people tend to be terribly impressed and say yes. Hence during my time at Oxford I saw Ian Hislop, Vanessa Mae, Leslie Nielsen, Billy Joel, Douglas Adams and, um, OJ Simpson (um, yeah, well. Everyone was doing it. It didn’t seem that bad at the time). I also think I might have seen Michael Jackson, but I’m not sure. I might possibly have dreamt that one. It was a confusing time.