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Women at Oxford

Women were not admitted to membership of the University until 1920, although they had been allowed to sit some University examinations and attend lectures for over forty years by that date. It was thanks to individual initiatives, and the pioneering work of the Association for Promoting the Higher Education of Women (AEW) that women's colleges came to be established in Oxford. Lady Margaret Hall and Somerville opened in 1879, followed by St Hugh's in 1886 and St Hilda's in 1893. St Anne's, which in 1952 was the last of the women's colleges to be incorporated by Royal Charter, originated as the Society of Oxford Home Students, catering for women students who lived with private families in Oxford while attending courses organised by the AEW. The five women's societies were granted full collegiate status in 1959.

Five all-male colleges - Brasenose, Jesus, Wadham, Hertford and St Catherine's - first admitted women in 1974. In 2014 there will be events to celebrate the 40th anniversary. Please see the co-education 2014 web pages for more details.

St Hilda's College, which was originally for women only, was the last of Oxford's single sex colleges. It has admitted both men and women since October 2008.

The first woman to be appointed to a full professorship was Agnes Headlam-Morley, who became Montague Burton Professor of International Relations in October 1948. Ida Mann had become Reader in Ophthalmology in 1941 and Titular Professor from January 1945; however the Annual Report of the University for 1947-8 states that '.....Miss Headlam-Morley ... is the first woman to be elected to a full professorship at Oxford. Miss Ida Mann, who until 30 September 1947 was Margaret Ogilvie's Reader in Ophthalmology, held only the title of Professor...'. Both women were Fellows of St Hugh's College.

In 1973 Balliol was the first of the traditional all-male colleges to elect a woman as a Fellow and Tutor. Oxford currently has 11 female Heads of House: the Rector of Exeter; the Principals of Lady Margaret Hall, Mansfield, St Hilda's, St Hugh's, and Somerville; the Provost of Oriel; the Master of Pembroke; the Warden of St Antony's; and the Presidents of St John's and Wolfson. In 1993 Professor Marilyn Butler, former Rector of Exeter, became the first female head of a former all-male college at either Oxford or Cambridge.

* As the Association for the Education of Women in Oxford, later known as The Society of Oxford Home Students

A good detailed source of information on the history of women at Oxford is chapter 13 of The History of the University of Oxford, Volume VIII: the Twentieth Century (published by Oxford University Press, 1994, ISBN 0198229747).

Distinguished female alumnae include:

  • Samira Ahmed, journalist and broadcaster 
  • Monica Ali, author
  • Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, journalist
  • Elizabeth Anscombe, philosopher
  • Zeinab Badawi, journalist and broadcaster
  • Kate Barker, economist
  • Dame Josephine Barnes, first female President of the British Medical Association
  • Gertrude Bell, explorer and archaeologist
  • Marian Bell, economist
  • Jana Bennett, BBC television executive
  • Benazir Bhutto, former Prime Minister of Pakistan
  • Katy Brand, comedian and actress
  • Vera Brittain, writer
  • Fiona Bruce, broadcaster
  • Baroness Barbara Castle, politician
  • Reeta Chakrabarti, journalist
  • Yvette Cooper, MP, politician
  • Wendy Cope, poet
  • Vivienne Cox, businesswoman
  • Dr Penelope Curtis, Director, Tate Britain
  • Cressida Dick, Assistant Commissioner, Metropolitan Police
  • Helen Fielding, author
  • Stephanie Flanders, journalist
  • Dr Amelia Fletcher, Chief Economist, Office of Fair Trading
  • Michelle Flournoy, US Under Secretary of Defense for Policy
  • Emilia Fox, actress
  • Indira Gandhi, Prime Minister of India, 1966-77 & 1980-84
  • Dr Frene Ginwala, former Speaker of the South African National Assembly
  • Rt Hon Lady Justice Hallett, judge
  • Dorothy Hodgkin, chemist, winner of the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1964
  • Eglantyne Jebb, founder of the Save the Children Fund
  • Felicity Jones, actor
  • Eleanor Kagan, Associate Justice of the US Supreme Court
  • Dame Emma Kirkby, soprano
  • Martha Lane Fox, businesswoman, co-founder of lastminute.com
  • Nigella Lawson, chef and broadcaster
  • Val McDermid, crime writer
  • Dame Eliza Manningham-Buller, former Director General of the Security Service
  • Rt Hon Theresa May, MP, politician, UK Home Secretary
  • Dame Barbara Mills, first female Director of Public Prosecutions
  • Dame Iris Murdoch, philosopher and author
  • Rosamund Pike, actress
  • Eleanor Rathbone, politician and social reformer
  • Dr Susan Rice, US Ambassador to the United Nations
  • Dame Cicely Saunders, founder of the modern hospice movement
  • Dorothy L Sayers, author
  • Laura Solon, comedian
  • Cornelia Sorabji, India’s first female lawyer
  • Aung San Suu Kyi, leader, Burmese National League for Democracy and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize
  • Margaret Thatcher, UK Prime Minister, 1979-90
  • Margaret Turner-Warwick, first woman President of the Royal College of Physicians
  • Dame Janet Vaughan, haematologist and radiobiologist
  • Baroness (Mary) Warnock, philosopher
  • Ivy Williams, first female barrister in the UK
  • Baroness Shirley Williams, politician
  • Jeanette Winterson, author
  • Mara Yamauchi, marathon runner
Dorothy Hodgkin, chemist,winner of the Nobel Prizefor Chemistry in 1964

Dorothy Hodgkin, chemist, winner of the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1964

Zeinab Badawi, broadcaster

Zeinab Badawi, broadcaster