Queer Women at Oxford University

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Image: Val McDermid (photograph Alan Peebles, courtesy of Val McDermid).


Women were only allowed to matriculate at Oxford in 1920. Prior to this, women had attended lectures and sat exams but were not given degrees or recognised as members of the University.

In 1879, under pressure from the Association for the Education of Women in Oxford, Lady Margaret Hall and Somerville were founded solely for women, though collegiate status was not granted until later. At around the same time, the Society of Home Students was formed for women who could not afford to live in a college but wanted to study from home. This body became St Anne’s College in 1952. St Hugh’s College was founded for women in 1886 and St Hilda’s in 1893.

Although none of these institutions retain single sex status, their histories have nonetheless had no small impact on the development of queer female identities through the 20th century and into the 21st. In addition to others mentioned elsewhere on this site, they include:


The letters and diaries of one of the 20th century’s greatest writers, Virginia Woolf (1882-1941), show that she visited Oxford on several occasions during her life. One of her most notable visits was to deliver a rare lecture at St Hugh’s on 18 May 1927. She wrote: ‘I went to Oxford to speak to the youth of both sexes on poetry and fiction. They are young; they are callow; they know nothing about either—They sit on the floor and ask innocent questions about Joyce—They are years behind the Cambridge young, it seemed to me’. Woolf had greater enthusiasm for her friend and lover Vita Sackville-West (1892-1962) who had accompanied her to Oxford (they stayed the night at the Clarendon Hotel*: ‘Then there was Vita, very striking; like a willow tree; so dashing, on her long white legs with a crimson bow; but rather awkward, forced indeed to take her stockings down and rub her legs with ointment at dinner, owing to midges—I like this in the aristocracy.’ Sackville-West returned to Oxford, without Woolf, on 14 Nov the same year to deliver a lecture on modern poets at St Hugh’s.

* at 52 Cornmarket. It stood on the site now occupied by the Clarendon Centre.


French artist, photographer, writer, and translator Claude Cahun (1894-1954) studied at Oxford University around 1907-8 although records do not indicate which college(s) she attended. Cahun wrote about Oscar Wilde and in 1929 translated into French the writings of English sexologist Havelock Ellis. Ellis entertained the theory of people who loved members of their own gender as a third sex, neither masculine nor feminine but uniting the characteristics of both. These ideas influenced Cahun’s photography which plays with concepts of gender.


Novelist Mary Renault (1905-1983) was educated at St Hugh’s, receiving a degree in English in 1928. In 1933, she began training as a nurse at the Radcliffe Infirmary. During her training, she met Julie Mullard, a fellow nurse with whom she established a life-long partnership. Renault published her first novel, Purposes of Love, in 1939.

In 1948, after her novel Return to Night won a MGM prize worth $150,000, she and Mullard emigrated to South Africa, where they remained for the rest of their lives. There they found a community of gay expatriates who had escaped the repressive attitudes towards same-sex love in Britain. Renault and Mullard were critical of the less liberal aspects of their new home, participating in the Black Sash movement against apartheid in the 1950s.

It was in South Africa that Renault was able to write forthrightly about gay relationships, most notably in her last contemporary novel, The Charioteer (1953), and then in her first historical novel, The Last of the Wine (1956). Both these books had male protagonists, as did all her later works that included homoerotic themes. Her sympathetic treatment of love between men won Renault a wide gay readership. In 1975 Renault wrote a non-fiction biography of Alexander the Great, The Nature of Alexander.


Dame Iris Murdoch (1919–1999) was an author and philosopher, best known for her stories regarding ethical and sexual themes. Her first published novel, Under the Net, was selected in 2001 by the editorial board of the American Modern Library as one of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century.

Murdoch read Classics, Ancient History, and Philosophy at Somerville. In 1948, she became a Fellow of St Anne’s. It was at Oxford in 1956 that she met and married John Bayley, a professor of English literature and also a novelist. Murdoch, however, was openly bisexual, the complexity of her sexuality frequently finding expression in her work. She produced more than 25 novels and other works of philosophy and drama until 1995 when she began to suffer the early effects of Alzheimer’s disease. She died in 1999 and her ashes were scattered in the garden at Oxford Crematorium.


Novelist, essayist, and biographer Brigid Brophy (1929-1995) entered St Hugh’s to study Classics in 1947. She was sent down in her second year for ‘unspecified offences’, variously rumoured to be drunkenness in chapel or lesbianism. After her expulsion, Brophy worked as a secretary to a London pornographer, among other odd jobs, and began to write fiction.

Married in 1954, Brophy’s views favouring bisexuality and opposing monogamy and institutional heterosexuality was a cause célèbre in the British press and literary circles. Following the death of Iris Murdoch, an affair between the two women has been made public. Her social and sexual concerns are recurring themes in novels such as The Finishing Touch (1963), a tale of romantic misadventures in a lesbian-run school for girls on the French Riviera. It pays homage to the novels of Ronald Firbank of whom Brophy also wrote a biography, Prancing Novelist (1973). She also wrote biographies of Aubrey Beardsley and Mozart. She was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1984; the condition eventually took her life.

The following is reproduced from an interview with brophy in Isis, 11 March 1973:

Why were you sent down?

‘They weren’t prepared to say. I didn’t set out to break any rules. I seemed to have broken the unwritten, rather than the written rules – which is always a more frightening, Kafka-like situation. I don’t know what I did wrong, except that I was very innocent and it never occurred to me that anyone would object to one’s activities.’

What effect did this have on you?

‘A shattering one. I wasn’t at all sure I was going to be able to earn a living as a writer – and suddenly to learn you aren’t going to be able to take a degree is like having your future cut off. I wanted to feel I had something to fall back on. In fact it made me determined to work harder, to show that I wasn’t the socially valueless person that they made out. In this respect how many less determined women it has completely shattered through its narrow-minded attitudes.’

Was there any value to your time in Oxford?

‘The people I met. They had some sort of intellectual structure to their thoughts and possibly to their lives. Mixing with people who are clever in a different way from oneself forces some sort of analysis of one’s own mind. It was also valuable in that I enjoyed Oxford. I had a whale of a time, in the way in which if one has too marvellous a time one ends up occasionally miserable and hung over.’

Did you in the midst of all this activity, do any creative writing or journalism?

‘No I didn’t have time. I was out at a party every night. Also, I didn’t feel sure enough of myself: I still believed everyone to be infinitely cleverer and infinitely more original than myself. I hadn’t done any writing for some years, I was too perfectionist. Oxford certainly didn’t encourage me or help me to get over this difficulty, it just frightened me more. It was only after leaving Oxford that I began to write. In my day Oxford was the educational instrument of the establishment, determined to kill off originality and anything else disturbing and revolutionary: it tried to kill me off.’


Poet U. A. Fanthorpe CBE, FRSL (1929-2009) was educated at St Anne’s where she received a First in English Language and Literature. Notable works include Side Effects (1978), Collected Poems (2005), and From Me To You: Love Poems (2007), co-written with her partner of 44 years, R. V. ‘Rosie’ Bailey. In 1994 Fanthorpe became the first woman in 315 years to be nominated for the post of Professor of Poetry at Oxford University. In 2003 she received the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry.


American essayist, novelist, left-wing intellectual, and activist Susan Sontag (1933-2004) studied at St Anne’s. Sontag was long preoccupied with European modernist aesthetics and thought—a set of influences strongly characterising her fiction, filmmaking, and essays. She also wrote perceptively on gay male figures and issues. Her landmark study Notes on ‘Camp’ (1964) was the first detailed account of this gay sensibility. Sontag had committed relationships with women and men. Among her female lovers were photographer Annie Leibovitz, choreographer Lucinda Childs, and writer Maria Irene Fornes.


American feminist writer and academic Kate Millett (1934-2017) studied at St Hilda’s. Millett is best known for her pioneering critique of patriarchy in Western society and literature, Sexual Politics (1970).


American photographer and documentary artist Joan E. Biren—‘JEB’—(b. 1944) attended Nuffield, studying a D.Phil in Political Science and Sociology from 1966-70. JEB subsequently co-founded the short-lived but influential Furies Collective, a radical experiment in lesbian feminist separatism. Many of her early images were published in the Collective’s newspaper The Furies. At a time of intense activism in the USA, JEB utilised photography as means of making lesbian-identified women more visible. Many of her images can be found in the collections Eye to Eye: Portraits of Lesbians (1979) and Making a Way: Lesbians Out Front (1987). Since the early 1990s JEB has concentrated on video as means of expression. Her videos include A Simple Matter of Justice (1993), Women Organize! (2004), and No Secret Anymore: The Times of Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon (2003).



Award-winning author Val McDermid (b. 1955) is a graduate of St Hilda’s where she was the first student to be accepted from a state school in Scotland. After graduation McDermid worked as a journalist and dramatist but it is for her crime novels that she has gained world-wide renown. The first was Report for Murder (1987) which introduced lesbian-identified journalist Lindsay Gordon to the great British detective canon. McDermid’s 1995 book The Mermaids Singing won her the CWA Gold Dagger for Best Crime Novel of the Year. On 7th February 2013 McDermid delivered the fourth annual Oxford University lecture for LGBT History Month at her old college.



Film and theatre director Phyllida Lloyd (b. 1957) was made Cameron Mackintosh Visiting Professor of Contemporary Theatre at Oxford University in 2006. As well as numerous credits probably more deserving of mention, Lloyd directed the hit West End production of the ABBA musical Mamma Mia! as well as the 2008 movie adaptation.


Comedienne and presenter Sandi Toksvig (b. 1958) also has a connection to Oxford—she stood unsuccessfully for election as Chancellor of the University in 2003, supporting a campaign against student fees.


Author and journalist Jeanette Winterson OBE (b. 1959) read English at St Catherine’s. Her novel Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit (1985) won the Whitbread First Novel Award and was made into a television drama series in 1990 for which Winterson wrote the screenplay, itself winning a BAFTA for Best Drama. Her subsequent works include The Passion (1987), Sexing the Cherry (1989), The King of Capri (2003), Lighthousekeeping (2004), Weight (2005), and The Stone Gods (2007). She writes regularly for The Times and The Guardian.



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