Trail 2: Oxford’s Queer Women

Image: Statue of Queen Anne at Christ Church

[This page is currently being updated, please bear with me!]

This page can be read on its own or used as a basis for a feminist walking tour of ‘leafy’ North Oxford.

1. Queen Anne (Christ Church & Univ)

Queen Anne (1665-1714), the last monarch of the House of Stuart, ruled England, Scotland, and Ireland between March 1702 and May 1707, and, following the Acts of Union, Great Britain and Ireland between 1707 until her death in August 1714. Anne is immortalised at Oxford in two locations. A bronze statue, by an unknown sculptor, is situated in a niche on the quad side of Christ Church’s Tom Tower on St Aldate’s. The inscription states that it was donated to the College by Robert Harley, 1st Earl of Oxford (1661-1724). A stone statue by an unnamed sculptor can be seen in the façade of Univ on the High above the entrance to the Main Quad. The statue was a gift to the College by George Ward, brother of one of Univ’s fellows.

Queen Anne - Univ
Statue of Queen Anne at Univ (photograph courtesy of the Master and Fellows of University College, Oxford)

As a young princess, Anne visited both Christ Church and Univ, as well as other colleges and locations in the city, during a five-day visit to Oxford with her father the Duke of York (later James II) and her mother-in-law, the Duchess of York, in May 1683. During the visit, the royal party attended the official opening of the Ashmolean. Today, the museum houses gloves said to have belonged to her and a commemorative plate depicting a topless Queen Anne, venerating her feminine virtues and perceived role as ‘nursing mother’ of her subjects.

Anne married Prince George of Denmark (1653-1708) in July 1683. This successful marriage did not preclude Anne from intimate romantic friendship with female favourites, most notably Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough (1660-1744). Surviving letters from Anne to Sarah are profoundly passionate. In one Anne wrote: ‘I hope I shall get a moment or two to be with my dear . . . that I may have one dear embrace, which I long for more than I can express.’ In another she yearned: ‘Oh come to me tomorrow as soon as you can that I may cleave myself to you.’ Eventually, however, the two women became estranged and Abigail Masham (1670-1734) became the Queen’s new favourite. Churchill backed the publication of some vindictive poetry which explicitly accused the Queen of having sexual relations with Masham. Churchill’s besmirching of Anne prejudiced perceptions of the Queen for generations.

The intimate relationship between Anne and Sarah is dramatized in Helen Edmundson’s play Queen Anne, first performed in Stratford-upon-Avon by the Royal Shakespeare Company in 2015, and in the Oscar-winning movie The Favourite (directed by Yorgos Lanthimos).

2. The Apothecary’s Daughter (Carfax)

In December 1726 the Reading Post or Weekly Mercury reported that two women had been arrested after it was discovered that they were married. No sources relate their names, only that one of the women was the daughter of an Oxford apothecary. It was reported that this woman wore ‘Man’s Apparel’ and had left her father’s house, allegedly in a state of delirium, thereafter ‘committing those unaccountable Pranks in the Country about of courting and marrying other Women.’

A little more about the situation is known from the Oxford antiquarian and diarist Thomas Hearne (1678-1735). Writing on 29 December 1726, he stated that the apothecary lived near ‘Cairfax’ [i.e., Carfax] and that his daughter ‘lately put on Men’s Apparel, and endeavoured to act the Part of a Man.’ Hearne continued: ‘She hath rambled in that condition about the Country, and hath courted young Women, and been married as if she were a Man.’ Hearne described the woman as ‘a bold, wild young Creature’ and concluded his diary entry with a quotation from the Reading Post or Weekly Mercury. Nothing more is currently known about the apothecary’s daughter and her wife.

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.

3. Lady Margaret Hall

[This page is currently under construction]

4. St Anne’s

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.

5. St Hilda’s

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).

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 7 February 2013 McDermid delivered the fourth annual Oxford University lecture for LGBT History Month at her old college.

Ruth Hunt, Baroness Hunt of Bethnal Green (b. 1980), Chief Executive of Stonewall between 2014 and 2019, studied English at St Hilda’s. During her time at Oxford she was President of the Oxford University student Union. she was created a life peer in 2019.

6. St Hugh’s

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 (see also New College page). 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 November 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.

Celebrated novelist Mary Renault (1905-1983) was educated at St Hugh’s, receiving a degree in English in 1928. Although college life for female students was still heavily circumscribed at the time, Renault made the most of her time at St Hugh’s. She was taught by J. R. R. Tolkein. She engaged in college drama and saw the young John Gielgud on the Oxford stage. Most significantly, she discovered her passion for classical art at the Ashmolean.

Refusing to marry, in 1933 Renault began training as a nurse at the Radcliffe Infirmary (now Radcliffe Observatory Quarter which houses several constituent institutions and departments of the University of Oxford). During her training, she met Julie Mullard (1912-1996), a younger but more senior trainee nurse with whom she established a life-long partnership. Their early relationship was restricted by the draconian discipline which governed a trainee nurse’s life at the time. Still, Renault and Mullard had a great deal of fun. They performed together in a Christmas show written by Renault and managed some furtive liaisons. On one occasion they were almost discovered in bed together by the stern Home Sister who burst into Renault’s room unannounced, Mullard just managing to hide under the sheets in time. On another occasion Mullard received a traumatic summons to Matron’s office to explain why she was leading Renault astray. It transpired that Matron’s ire had only been provoked because Mullard and Renault had been seen leaving the hospital without hats.

David Sweetman’s Mary Renault: A Biography (London: Chatto & Windus, 1993) relates much more about Renault and Mullard’s life in Oxford. Renault’s first published novel, Purposes of Love [US: Promise of Love] (1939), is also well worth reading. Although largely framed as a heterosexual hospital romance, the work is founded on Renault’s experiences at the Radcliffe Infirmary and contains some notable gay tropes, tropes that would come to define many of Renault’s later works.

In 1948, after Renault’s 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 queer 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 she wrote a non-fiction biography of Alexander the Great, The Nature of Alexander.

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.

Brigid Brophy
Brigid Brophy pictured in Isis, 11 March 1973

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.’

Athlete and adventurer Sarah Outen studied Biology at St Hugh’s. She has authored two books, A Dip in the Ocean: Rowing Solo Across the Indian Ocean (2011) and Dare to Do: Taking on the Planet by Bike and Boat (2016).

7. Somerville

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.

Other queer women associated with Oxford include:

American photographer and documentary artist Joan E. Biren—‘JEB’—(b. 1944) attended Nuffield, studying a D.Phil in Political Science and Sociology from 1966 to 1970. 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).

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.

Award-winning author and journalist Jeanette Winterson CBE (b. 1959) read English at St Catherine’s. Her semi-autobiographical 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), The Stone Gods (2007), Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? (2011), and Frankissstein (2019). She writes regularly for The Times and The Guardian.

Labour Party politician Angela Eagle MP (b. 1961) studied Philosophy, Politics, and Economics at St John’s where she was also Chairwoman of the Oxford University Fabian Society, 1980-1983. Eagle was elected to Parliament for the Wallasey constituency in 1992. She became a member of the Blair government following the 1997 General Election as the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Department for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, moving to the Department of Social Security in 1998. Following the 2001 General Election, she was a junior minister at the Home Office until 2002 but returned to the government under Gordon Brown in 2007 as Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury, subsequently serving as Minister for Pensions and Ageing Society from June 2009 until Labour lost the 2010 election. Eagle became British Parliament’s first openly lesbian-identified member by coming out in Sept 1997 in an interview in The Observer.

American radio and television host Rachel Maddow (b. 1973) was the recipient of a Rhodes Scholarship and completed her DPhil in political science at Lincoln between 1995 and 2001. Her doctoral thesis was titled HIV/AIDS and Health Care Reform in British and American Prisons. Her syndicated talk radio programme, The Rachel Maddow Show, airs on Air America Radio. Maddow also hosts a nightly television show, also called The Rachel Maddow Show, on MSNBC.

Author and journalist Laurie Penny (b. 1986) graduated from Wadham in 2008. Her books include Meat Market: Female Flesh Under Capitalism (2011), Cybersexism: Sex, Gender and Power on the Internet (2013), Unspeakable Things: Sex, Lies and Revolution (2014), and Bitch Doctrine: Essays for Dissenting Adults (2017).

© Ross Brooks, 2020