For many colleges, sixth week marks the end (hopefully) of the ‘Fifth Week Blues’, the beginning of the Varsity mayhem, and the final slide down towards the end of term. At St. Hilda’s, however, there is a rather different focus. Hilary sixth week is here given over to the ‘St. Hilda’s Festival’, a week of events celebrating the college’s feminist heritage and promoting continued gender equality.
St Hilda’s was the last Oxford college to go mixed, opening its doors to men in 2008. The decision, which raised controversy at the time, is now widely held to have been a successful one, but St. Hilda’s says it is keen not to let its history as an early promoter of gender equality be forgotten. The principal, Sheila Forbes, says, “St Hilda’s was founded in 1893 as part of the movement to promote the education of women within Oxford University and we are proud of that achievement and the tradition of excellence in women’s education which it pioneered.”
This year’s Women’s Officer at St. Hilda’s, Lucy Freeland, says “The week has a clear focus – for the promotion and continuation of gender equality – but it is important to make all events widely accessible and as light-hearted as possible within this remit”. The Festival’s line-up as such features a wide range of activities, including ‘Hildalarity’, a evening of gender-equality-focussed stand-up featuring The Imps, Rory and Tim and Chris Turner among others, a concert led by the Oxford Belles, ‘Girl’s Night In’, which aims to combat negative body image among young women, and a student-led debate, “This House believes that Doris Lessing is right, that feminism has been ‘lost in hot air’.”
The highlights of the week, however, promise to be the extensive range of talks from returning alumni. The central point, according to the Women’s Officer, has been on attempting to appeal to as many members of the student body as possible, regardless of gender or subject. The talks thus range from, among others, Sally Jones, the BBC’s first female sports broadcaster, on the difficulties of being female in a ‘male’ workplace”, to Alison Gill, psychologist and triple Olympic rower, on her theories behind the finalist gap (the phenomenon that sees female students consistently outperforming their male counterparts throughout their degrees until Finals, at which point the gender discrepancy between results spikes sharply in the men’s favour) to Victoria Hislop, the bestselling author of The Island (2005), speaking about her career as a writer and journalist. The week culminates with a formal dinner, at which Sally Baxter, a St Hilda’s alumni now working as the editor of the Sunday Time Magazine, will perform the after-dinner speech.
Any and all Oxford students are welcome to the week’s events, Lucy Freeland stresses: “This series of events really is about raising the profile of Hilda’s and highlighting what the college has done, and continues to do, in favour of equality for all”.