As She Likes It: The Woman Who Gatecrashed the Union

Part 3 – After the Gatecrash

Figure 1: Four St Anne’s girls celebrating the success of the Union Campaign. From left to right: Jenny Grove, Rose Dugdale, Bernice Holroyd-Rothwell, and Sarah Caudwell

Back in 1962, a few months after the gatecrash, despite the unsympathetic and the disinterested, Jenny and her supporters eventually achieved their goal. As a result of their campaign, more than two-thirds of the House voted in favour of admitting women into the Union as debating members. 1As debating members, women students could attend and participate in Union debates, although they still could not access other privileges reserved for full members only, such as using the Union library and bar (unless invited by men students who were full members). Women students gained the right to full membership in 1963, one year after they achieved debating membership.   

Jenny’s close friend Sarah Caudwell, a law student at St Anne’s, became one of the first two women students to give a speech in the debating chamber. Before coming to Oxford, Sarah studied Classics at the University of Aberdeen, where she received training on debating skills. An accomplished debater herself, Sarah supported Jenny throughout the campaign, and was subsequently invited to speak at the Union debate regarding the creation of the State of Israel. 2For more details, see Figure 2 for an image of the Trinity 1962 term card. Sarah later became a successful barrister who was also well known for her ‘Hilary Tamar’ novels, a series of detective stories. Jenny and Sarah had stayed in touch since their graduation. When Sarah passed away in 2000, Jenny wrote an obituary of her good friend, ‘Sarah Caudwell: Witty Barrister Who Turned Her Cases into Crime Thrillers’, which appeared on The Guardian. 3Grove, Jenny. ‘Sarah Caudwell, witty barrister who turned her cases into crime thrillers’, The Guardian. Jenny fondly remembers her friend as a multitalented, optimistic woman who was never out of her high heels and always smoking her pipe.

Figure 2: Term card of Trinity 1962, featuring the Israel debate
Figure 3: Women gained the right to full Union membership on 8 February, 1963

Thanks to the journalist Rex George and his photographer, we now have a lovely photo of Jenny and her friends: Rose, Bernice, and Sarah, celebrating on the night of 16 February 1962, after the vote had been won earlier that day. Jenny recalls that ‘our jubilation was genuine, but the journalists had supplied the props—four glasses, an empty bottle of champagne, and Eno Fruit Salts’. A year later, the House voted again and decided that from 8th February 1963 onwards, women would be able to join the Union as full members on equal terms as men. This was a big step forward, as only 14 months earlier, women students were not allowed to enter the Union unless invited by the men, and could only sit silently in the gallery during debates. These breakthroughs were made possible by women like Jenny, who fought for women’s voices within and beyond the Oxford Union.

Figure 4: Geraldine Jones, First Female President of the Oxford Union (Hilary Term 1968)

In Hilary Term 1968, the Union members elected their first female president, Geraldine Jones, since the founding of the Society 145 years ago. Today, the Union has had 40 female presidents, including the upcoming president for MT 2023, Disha Hegde.

As a graduate of a women’s college myself, I hold Jenny’s story close to my heart. Through this article, I express my deepest admiration for Jenny and my brilliant, witty, feisty women friends. When I first arrived on campus in the autumn of 2015 for my undergraduate study, I saw a group of young women sitting under a red maple tree, wearing blue shirts designed by the Department of History. At the back of their shirts was the quote by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich: ‘Well-behaved women seldom make history.’

Figure 5: The Standing Committee in Hilary 1968, with Geraldine Jones as the President.
  • 1
    As debating members, women students could attend and participate in Union debates, although they still could not access other privileges reserved for full members only, such as using the Union library and bar (unless invited by men students who were full members). Women students gained the right to full membership in 1963, one year after they achieved debating membership.   
  • 2
    For more details, see Figure 2 for an image of the Trinity 1962 term card.
  • 3
    Grove, Jenny. ‘Sarah Caudwell, witty barrister who turned her cases into crime thrillers’, The Guardian.