As She Likes It: The Woman Who Gatecrashed the Union

Part 2 – NHS Wigs and the Man with Small Feet

Figure 1: ‘Let women in but no illegal entry’, Cherwell, Saturday 28 October 1961.
Figure 2: ‘Women’s Views on Union’, Cherwell, Saturday 28 October 1961.

The next morning, Jenny wrote a note to Howard Preece, the Union President at that time, thanking him for his hospitality and adding that hopefully in the future women could enter the debating chamber without having to disguise themselves as men. It was the first time in the 160 years of Union history when women students sat in the Union chamber during a debate. Their action sparked great controversy among the student population. An anonymous article on Cherwell called it ‘illegal’ and ‘undignified’. 1‘Let women in but no illegal entry’, Cherwell, Saturday 28 October 1961. Another Cherwell article took a more sympathetic stance and considered the gatecrash a great triumph. It began with an exclamation of joy: ‘So they made it! At last, after many years of campaigning, two women from St Anne’s succeeded in sitting, unnoticed, on the floor of the Oxford Union, disguised as males’. 2‘Women’s Views on Union’, Cherwell, Saturday 28 October, 1961. p. 10. Jenny and Rose were nonetheless gated by their college after gatecrashing the Union; that is, they must be in St Anne’s at nine o’clock every evening for three weeks. 3‘Oxford Girls Gated’. Daily Telegraph, 24 Oct. 1961, p. 11. The Telegraph Historical Archive. ‘Their sacrifice must not be in vain’, said their supporters.

Figure 3: The aftermath of the gatecrash, as reported on Daily Telegraph

62 years later, Jenny still remembered all the good efforts she and Rose put into creating the perfect disguise for the gatecrash. Rose first found a few students from Christ Church (still all male at that time), who were willing to lend the girls their tweed jackets, trousers, and college scarves. Jenny recalled that it was a bit more challenging to borrow a pair of men’s shoes that would fit her, but eventually Rose found a man with small feet, who kindly lent Jenny his shoes. Just as there was no unisex clothing, men and women also had drastically different hairstyles back then. Jenny initially reached out to some theatrical wig makers, but later learned that it was quite expensive to hire wigs from them. Luckily, two journalists who had heard about her idea, including the previously mentioned Rex George, volunteered to help. They put Jenny in touch with the NHS’s wig providers. Paid by the journalists, the NHS workers produced two men’s wigs for Jenny and Rose.

Figure 4: NHS wig providers helping Jenny and Rose with their disguise.
Left: Rose Dugdale. Right: Jenny Grove

The wig they had for Jenny was initially grey, so they sprayed it brown and cut it into a short back-and-sides for her. When she put it on, the wig stood out a little bit from the base of her neck, so she covered the back of the wig with the college scarf borrowed from a Christ Church student to make her disguise flawless. Jenny has kept this custom-made wig in her drawer ever since, along with all the other vivid memories of her years at Oxford.

Before Jenny and Rose entered the Union, they spent some time rehearsing and practicing the ‘manly walk’, striding along in their costumes, doing their best impression of a typical Christ Church man. They also did a ‘mini experiment’ at a local pub, where the landlord cordially greeted them with: ‘What will you have, gentlemen?’ 4‘Strangers: Disguised girl students break into a men-only fortress’. Daily Express, Friday October 20, 1961.

The journalists drove them to the Union, where they joined a queue of students waiting to enter the debating chamber. Jenny was careful not to strike up a conversation with anyone. When she sat down next to Rose on one of the benches in the chamber, a male student said something to her as he tried to clamber past her. Jenny just grunted in reply. It was the first debate held in the 1961-1962 academic year, and the motion, as a convention, was ‘that this House has no confidence in Her Majesty’s Government’. 5It is a Union tradition that the first debate motion in every Michaelmas term is always ‘this house has no confidence in her/his majesty’s government’. During the debate, Jenny and Rose joined in various roars along with the men students, shouting ‘nonsense!’ and ‘rubbish!’ The two diligent journalists also entered the chamber and went up into the gallery. As soon as they saw Jenny and Rose in the audience, they dashed off to the train station and travelled all the way to London to sell the photographs they took of the gatecrashers to national newspapers. The next day, the story appeared on various newspapers such as Daily Mail, Daily Express, Daily Mirror, Daily Sketch, and of course, the student-run newspapers Cherwell and Isis.

Figure 5: Excerpt from Daily Mail, Friday October 20, 1961
Left: Rose Dugdale. Right: Jenny Grove

The gatecrash offended some members of the Union, but also earned Jenny support from like-minded individuals, such as a PPE student from St John’s College named Harold Lind, who published an article on Cherwell, voicing support for Jenny’s campaign to admit women as debating members of the Union. 6Lind, Harold. ‘Excluded’, Cherwell, 21 October 1961, p. 13. In his article titled ‘Excluded’, he criticises the Union for ‘resolutely class[ing] one-seventh of the University’s population as second-class citizens’ (Lind, p.13). Harold Lind was one of the students who came to Oxford after having done their national service. Using his old-fashioned typewriter, he helped create numerous flyers advocating for Jenny’s campaign. In response to the campaign, the Union decided to let students vote on the question of admitting women. Ironically, on an issuing concerning women, only men students were allowed to vote. Jenny therefore went around all the men’s colleges, talking to as many students as possible to get a sense of their attitudes on her campaign. She then compiled a list of men students who were in favour of admitting women into the Union. A few days before the official vote, Jenny delivered reminder slips Harold helped type out to her supporters through their college pigeonholes, reminding them to vote.

The public opinions on this issue, Jenny recalled, were becoming increasingly divided. On the one hand, there were students like Harold, who not only supported the idea but also contributed to the campaign. On the other hand, Jenny also encountered people who were perhaps less pleasant to talk to. She remembered one man telling her that she could be ‘quite dangerous’, suggesting that she was being a disruptive influence and creating a ‘bad’ image of women in general. Although women did not have the right to vote, Jenny still spent some time interviewing women students, giving them a chance to voice their opinions. One of her interviewees was Caroline Threlfall, a ‘big name on campus’ at that time. A glamorous actress on stage, Caroline appeared in all the Oxford productions and had many admirers among the student population.

‘Are you in favour of the admission of women to the Union?’ Jenny asked.

‘Oh no,’ said Caroline. ‘Let them have their little club.’

Figure 6: The gatecrash as reported on the Daily Mail.7 ‘Girls in wigs dupe Oxford Union’, Daily Mail, 20 Oct. 1961, p. 9. Daily Mail Historical
Archive.

Jenny found it interesting (and a bit surprising) that while some considered the Union to be the most prestigious student organisation, its elite status proven by its exclusive nature, others simply saw it as a ‘little club’ for little boys with little relevance on the bigger stage. Today, half a century later, the Union still provokes similar polarized opinions among the student population. On ‘Oxfess’, an online platform for Oxford students to put in their two cents anonymously, it’s not unusual to see 8 out of 10 posts of the day talking about the Union, and the other 2 posts complaining about the fact that people spend so much time talking about the Union. In a sense, the Union has been fulfilling its purpose as a debating society by positioning itself at the centre of numerous heated debates in the past 200 years.

Figure 7: The Oxford Union Debating Chamber, built in 1878
  • 1
    ‘Let women in but no illegal entry’, Cherwell, Saturday 28 October 1961.
  • 2
    ‘Women’s Views on Union’, Cherwell, Saturday 28 October, 1961. p. 10.
  • 3
    ‘Oxford Girls Gated’. Daily Telegraph, 24 Oct. 1961, p. 11. The Telegraph Historical Archive
  • 4
    ‘Strangers: Disguised girl students break into a men-only fortress’. Daily Express, Friday October 20, 1961.
  • 5
    It is a Union tradition that the first debate motion in every Michaelmas term is always ‘this house has no confidence in her/his majesty’s government’.
  • 6
    Lind, Harold. ‘Excluded’, Cherwell, 21 October 1961, p. 13.
  • 7
    ‘Girls in wigs dupe Oxford Union’, Daily Mail, 20 Oct. 1961, p. 9. Daily Mail Historical
    Archive.