As She Likes It: The Woman Who Gatecrashed the Union

1This article is based on a conversation the author Rose Zhang had with Jenny Grove on 28 February 2023. Unless otherwise specified, all quotes in this article are taken from the interview.

Part 1 – Regarding the Top of the Speaker’s Head

Figure 1: The Oxford Union Debating Chamber

In 1959, Jenny Grove came to Oxford to read Philosophy, Politics and Economics at St Anne’s College. She had just graduated from a Catholic boarding school, which she referred to as the ‘Convent’. Initially, Jenny was interested in science and applied to study Physics, Chemistry, and Mathematics at Lady Margaret Hall. There wasn’t a laboratory at the Convent, Jenny recalled, so she had to travel to a nearby grammar school to see what some of the laboratory equipment looked like. During her Oxford interview, she was told, however, that ‘your chemistry was bad; your physics was disastrous, and your knowledge of mathematics was negligible, but we rather liked your general paper, and we wonder if you might consider reading Philosophy, Politics and Economics’.

As a PPE student, Jenny soon discovered the Oxford Union, a lively, vibrant place where students came together to debate a variety of topics ranging from politics to theology. The Union, Jenny thought, was the total opposite of the Convent. Girls at the Convent often went on silent retreats, during which they were not allowed to speak at all for two or three days. They could only listen to the priest talking and write down their questions on a piece of paper which would be handed to the priest, who would then talk a bit more. The Union, by contrast, offered a platform for students to voice their opinions about virtually anything. The guest speakers at the Union were also much more impressive: In particular Jenny remembered when Member of Parliament Barbara Castle came to speak at the Union in Trinity 1960 for the motion ‘that the Public Schools should be abolished’. 2For more details, see Figure 2 for an image of the Trinity 1960 term card It was, she recalled, quite exciting to see a woman speaker of that calibre.

Figure 2: Term card of Trinity 1960, featuring Barbara Castle’s speech.

However, much to her dismay, Jenny soon realised that the right to participate in debates, or rather, the right to ‘free speech’, which the Union members were so proud of, was a privilege of male students only, who took up more than 80% of the student population at Oxford in the 1960s. On Thursday nights, when the men sat in the debating chamber, cheering, arguing, and voting, women were relegated to the gallery upstairs, where they had to keep quiet, as if attending yet another silent retreat. Finding this treatment of women demeaning, Jenny submitted a letter to the Daily Telegraph, which was published on 10 November 1960. 3Grove, Jennifer. ‘Where Women are Silent’. Daily Telegraph, 10 Nov. 1960, p. 14. The Telegraph Historical Archive On behalf of all women undergraduates at Oxford, Jenny urged the Union to grant women students the right to participate in debates:

Figure 3: Jenny’s letter to the Telegraph

We ask solely for the right to take part in debates, instead of an occasional grudging admission to the gallery, to sit in reverent silence and regard the top of the speaker’s head. (Grove, Telegraph)

Grove, Jennifer. ‘Where Women are Silent’. Daily Telegraph, 10 Nov. 1960, p. 14. The Telegraph Historical Archive.

Jenny soon received replies from several male students, dons, and alumni, who unanimously criticized Jenny’s ‘ludicrous’ (according to at least one gentleman) idea of admitting women to the Union. A gentleman named H. K. Davies maintained that: 4Davies, H. K. ‘The Oxford Union’. Daily Telegraph, 16 Nov. 1960, p. 14. The Telegraph Historical Archive

Judging by Miss Jennifer Grove’s letter, it would seem that women undergraduates at Oxford are to-day still suffering from the same illusions as they were when I was up at the University. They seem to think that, just because they have become members of the University, this automatically allows them to join a man’s club, namely the Oxford Union! … This must never be allowed to happen. The libraries and writing room would immediately lose their charm if they were filled with female giggles and perfume. We simply cannot allow the women to obtain a foothold… (Davies, Telegraph)

Davies, H. K. ‘The Oxford Union’. Daily Telegraph, 16 Nov. 1960, p. 14. The Telegraph Historical Archive.

Davies’s comment betrayed the fear felt by many men at that time, that women were no longer satisfied with living on the margins of society, that they would infiltrate, contaminate, and eventually usurp the world dominated by men. Indeed, men who held this opinion viewed the Oxford Union as their last sanctuary and grew instantly defensive in the presence of women such as Jenny Grove. Some of them even adopted an aggressive attitude. G. R. Addington Hall, a member of Queen’s College, wrote: 5G. R. Addington Hall. ‘The Oxford Union’. Daily Telegraph, 16 Nov. 1960, p. 14. The Telegraph Historical Archive

When I came up to the University I had every intention of supporting the admission of women to the Oxford Union Society. However, I quickly changed my mind when I discovered the existence of women undergraduates capable of such unladylike activities as ‘demanding’ membership and ‘registering protests’ at exclusion from this private society. If Miss Jennifer Grove and others like her were not included, I feel sure that ladies would soon be accepted to full membership of the Society. (Hall, Telegraph)

G. R. Addington Hall. ‘The Oxford Union’. Daily Telegraph, 16 Nov. 1960, p. 14. The Telegraph Historical Archive.
Figure 4: Responses to Jenny’s letter, as appeared on Daily Telegraph.

Perhaps Mr. Hall imagined that instead of ‘demanding’ and ‘protesting’, women should simply wait for their gentlemen callers to invite them to the Union bar for a drink, where they would line up and dress up like decorative paintings on the walls. In fact, at that time, women were allowed in the bar, but not in the debate chamber. Apparently, their ‘giggles’ and ‘perfume’ would enchant the bar as a social space, but ruin the intellectual atmosphere of the chamber.

Indeed, those who opposed the admission of women into the Union tended to base their arguments on the perceived intellectual inferiority of women. Former Prime Minister and Union President Edward Heath, for example, maintained that women lacked the ability to make original contributions and therefore shouldn’t take part in debates. Letters in The Isis claimed that ‘women need not further display their intellectual shortcomings’ by participating in debates. Some of these arguments seemed to be based solely on the fantasy of teenage boys, who feared that, unable to make rational judgements, ‘women would flood both the writing rooms with teary love letters, and the ballot boxes with their assessments of gentlemen candidates’ good looks’.[4] Moreover, some worried that the admission of women would cause the Union to be ‘eternally occupied by nylons, high-heeled shoes, and an aura of scent’. 6The above quotes are take from Women in The Union: Celebrating 60 years since women were admitted as members in their own right by Molly Mantle (Ex-President, HT 2022) All of these remarks together paint the misogynistic image of a woman as a body without a mind—a cluster of ‘nylons’, ‘heels’, and ‘scents’ wrapped around an empty shell.

The unfavourable replies Jenny received did not discourage her, but rather made her more determined. Her campaign for the admission of women to the Oxford Union soon attracted media attention. Local journalist Rex George reached out to her with a suggestion: ‘Why don’t you chain yourself to the railings?’ While this idea certainly showed George’s journalistic instinct, as such an act would no doubt make it to the headlines, it was, nevertheless, a bad idea. Those against the admission of women would seize the opportunity to further criticize women for being irrational, even hysterical, and thus unsuitable for intellectual debates. Jenny thought that such a dramatic act would be pointless. ‘Of course it would get into the papers,’ she commented, ‘but then it’d be all forgotten.’

Jenny had a better idea. Today, 62 years later, her idea has not been forgotten—in fact, it has become one of the best stories in the 200 years of Union history. All those ‘nylons’, ‘heels’, and ‘scents’, Jenny thought, were but a façade of femininity imposed upon women by men. These outward signs sexualised and objectified the female body, while rendering the female mind inferior. Jenny noted that back in those days there was no unisex dressing. Women’s trousers had zips up the side; men’s trousers had zips up the front. Nothing back then was unisex: hairstyles, shoes, and postures were all used to distinguish women from men. These external signs thus simultaneously helped define and discriminate against femininity. As a result, in the 1960s and before, if you looked like a woman, you would be denied entry to the debating chamber. If you looked like a man, you could enjoy all the privileges of men. Although people who were against the admission of women claimed that it was due to intellectual and cognitive differences. In fact, it was never about the mind—it was never about anything else but appearance. Indeed, no one would test your intelligence or assess your suitability for debates while you were in the queue to enter the debating chamber. If you happened to wear a men’s college jacket and a men’s college scarf, then you would be let in. It’s that simple, that absurd.

Figure 5: Sculptures in the Oxford Union Debating Chamber

Jenny decided to expose the very absurdity of sexism by performing an act many of her opposers would consider to be ‘absurd’. On the night of 19 October 1961, Jenny and her friend Rose Dugdale, another PPE student at St Anne’s, disguised themselves as men to attend the Thursday night debate at the Union.

  • 1
    This article is based on a conversation the author Rose Zhang had with Jenny Grove on 28 February 2023. Unless otherwise specified, all quotes in this article are taken from the interview.
  • 2
    For more details, see Figure 2 for an image of the Trinity 1960 term card
  • 3
    Grove, Jennifer. ‘Where Women are Silent’. Daily Telegraph, 10 Nov. 1960, p. 14. The Telegraph Historical Archive
  • 4
    Davies, H. K. ‘The Oxford Union’. Daily Telegraph, 16 Nov. 1960, p. 14. The Telegraph Historical Archive
  • 5
    G. R. Addington Hall. ‘The Oxford Union’. Daily Telegraph, 16 Nov. 1960, p. 14. The Telegraph Historical Archive
  • 6
    The above quotes are take from Women in The Union: Celebrating 60 years since women were admitted as members in their own right by Molly Mantle (Ex-President, HT 2022)