Awaiting the new breed of Hildabeests: Oxford college split as sex rears its head

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The Independent Online

"The atmosphere is pretty tense. Some of my friends are pro-mixed and I find it quite difficult to talk to them at the moment," said Moushira el-Sahn, 20, a second-year student. "Surely as women it is natural to protect these provisions which help women. I do not understand how as women you would try to remove something which is still very much needed at Oxford.

"We have abandoned more than 100 years of our history as a women's college and I think the original founders would have been ashamed of us."

When the college's governing body announced on Wednesday that men would be admitted from as early as 2008, pro- single sex students wept while their classmates screamed with joy that the college's women-only days were numbered.

But 48 hours on, and at a time when many undergraduates would be expected to be boisterously celebrating the end of their exams, the atmosphere at St Hilda's was tense. Purple balloons, which the pro-single-sex campaign had displayed around the college, hung limply from benches while spray-on slogans still adorned the graduate student common room.

"It is very much an open wound for those for whom the outcome didn't go their way. Feelings are very very mixed," said Arielle Goodley, a second year student who opposed the admission of men. "There's a definite divide just because people have got so emotional about the issue. Most of my friends are pro-mixed but I think a lot of people wanted it to stay single sex. There's just something to be said for an all-women environment - you make such strong friendships and there's a real sense of female solidarity. I think on a personal level there's been a lot of tension. But that's only natural and I think it will wash away."

One of her closest friends, Tamsin Chislett, 20, a second-year student who backed the admission of men, said that the debate had pitted friends against each other. She said: "People are very passionate about it. I'm delighted at the outcome. This is an extremely artificial environment and I don't think it's beneficial to anyone."

Her housemate Georgie Edwards, 20, agreed. "Everyone is talking about it because it's a monumental decision. Going mixed was the right thing to do," she said. "We have no sense of college camaraderie here. Normally when you go to Oxford your college becomes your life and all your friends are from there.

"Because girls get here and don't want to be here they make a few friends and then immediately go out to other colleges to meet other people. If you let boys in that would all change. I didn't apply here but got sent here by the pool system. I definitely would still rather be somewhere else. Oxford is a hard place to be anyway but being at St Hilda's makes it 10 times harder."

St Hilda's was founded as an Oxford hall for women in 1893 by Dorothea Beale, the principal of Cheltenham Ladies' College. Miss Beale is said to have named the college in honour of St Hilda of Whitby because she was head of the most important house of education of her time, Whitby Abbey. St Hilda's has been the only all-female college at Oxford since Somerville renounced its single-sex status in 1994. Cambridge University still has three single-sex colleges, Newnham, New Hall and Lucy Cavendish.

But St Hilda's governing body, led by the principal, Lady English, has been determined that the college must change, citing financial and academic problems. There have been four votes on the admission of men since 1997 and the issue has caused bitter divisions. The college is currently ranked 23 out of 30 in the Norrington table of Oxford colleges, which measures academic performance. It came bottom the previous year.