At last, women can be Freemen of Oxford

1,000-year-old group finally lifts its ban on female members
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The Independent Online

For 1,000 years there have been things that the women of Oxford were not allowed to do. Fishing in parts of the Thames was off limits and they could not even consider letting their cattle graze on a soggy piece of land in the town known as Port Meadow.

But the times they are a-changing. Yes, a wave of liberation is sweeping forth that allows the fairer sex to join one of Oxford's most exclusive organisations, the Freemen of Oxford.

The body has, according to its chairman, Howard Crapper, "finally modernised the admission order to fit the 21st century".

"We have seen a tidal wave in admission applications. We have just accepted 10 women and another 20 are joining before the end of the year."

The Oxford Freemen association was formed in Saxon times and its existence is recorded in the Domesday Book, commissioned in 1085 by William the Conqueror. At that point only Freemen could trade and vote in town elections and until 1835, only they could hold council posts.

The admission rules for Freemen in Oxford were set out in a charter from 1551 and one thing was made clear: women were not welcome. The Oxford Freeman Chris Butterfield decided to challenge that position.

"In the old days there was no need for women to become Freemen because they were busy having kids, but we live in an era of equality with women doing the same roles as me and rightly so," Mr Butterfield said.

"The old rules stated that membership could only be passed from father to son or through becoming someone's apprentice. We felt that things should become equal."

The Privy Council agreed to change the charter in May and on 30 October the Oxford Freemen inaugurated their first female member, Linda Cox, 23. Mr Butterfield's daughter, Helen, was also quick to claim her freedom. "To me it was important to join because my dad and the others had worked so hard to change the rules so that we would be allowed to join and become Freewomen," said Ms Butterfield, 26.

"My friends think it's a funny old tradition. I'm not a farmer and I don't fish, and it's not really my social scene so I don't get a lot of benefits from joining, but it's more about equality and about making a statement that women can be Freemen too, or Freewomen. I'm not sure what the correct term is yet."