The University of Oxford was in no hurry to admit women students. When 21 young women took up residence at Somerville and Lady Margaret Hall (LMH) in 1879, the university took no official notice of their presence. It had, however, passed a statute in 1875 authorising its delegates for local examinations to introduce special higher examinations for women at approximately the level of undergraduate preliminary and final examinations. With these to aim for, the first students at Somerville and LMH and a number of women students living privately in Oxford settled down to work. They attended lectures given specifically for them by well-intentioned Oxford academics in the modest setting of rented rooms over a baker's shop. These were organised by a body set up for the purpose, the Association for Promoting the Education of Women in Oxford, which also negotiated with sympathetic academics in the men's colleges to provide tutorials.
Judy Batson's engaging and informative study traces the slow progression of women from the margins of Oxford to the mainstream. She ends her account in 1959, when the five colleges for women - Somerville, LMH, St Anne's, St Hugh's (founded 1886) and St Hilda's (1893) - were recognised as full colleges of the university, 80 years after the first women students had arrived. The publication of Her Oxford is a timely contribution to the celebration of the 50th anniversary of this status in 2009.
The stages of the long journey are clearly described by Batson. Oxford's final examinations in mathematics, natural science and history were opened to women as early as 1884, and were swiftly followed by most of the other subjects. In an interesting piece of reverse trading, the two subjects that had been studied only by women - English and modern languages - were adopted by the university and opened to men in 1894 and 1903 respectively. Nonetheless, the admission of women to Oxford final examinations was bitterly contested by some dons, establishing a pattern that was to be repeated in later controversies over the place of women at Oxford. In 1920, women were finally admitted as full members of the university and awarded the degrees they had long been earning, partly in response to the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act of the previous year. Women had already established a role as tutors in the women's colleges and they were now also able to act as examiners and to sit on university boards. But Oxford was still a man's world.
In 1927, the Congregation (parliament of dons) of Oxford promulgated a statute limiting the number of women students at the university. The quota established a ratio of about one woman to four men, which became more disadvantageous for women as the men's colleges expanded. The quota was eventually lifted in 1957. But neither this nor the full recognition of the five women's colleges in 1959 was able to change the minority status of women. This had to wait for the coming of co-residence in nearly all Oxford colleges in the 1970s. And as Batson notes in her epilogue, women undergraduates today do not gain as many first-class degrees as men, and women are still in a minority in academic posts, especially in senior positions. If one story about women gaining equal status with men at Oxford ended in 1959, others are far from complete.
Her Oxford is strong on narrative and enlivened by vivid accounts of dozens of highly individual Oxford women. But it is innocent of theory. No attempt is made to draw on major analytical themes in gender studies - such as the tension between equality and difference, or between assimilation and separate identity - that would have greatly enriched our understanding of why it was such a struggle for women and for Oxford to create a new and different future for them both.
By Judy Batson. Vanderbilt University Press. 384pp, £32.50. ISBN 9780826516107. Published 15 October 2008
Frances Lannon is principal, Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford.