Lucy Cavendish Memories: 1972-5

by Eva Simmons on 29 August 2013

I was Lucy Cavendish College’s first undergraduate!

Here’s how it happened: I had never heard of Lucy Cavendish, and had no plans to go to a woman’s college. I had been to a girls’ (grammar) school years before, and had unpleasant memories of what felt to me like a hothouse atmosphere cut off from the masculine world. But as a mature student, and female too, I had few choices in 1972.

Somebody asked me if I knew about – and had considered applying to - Lucy Cavendish: previously a graduates-only college, it was about to begin admitting undergraduates. I didn’t, and hadn’t, so – overcoming my misgivings - I did! Lucy Cavendish offered me a place immediately, on the strength of my University Entrance exam results – even without knowing my `A’ Level grades – and I accepted. I later discovered none of the other candidates had taken the Entrance Exam, so they all had to wait for their `A’ Level grades before knowing if they had a place. Thus I was the first Lucy Cavendish undergraduate!

Saying `yes’ to Lucy Cavendish was one of the best decisions I have ever made. The atmosphere was nothing at all like that at my secondary school: I would call it feminist, but completely focussed on learning. From the beginning we were treated as the adults we were, with guidelines, and of course instruction, but no compulsion. I discovered for the first time in my life what it meant to truly love learning (instead of considering it a chore): I later went on to do a Ph.D and, after a career in journalism, am again doing literary and historic research. I had chosen to read English Literature, and my Director of Studies, Dr. Mindele Treip (now sadly deceased), was inspiring. She held seminars on Milton’s Paradise Lost, and brought what could have been a dry topic vividly to life; thanks to her, I did my thesis on a 17th century subject (the first professional English woman writer, Aphra Behn).

During those early days at Lucy Cavendish we really did feel like pioneers! There were no dining facilities, so we went off to Churchill College for our dinners. (Dining at Strathaird became possible not long afterwards) Lucy Cavendish had only three buildings:  Straithaird; Barrmore, where the resident students lived; and what is now called “College House”, with a rudimentary library, some supervision rooms, and the college office. But there was always a beautiful garden!

Tiny though Lucy Cavendish was (only 70-odd students), and still only recognised as an Approved Society of Cambridge University, as participant in its Tripos system the college had to find supervisors for us, even if there were none suitable on site. I duly cycled to Trinity Hall to discuss Hobbes and Locke with a knowledgeable but nervous male graduate student. To the men in other colleges, we were the “grey-haired granny” students – even though most of us were only in our late twenties and thirties (I was 32)!

Many of the women I met at Lucy Cavendish were making a fresh start, after tricky periods in their lives: marriage breakdowns, frustrating jobs, and the like. I myself had just ended a very difficult marriage. They came from all corners of the globe, and I made wonderful friends, with several of whom I am still in contact: they are in the USA, Greece, Malaysia, as well as the UK. I believe all of us benefited hugely from our time at Lucy Cavendish, have fabulous memories, and marvel at how the college has grown – in size, reputation, and prestige!