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On Some Tacky Portraits of Women Taking Over an Oxford Dining Hall: An Open Letter to Hertford College

April Pierce

This academic year, Hertford College will be displaying in their Hall twenty-one portraits of women associated with the college.

First of all, thanks for the tokenism. Really, thanks. As a female student of the University of Oxford, I know how fatiguing it is to spend every meal in the company of dead white males staring down at you with icy, smirking, pasty-faced colonial contempt—a reminder that no matter how hard you try, and no matter how many women have come before you in your field, history (or the Oxford version of it) is against you. It’s fatiguing to read mainly dead white males too, but that’s probably another conversation. Inevitably, in such an atmosphere, your decision to hang twenty-one photographic portraits of women—yes, women—in your hall may appear progressive. But, is it?

Listen: your poorly-framed photographs of women, composed, after all, by a man, and hanging for only a year in your dining hall, are a little distasteful, but not as distasteful as the apparent push to publicise the fact that you put them there in the first place. (Congratulations, by the way, on being “one of the first colleges at Oxford University to admit women for both (that’s both) housing and (yes, and) instruction.”) Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate the spirit of the gesture: women are people too. Look at these women—we’re OK with them. They can hang out for a year, unframed, poorly photographed, by a man, in our dining hall. Look how progressive we are. Let’s get it into the New York Times. Let’s get this viral—Oxford is now, finally, cool with women as also-existing-in-historical-time. They can be people too. For a year. But do you know when Judy Chicago’s “The Dinner Party”—the inspiration behind this shocking move to include women in your students’ dining experience—was first exhibited? 1979. And, while Hertford’s women get a year in the spotlight, Judy Chicago’s piece is on permanent display at the Brooklyn Museum. Permanent. Display.

This is a very fashionable year to admit that women are people as well, isn’t it, ever since Emma Watson came out as a feminist, and polite society didn’t immediately crucify her? And she isn’t the only Emma with something to say. Sadly, though, Hertford’s very own Emma Smith was credited with a fairly terrible soundbite in the New York Times: “Our new portraits” she announces, “show that we are as proud of unsung achievement and potential as we are of high office or salary.” She might as well have said: “Hertford doesn’t usually give women high office or salary, so it’s lovely that they let us use their dining hall this year for a publicity stunt.” Or: “women don’t attain high office or salary most of the time in our version of history, but, bless them, they try sometimes.” Pat pat. Hertford, you haven’t had a single female principal in your entire history. Not one. Why is that? Admittedly, perhaps you’re not as terrible as other colleges. At my own college, for example, a female-benefactor-and-former-principal-who-will-not-be-named-but-can-be-Googled evidently supplied Times Higher Education with the material for the headline “Oxford College too strict on sexual harassment.” She came to this conclusion after “Roy Anderson was suspended following formal complaints from two female members of staff.” And don’t get me started on Oxford-as-a-whole.

Oxford: you didn’t let women matriculate until 1920—one lifetime ago. I have been openly mocked for being a feminist at many of your obligatory champagne receptions. I have been hit on, lewdly, by your drunken professors on more than one occasion, and have listened to my friends recount far too many stories of sexual harassment from your drunken tutors, principals, authorities, etcetera, so please forgive me if I sound a little cynical about this newly-found feminist sympathy. Sexism and sexual power games are so ingrained in your culture that I am no longer surprised to hear these stories. A lot of women are really too respectfully silent within your walls concerning the dark side of the old boys’ network. Maybe we assume that an ethos of entitlement and negligence is almost impossible to fight when it exists at the top of the food chain—in your private quarters, so to speak.

I digress. Thanks for the portraits, Hertford. I’m sure that the gesture was well-intentioned. But, you know, high office and salary are nice too. And why not leave the pictures up a bit longer? Maybe you could even get them some decent frames? Even better, how about hiring a few painters and doing the job properly? You do that, get back into the New York Times about it, and I’ll repost the resulting article with pleasure.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Oxonian Review.

April Pierce is reading for a DPhil at St Anne’s College, Oxford, and is Associate Fellow of the Higher Education Academy.