Starting out in the 1960s, working class and female


We are delighted that Professor Dame Averil Cameron has shared the text of the keynote speech that she gave at our 2017 AGM with us for publication on the blog. Her experience resonated with many in the room, and we feel privileged to be able to share her reflections with a wider audience. The WCC UK Administrator has taken the liberty of adding the hyperlinks.

I was encouraged to be autobiographical for the WCC AGM in April, and so I will start from what things were like when I got my first job as an assistant lecturer in classics in the mid 1960s and during my time as a student in Oxford before that. It is an age ago, and things were very different then.

First some background information about myself and about the context. I got my first degree at Oxford (more later), and my first job was in language and literature in the Classics department at King’s College London. Then in 1970 I was very fortunate to move into a specifically ancient history job, of which there were then very few outside Oxbridge, and much much later, in 1989, into a post designated as late antique and Byzantine (when I started, Peter Brown was in Oxford, but he was in the history faculty and late antiquity hadn’t been invented yet). I did not imagine I would ever return to Oxford, but I came back in 1994 as the head (Warden) of Keble College, originally a men’s college, and I retired from Keble in 2010. So my own career was in two places, London and Oxford, punctuated by several stays in the US, at Columbia in New York, Princeton and Berkeley, with visits to other US universities including Duke, all of which had a hugely important impact on my development.  That is relevant because I believe profoundly that at least for a historian, a person’s own history and experience have an enormously important role in how they approach their subject, and in what subjects they are drawn to.

So class first; what was it like to be a working class classicist at the end of the 1950s?  I was at school in the 1950s, and amazingly got in to Oxford to read classics (then known as Greats, or Lit. Hum., from the course’s official name, Literae Humaniores) at Somerville College in 1958.  I grew up in Leek, a small town in North Staffordshire, much the same size today as it was then, though very different in terms of its economy and to a lesser extent its demography. My father spent his entire working life in a paper factory (we called it a paper mill), incidentally owned by the family to which Vera Brittain belonged. My mother did not have a job after they got married, and probably regretted it, but for my father it was a point of principle that his wife did not have to go out to work, and so she stayed at home. Her sister, who had no children, worked in a textile mill for most of her life, and I know my mother envied her the freedom. We lived in a typical two-up two-down terraced house with no bathroom and no hot water. I was the only pupil in my primary school to pass the 11 plus, and it was quite common for parents to say that if their children ‘passed the scholarship’ they would not let them go because the grammar school was ‘stuck up’ – more probably in fact because they would have to spend money on the uniform or because they expected them to leave school early and contribute to the household. Certainly it was quite common for children still living at home to be asked to pay rent to their parents. I must say that my own parents always supported me and encouraged me, but I still remember that I never had uniform from the recommended shop – usually it was homemade, or not quite right. As far as I was aware I was the only girl in the school with brown hockey boots instead of black, probably because my mother had got them in a sale (they were also too big) and not surprisingly I wasn’t very good at hockey. One of my ambitions was also to have real Kiltie sandals like my best friend Marjorie.

I got into Oxford because of two people – my classics teacher, who saw something in me and did everything she could to encourage it, and the late lamented Dr John Pinsent, a larger-than-life classics lecturer at Liverpool, who taught me Greek on a summer school to which my classics teacher had taken me and told me I had to go to Oxford and to choose Somerville (no mixed colleges then). I knew nothing about it, so I did what he said and when Cambridge offered me a scholarship I turned it down for Somerville. My parents were out of their depth, but they did everything they could for me, even though they must have known that going to Oxford would take me away from Leek and away from them.  That was in fact the case, and it’s sad. I well remember going back even during my first vacation and already feeling strangely out of place.

I will never forget the first evening in the dining hall at Somerville in 1958 – everyone else seemed to be talking in posh accents and to know everyone. In those days Somerville was very left wing, and there were several daughters of the Labour elite – for instance Gaitskell, Callaghan and Pakenham – as well as a daughter of Evelyn Waugh. But to be fair, the group of girls I met in my first week became lifelong friends and were not posh, though they did have very different backgrounds from mine. Also to be fair there were plenty of others from more modest backgrounds. I did try however to lose my accent – we all did then – and it was a long time before I felt comfortable enough to talk about my background.

Having later got to know large numbers of (male) ex-Keble graduates of my generation, I know that there in fact were very many men of that generation who got to university, including Oxbridge, from grammar schools, like I did, and were the first in their families to go to university. It is different now, but in my day grammar schools really were agents of social mobility, one of the very few possibilities there were. University was also free and there were state studentships which seemed to me pretty generous, even though my expenditure was certainly rather modest. I started at my small girls’ grammar school in 1950, only six years on from the Butler Education Act, and it had not been a grammar school for very long and had previously not been at all academic. In an earlier generation, my father was the only one of 10 children in his family who ‘passed the scholarship’ to the boys’ high school, but he had to leave at 14 because the family needed him to work like the others.

In classics at Oxford, the grammar school students were a minority (like the very small number of women) and  the impact of male public school classical training was very strong. In the first examination we had to do (Mods,, taken after five terms) men like my ex-husband who had been to top classical public schools had such excellent language skills (including writing Latin and Greek verses) that they could get first class results on hardly any new work. Names are invidious, but those in my year and the year above did include some extremely prominent classicists whose names you would certainly recognise. I did feel it was unfair, but all we could do was work terrifically hard to try to compensate. There were no fast track or non-linguistic university courses then, no classical civilisation, and few archaeology or ancient history courses except what was included in classics degrees.

It was the heavily linguistic structure of the course in the first year and a half that gave such an advantage to men who had had that training at school, but that was also enormously increased by the fact that then as now you had to belong to a college and the vast majority of the colleges were for men only. There were simply fewer women undergraduates in classics (with a ratio of only 1:10 overall across the university), and there were also fewer jobs in classics open to women. In ancient history there were only a tiny handful of jobs in universities outside Oxbridge anyway, not even many in London – only one at King’s College, for instance, the position occupied by Howard Scullard and shared between Classics and History. UCL had two or three in ancient history and a more established tradition, but ancient history was in history, not in the Greek or Latin departments.

Our female tutors at Somerville certainly did not discourage us from aiming high. But this was still the end of the fifties, and my impression is that the majority of Somerville leavers soon got engaged and married, if they weren’t engaged already (most of us didn’t live with each other then). Like me, most women classicists probably simply assumed that they would not be able to get an academic job.

Women in the 1950s were heavily socialized towards house and home, and the impact of the 60s and of early second-wave feminism was not felt for quite some time. The first Beatles single was released in 1963 but society did not really begin to loosen up until the later 1960s. By that time I had been married for several years and was very into housewifery and all that (one of our wedding presents was a copy of Mrs. Beaton’s cookbook). It is really hard now to overestimate the eye-opening effect of books like Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (1963) or Germaine Greer, The Female Eunuch, though that was not published until 1970. I don’t think I was aware of Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex until about then, and it seemed very French and intellectual; there was a great difference between feminism in America, France and the UK.   My recollection is that women’s studies in classics perhaps started with Sarah Pomeroy’s book Goddesses, Whores, Wives and Slaves, published in 1975, and it was much more a matter of ‘discovering’ ancient women rather than theorizing about them. Around the same time my great friend Elizabeth Clark, later at Duke University, was discovering early Christian women, but in those days they were not regarded as falling within classics, and so escaped attention from classicists. I co-edited Images of Women in Antiquity with Amélie Kurht of UCL only in 1983. But Betty Friedan really spoke to fifties women, not just in America; anyone who has seen the film Revolutionary Road, or read the book, will recognize what she was writing about.

I should also add that the arrival of the contraceptive pill, also in the 60s, had a transformative effect on gender relations and practice. Most of us were stuck before that in the era of panicking about getting pregnant – one of the girls in my year did, and had to leave university. The pill allowed us to be truly independent in a way hardly possible before.  If you want indications of the psychological conflicts of independent women pre-pill, you only have to think of the implications of the term ‘career woman’, or the case of Sylvia Plath, or Mary McCarthy’s novel, The Group, which came out in 1963.  But as I said, I was already married and had a child when the pill came along.

To go back to my own experience, like many of us, I got married as soon as I graduated, and followed my husband, who (unusually) left Oxford for an assistant lectureship at Glasgow. I started on a PhD because I could, not because I thought it would lead anywhere, and Glasgow gave me a scholarship to do it. But the university didn’t know what to do with me, and I was basically treated just as a very junior departmental spouse, very low down in the pecking order, in what was then a very hierarchical and traditional environment. Besides, I had come in the wrong direction. Usually, when there was a really good classicist at Glasgow they would be shipped down south to Oxford with a Snell Exhibition at Balliol – only open to men, of course.

Several things combined to change this for me. One was that my husband moved to a Latin job at Bedford College in London, and we moved south in 1964. The other was the Robbins Report of 1963, which recommended an expansion of universities, and led to more jobs being created. There were several openings in London colleges and I was able to apply; so did another Somerville friend, Caroline Barron, and we had similar experiences, though she is a medieval historian and not a classicist.

For instance, we were both openly excluded from shortlists on the grounds that our husbands already had jobs. According to Professor Robert Browning, a mentor at the time, I was removed from the shortlist for a job at Bedford College by its Principal because my husband already had a job there. It was also regarded as allowable to say that men needed the jobs more than women. I recently found the open testimonials I had for these applications, and my Somerville classics tutor made the priceless remark that I was ‘what is often called “the good Greats man”’. I evidently thought a testimonial from my headmistress would also be useful and she thought it relevant to say that I was ‘not priggish’. When I did get a job at King’s College the faculty dining room was still not open to women (there was a ‘Ladies Club’, but that was for wives of staff members), maternity leave was unheard of, there were no sabbaticals that I can remember, or lots of other things now taken for granted. There was little sense of professional progression either. My head of department took me out to lunch soon after I started there and told me I didn’t need to do any more research – perhaps he didn’t want the competition.

The other really key experience for me was spending a whole year teaching graduate school at Columbia, New York, in 1967-68, which was rather extraordinary given these circumstances. It was a mind-blowing year in lots of ways – anti-Vietnam, student demonstrations, and the shooting of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King –but especially for me because I met some female classicists who were beginning to work on women’s studies, and were setting up a women’s caucus to try to get better women’s representation on APA panels. I also had a new baby, and some of these women classicists were very helpful, especially Froma Zeitlin, later of Princeton, who was then a mature graduate student in my Tacitus class. The experience began to open my eyes to the possibility of a different way of doing classics, not trying to be like the men or taking on their ways of doing things, but it was a very long time until it was really possible to escape that even if it is now, and I’m not sure I ever did. In 1978 I became head of the Classics department at King’s College, and appointed Mary Beard to her first job there in 1979. Surprising though it may seem now, I remember that we both felt a bit squeezed out by the male environment of the London ancient history seminar, often dominated by Keith Hopkins who was then at Brunel, and we decided that we would get over it by each saying something at each seminar, even if it wasn’t anything brilliant.  I’ve often given that advice to other young women since, and it works.

I became the one of first women heads of former men’s colleges in Oxford in 1994, and I was glad that Keble was not one of the old traditional establishments with very strong public school connections. As I said, it had many grammar school students, and students who were the first in their families to go to university, like me, and the appointment process was down to earth, with no nonsense about wining and dining, very unlike what I had experienced elsewhere. Someone once said to me that Keble did not have many Etonians, not being one of the preferred colleges, but those it had were the nice ones. On the other hand I had got used to being the only woman or the youngest woman in various committees and so on (I have a splendid photo from 1970, of which I am rather proud, of myself in a miniskirt as one of the speakers at a symposium in Washington DC, surrounded by 8 or 9 much older men in dark suits). As a result I enormously underestimated the distance that Oxford still had to go in gender equality, and the fuss that the election would make, or the importance of my being there as a role model. Many of the male alumni were very nice to me, but I was frequently referred to as a ‘lady warden’, and invited to go and address their local associations about what it was like.

What difference have these experiences made to me?  You may be surprised to hear me say that my working class background did leave me with a lingering problem of confidence. Of course it improves with time and experience, but there was an awareness of difference that has lasted quite a long time and has not entirely gone. Imposter syndrome is a real experience for some of us.

Have things got better? Of course.  Most of what I have described could not openly happen now. But in some other ways, and especially in recent years, I feel things have deteriorated, and I find the current upsurge of male hostility to women deplorable.  I did often feel when I was involved in so many appointments and selections in the 1990s and 2000s that equality legislation was a great support, and I don’t want to see it dismantled in the name of neoliberalism or free markets and competition. It was sometimes uphill to get it accepted, but I’m sorry to say that without external pressure and indeed legislation, there is no inevitable path towards better conditions for women. We all need to work for it and work to keep it.


  1. June Dawson Samaras

    A realistic account of the educational system of that time, and of the potential opportunities provided to working class children by the old fashioned grammar schools

    I was fortunate to attend Westwood Hall 1955-1960 and still remember with gratitude the bevy of teachers there who took care to widen our horizons.

    June Sophia Wrathall introduced me to Latin but my weak grasp of grammar meant that I never graduated to her Greek classes – to my great regret when I met my Greek husband!

    I now live in Canada, but on my visits O still meet up with some of my Westwood girl friends

    Good memories , and a great education

  2. Froma Zeitlin

    wonderful piece by my dear friend, Averil, whom I got to know from that famous one-year eye-opener at Columbia so many years ago. And look what she has accomplished. I am so proud.

  3. Andrew W White

    As part of a younger generation, with a very different set of challenges, I can say that it’s inspiring to know that others who faced their own obstacles, have persevered and succeeded so famously.

    Today it’s a bit different, ironically, with men like myself at home raising the kids, while my wife is the chief bread-winner. Now that my son is grown, I’m very unsure of my prospects. But it’s wonderful to know that I went through a graduate program administered by women, and nobody questioned the set-up for a moment.

    There never should have been any question about a woman’s potential in the academy, and I hope that those silly questions will never be raised again.

  4. James Allan Evans

    This is a very interesting account. My own experience was much different. I was brought up on a farm in southern Ontario but the high school I attended in Guelph ( which now has a university of its own) still taught Greek as well as Latin, and I went on svhosrship to the University of Toronto, and from there on a fellowship to Yale, where I met the great Bradford Welles. Ended my career at the University of British Columbia where classics was dominated by the narcissistic Malcolm McGregor. Glad it’s over.

  5. Tsa

    That feeling of being an imposter has stayed with me too…I’m sorry to hear about your experiences as a “departmental spouse”. I can’t say that I’ve experienced anything quite like that but would definitely agree that there is quite some way to go to achieve equality.


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