Anne Whiteman

Sir Reginald Blomfield’s Talbot Hall at Lady Margaret Hall, as seen from the main quad

Sir Reginald Blomfield’s Talbot Hall at Lady Margaret Hall, as seen from the main quad

(c) Wikicommons, Zagoury

Generations of undergraduates, especially of Lady Margaret Hall, will remember Anne Whiteman, or more probably ‘Miss Whiteman’, History Tutor of the college from 1946 to 1985. Much of what was best about the post-war Oxford environment was embodied in her vivid personality and strongly-held values, which remain instructive even in a world that has moved on. In her memoir for the British Academy of the historian Lucy Sutherland, the Principal of LMH who died a year after the university’s general transition, in 1979, to collegiate co-residence, Whiteman noticed the difficulty which the end of the clear distinction between men’s and women’s colleges would pose to the imagination of historians, who might find it ‘increasingly difficult to reconstruct the character of those successful assertions of women’s claim to enjoy a university education’ for which Sutherland had stood. Whiteman stood for it too, though the perspective she and Sutherland shared was distant from the feminism that has flourished in Oxford since the 1970s.

Sutherland, who became Principal the year before Whiteman’s own arrival as a tutor, was something of a role model for her. Both were products of Somerville, where Whiteman encountered her as a tutor, and both remained Somervillians at heart, committed to the intellectual seriousness of ‘the women’s Balliol’. Though Whiteman did important and lasting historical research on the seventeenth century she was not quite the intellectual equal of Sutherland, who became a leading historian of the eighteenth century despite being told at the outset of her career by the Regius Professor of History, H.W.C. Davis, that there was ‘no need for further work’ on the period. Harold Macmillan, the Prime Minister, offered Sutherland the same chair in 1957. She would have loved to accept, but yielded to the convention that heads of colleges do not hold professorships. The rule differentiates Oxford from Cambridge, which consequently has a narrower ruling class. In her place Macmillan appointed his second choice, Hugh Trevor-Roper.

Anne Whiteman, 1953

Anne Whiteman, 1953

It is often observed that the horizons of male historians who did wartime public service were broadened by it. The same was true of Sutherland and Whiteman, the first as a highly-placed civil servant and policy-maker, the second as a Flight Officer in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (the WAAF). Whiteman became an expert in the interpretation of reconnaissance photography, did outstanding work in North Africa and Italy, and was mentioned in dispatches in 1943. As a colleague observed, ‘only the custom of not promoting women in the technical branches of the Service’ prevented fitting recognition. Though her passion for scholarship brought her back to Oxford as a graduate student in 1945, she would have made a supremely capable civil servant or political adviser had she remained in the outside world.

Sutherland had enchanted the Oxford Union as an undergraduate in 1926, and by all accounts changed many of her hearers’ minds, by her speech in opposition to a light-hearted motion that ‘the women’s colleges should be levelled to the ground’. But next year, as Whiteman’s memoir relates, she ‘listened from the gallery in the Sheldonian to a debate of a very different kind’, when Congregation discussed the limitation that was long placed on the number of women undergraduates. Opinions voiced in the debate, records Whiteman in a rare public intimation of her own feelings on the subject, ‘deeply shocked and angered’ Sutherland, who ‘was henceforth firmly committed to defending the position of women in Oxford, and to strengthening the institutions women had developed against so much open or covert opposition.’

It was only during the two women’s time at LMH that basic barriers were lifted. Only from the early 1950s did the women’s colleges, which until then had been administered by councils on which men sat, become fully self-governing, and only in 1959 were they granted full collegiate status. Women could not become MAs until 1948, or full members of the Oxford Union until 1963. Until 1952 their names were published separately in the examination class lists. The quota restricting undergraduate women numbers was lifted only in 1957, by which time the post-war expansion of the male undergraduate population had made their proportion even lower than between the wars. Women dons were a small or non-existent presence on examining and electoral boards and among the cadres of university officers and administrators.

Sutherland and Whiteman were not ideologues or crusaders. They greeted women’s advances without triumphalism, their reverses without complaint or a sense of victimhood. They operated courteously within existing structures and conventions. In their minds the cause of women was never an overriding commitment, to be separated from the university’s wider educational and communal obligations. They would have found the idea of ‘positive discrimination’ repellently patronizing.

The existing practices did enable the heads of women’s colleges to become powerful figures in the running of the university. Sutherland soon became one, as did Janet Vaughan at Somerville. It was harder for their subordinates. There is no obvious parallel to Whiteman’s career among the Oxford women of her generation. She sat on the university’s ruling council for 16 years, was Chairman of the Faculty Board, Chairman of the Examiners, and a long-serving and influential Curator of the Bodleian. She was the first woman Proctor, though it would be some years before women in the post were allowed that title.

She was a force outside the university too, not least as a highly respected JP, before whose keen and shrewd eyes on the Oxford magistrate’s bench a succession of malefactors and their counsel discovered what so many undergraduates learned while reading essays to her, that you could never get anything past her or slide over weaknesses in your case. Beyond Oxford her most significant post was as a long-serving member, and for a time Vice-Chairman, of the University Grants Committee, the buffer body between the state and the universities which channelled university funding. It was swept aide in 1989, its functions soon swallowed by the Higher Education Funding Council, which has crushed the spirit of autonomy in universities and placed them permanently at the state’s mercy. She warned that this would happen, and it did.

In her earlier years at the college, LMH was a small institution, with a ceiling of 150 undergraduates and with the Fellows in single figures. She watched it grow in numbers and buildings and confidence. Then, in 1974, the university’s transition to collegiate co-residence began. It was an alarming moment for her. In the years ahead co-residence would greatly increase the number of Oxford’s women undergraduates. It would also adapt the university to the social patterns of the young, to whom segregated education seemed increasingly artificial. But it was in essence a market move by the men’s colleges, which saw their chance to lure the best female applicants. Everyone knew that the women’s colleges, whether they stayed single-sex or went mixed themselves, would be hit by the change, disadvantaged as they were by their peripheral geographical situations, their want of historical and architectural grandeur, and their financial poverty. The men’s colleges did intend to stagger the transition so as to give the women’s colleges time to adjust. But by 1979 the plan had broken down and the rush to co-residence had prevailed. LMH responded boldly, moving quickly to take male undergraduates and appoint male dons. To Whiteman, whose commitment to the cause of women’s education was tied to a vision of its institutional history and character, the alteration was a fundamental blow.

Having lost the battle, she characteristically resolved to help make the change work. With her impregnable discretion she had made sure that her opposition was unknown outside the college. Loyalty and the self-effacing service of institutions were unshakeable principles in her mind. There was never a hint of ego, or of immodesty. The compulsory careerism and competitiveness which the state now imposes on academics was foreign to her generation, when salary arrangements and terms of service were uniform and when tutors rarely contrived to get externally-funded research leave or risked the vulgarity of intellectual stardom.

She was fascinated by the working of institutions and by their interaction with personalities. It delighted her to watch people who had seemed unpromising material for office-holding

Dame Lucy Sutherland

Dame Lucy Sutherland

being stretched and fulfilled by it and their sense of public spirit developed. But there was nothing idolatrous about her respect for institutions, which she knew must be kept up to the mark. She was an instinctive Tory, but of a reforming kind. She had no time for the idleness and complacency that can shelter behind institutional customs and forms. One reason she liked teaching Tocqueville’s L’Ancien Regime to first-year undergraduates was its warning against the separation of privilege from responsibility. The pertinence of the past to the present, and the recurrence of historical patterns, were innate to her thinking, as to that of other historians who had participated in the living history of wartime. Her influential doctoral thesis, written in the years of the Attlee government, asked why another opportunity for post-war radical reform had been missed, in this case by the Restoration Church, which, having seen its weaknesses exposed by the assault of the Puritans, failed to put its house in order after their defeat.

In her scheme of values, research, which in appointments now comes top, had somehow to be fitted between the demands of teaching and administration. Yet she found time, much of it in long evenings, for the heroic scholarship behind her monumental edition of the Compton Census, the survey conducted under the Restoration regime to discover the nation’s religious allegiances. Her study began as an investigation of religious conformity and nonconformity but evolved into a major contribution to the burgeoning study of demography. Always her interest in the past was concrete. Not much drawn to the history of ideas, and immune to the shift in the humanities from the study of things towards the exploration of words, she liked to know about practical decision-making and the way things got done. A model book for her was Geoffrey Parker’s The Army of Flanders and the Spanish Road (1972), which analysed the strategic and logistical realities behind the ideological clamours of the wars of religion. Behind her enthusiasm for it one sensed the memory of wartime map-reading.  

There was always something of the officer about Whiteman, who was occasionally nick-named ‘the colonel’. I remember sitting an afternoon Finals paper in a heatwave and hearing her, in her invigilator’s robes, announce with military precision, her voice carrying across the hall that - as a concession to the extremity of the weather - gentlemen might remove their jackets, but that if we did so we must put our gowns back over our shirts. There was no nonsense about loosening our collars.

Perhaps I have made her sound forbidding. In reality she could be extremely good fun, sparkling and witty in conversation and contriving to be elliptically mischievous, without a trace of malice, about the foibles of her colleagues. She had wide musical and artistic interests, an informed love of the natural world, and a fondness for Italy which dated from the end of the war, when, waiting in Naples for a repeatedly postponed flight home, she lived in a well-appointed palazzo and went night after night to the opera.

She was also warmly affectionate, immensely proud of her pupils’ successes, and profoundly humane. The male bachelor don, living in his college and married to it and devoted to his pupils, is a familiar historical image. Whiteman was something like a female equivalent, ever alive to the insecurities of youth, always ready with encouragement for diffident or struggling pupils and with whisky and sympathy for distraught ones. Though not dogmatic on the subject, she questioned whether the unstinting demands made on dons by term-time were compatible with child-rearing or with the growing claims of family life on weekends and evenings. The sentiment belonged to a world which became unsustainable and has duly vanished - but one whose aims and achievements in the education of women may be too easily forgotten.

-Blair Worden

Emeritus Fellow of St Edmund’s Hall, Oxford