From the Master: 40 years of coeducation

“You have shared bathrooms?!” says a prospective parent with raised eyebrows and just a hint of alarm on Open Day. The Ormond student leading the tour almost struggles to understand the question, because it seems so normal to them that College bathrooms operate like those in homes and share-houses. Living together in a co-residential community – and all that means, from the domestic details of bathrooms onwards – is simply normal at Ormond.

40 years ago, what is so normal today was a bold social experiment. In 1973, Ormond was thefirst of the large all-male colleges to admit women to residence. The first male colleges of Oxford and Cambridge would not begin this process for another year or two and would not complete it until 1988. Here in Australia there are still all-male colleges.

Women, of course, have played an important role in the life of Ormond College from its earliest days. They are very visible in 19th-century photos of the College’s honours scholars, where they are present in almost equal numbers to men. Some of the College’s great early tutors, like Katie Lush, were women. Nevertheless, co-residence meant men and women were now members of the College on the same terms.

40 years on from those pioneering years, when the rst, small cohort of women started the process to establish those equal terms, their daughters and sons enter a College with equal numbers of men and women at all levels, equivalent honours given to women’s and men’s sport and parallel levels of achievement in every eld.

If we take a historic view of gender relations, then the creation of a healthy co-residential environment in less than a generation is a project of human community creation truly worth celebrating. Perhaps at the very centre of what we should celebrate are the deep lifelong friendships between men and women that co-residence has produced.

The special nature of these relationships we sometimes know by the way they can unnerve those who haven’t learned the life-enriching skill of human intimacy without sexuality.

Celebration should not be a cause for complacency. Today we are asked new and enduring questions of gender and sexuality. I will touch on a couple of these questions here. Some you will nd further explored in articles in this edition of New & Old. It is not so much that we know the answers, but we think they are important questions.

Women leave Ormond and the University every bit as qualified as men and have done so for long enough that we would expect more equivalent career outcomes than we find. Is there more we need to be doing to prepare both women and men for a world where there are still invisible barriers to equal outcomes for women? Are there more profound questions we should be asking about what we want from life and careers?

As we strive for equality, what should we be doing to honour the distinctive experiences of men and women? There is a strong felt need among women and men at Ormond today to create a place to explore what it means to be a man or a woman in our times.

Equally, in a world where coming of age for men and women is no longer governed for most by traditional or religious ritual, is there something we have lost that we should be replacing and, if so, how? My answer to this question can be found in my speech for the Valedictory Dinner 2013 – Coming of Age.

As we have seen with the rapidly evolving debate on marriage equality, Western societies are asking important questions not just about gender but also about sexuality. As a co-residential community, we take pride in the fact that we are seen as a place that is safe and supportive for young men and women to explore what their sexuality means for them.

As a College which has been a leader in creating a co-residential environment for university students, it is important that we ask these questions and seek to answer them. The strength of our history is that we know we can ask uncomfortable, even unsettling questions about gender and sexuality and become stronger by doing so.


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