April 2016 Women's Sport at Selwyn: Straight Out of the Blocks
In the second of our feature articles, undergraduate Sophie Penney looks at women's involvement in sport at Selwyn, and how the Sirens Club came to be founded.
As soon as they arrived at Selwyn in 1976, women students became part of Selwyn's sporting life. These women had played sport at school and it seemed only natural to continue at university. At first, there wasn't a developed competition structure for many women's sports – beyond rowing – but these tournaments quickly developed, with university-level sport bridging the gap. Symbolizing the arrival of female sport at Selwyn, above all, was the Sirens club. Created in 1979, this club showed the prowess and success of Selwyn's sporting women, giving them the respect they deserved, outside the shadow of the Hermes club.
Initially, the women's boat club (SCWBC) was at the centre of female students' involvement in sport. In rowing, divisions were quickly set up, making it one of the easiest sports for women to take part in at a college level. Many were very keen to try the sport that is so synonymous with Cambridge. Christina Coates, who matriculated with the first year of women at Selwyn in 1976, rowed for Blondie in her second year and was SCWBC captain in her final year. She told me more about the beginnings of the women's boat club: 'The boat club were extremely welcoming and friendly, right from the start…We had an experienced rower in Charlotte Carey so she became captain of SCWBC and helped organise us into crews. The men helped with coaches and organising outings.' Since three other colleges went mixed at the same time as Selwyn, women's divisions were immediately created in the Lent and May bumps, and similar competitions emerged in other sports.
The attitude of Selwyn staff and male students towards the involvement of women in college sport seems to have been incredibly supportive. Once again, the boat club was 'a leader in the inclusion', says Fiona Morrison (1976), SCWBC vice-captain and the first Selwyn woman to be awarded a blue. 'I never experienced any sexism: the whole Boat Club welcomed the women with open arms.' Fiona is adamant that it was not about 'letting' women do sport: 'we were just new students and did everything.' Christina affirmed Fiona's positivity: 'I was unaware of anything anti-women in sporting attitudes. As far as I was concerned we were encouraged at every step in a friendly and supportive way…Maybe some men thought we were a seven-day wonder and would give up when it got cold, but as we became successful they changed their tune.' And Gill Phillips (1977), who rowed for SCWBC and played university lacrosse, also appreciated the encouragement from her male counterparts: 'There was a lot of support from men for the women's boat club. A lot of them came in to train us; they put a lot of time into helping and coaching us.'
Senior figures in the college also played an important role in encouraging women's sport. Fiona noted that 'the Master, Owen Chadwick, together with the Senior Tutor, David Harrison, was visionary. He led the way, very visibly. Equality was assured and taken for granted. I realise now how lucky we were to have the two of them with that attitude and approach.' Such support was on display, too during Anna Rich's (1992) time at Selwyn, when one of the fellows joined Anna and other students on the college football team. Anna was also the Selwyn hockey captain, a member of the university football team, and a college netball player too. “In my third year our netball team was incredibly successful,” she told me. “We had one GB player and four county players, helping us to win the cup and be undefeated all year. To celebrate our achievements, the master invited the whole team to dine at high table at formal as a public show of support for our success.'
In Anna's time, there was still great support from the men and the rest of the college, with crowds of fifty gathering to watch their cup final game. 'If any team did well, whether it was the fourth boat or the men's football team, people went down to support. I refereed the boys hockey matches and the boys coached some of the girls teams, so there was a sense of wanting to help each other out.'
Only sixteen years on from women's admission, Selwyn's sporting life already seemed similar to what it is now. There were roughly equal numbers of male and female students, and women could do any sport they wanted at college level. Anna proudly noted that Selwyn didn't have combined teams with other colleges, managing to field a team in every sport, including women's football. There were also occasional mixed matches in college, and mixed university level sports were becoming increasingly popular, bridging the remains of the gender gap.
But if SCWBC had served as the original core, the Sirens Club would bring attention and recognition to women's sport at Selwyn as a whole. Fiona was the first president and Gill and Christina were both founding members of Sirens – created as a female equivalent to the Hermes. An increasing number of Selwyn women were becoming successful in sport at a university level, and they felt that this prowess should be recognised. Thus Sirens was a real step forward, Christina says: ‘Once Sirens was established it marked the full arrival and acceptance of women in sport within the college.’ Gill explains: 'We were fed up of being invited to the Hermes cocktail parties as guests, instead of having our own party. So we set up the Sirens, having an inaugural cocktail party in the year of its foundation.' But it was about much more than a cocktail party: 'Sirens was a statement, establishing a specific identity for women in sport. At the time the boat club could be dominant, but Sirens recognised women doing other sports at a high level as important. It brought people of all sports together. It showed that the women could stand up and be counted on their own, and that there was a lot to be proud of.'
By the time Anna matriculated in 1992 Sirens seemed like it had been around for a long time. 'Sirens was a very respected club, lots of people were keen to sign up, many for the social scene that it provided – it was about joining people together.' Sirens also seemed to be well integrated with the Hermes, having a joint dinner once a year, just as we have now.
The overriding impression, talking to these alumnae, is that sport was a very important part of their university experience, as it is for so many women today. They appreciate the fact that Selwyn sport was made available and accessible to them from the start, and that their sporting passion was met with such enthusiasm. Selwyn sport clearly set an excellent example in terms of accepting women into the community, celebrating their success, and supporting the development of gender equality.
Sophie Penney is a third year undergraduate reading Modern and Medieval Languages.
See more pictures like this in our Facebook album, "Women in Sport at Selwyn".