October 14, 1920, was the day when women first were granted degrees by the University. One week earlier, they had been matriculated: their admission took place within the Vice-Chancellorship of Herbert Blakiston, who had been a resolute opponent of granting degrees to women (he also, as President of Trinity, resisted strong government pressure to admit Indian undergraduates ... the lucky fellows went to Balliol instead). It must have been striking to sit in the Sheldonian Theatre and to hear the ancient formula grammatically adapted: "Dominae, scitote vos in matriculam Universitatis hodie relatas esse" (how was it pronounced? Dommi-nee, sigh-toe-tea vos in may-trick-you-lamb You-nee-virsy-tay-tiss hod-eye-ee ree-lay-tass essee?)
I regard their Admission to Degrees at the Ancient House of Congregation the following week, a century ago today, as a most significant advance for the weaker and humbler sex, that is, for us chaps.
It created for us the delectable possibility of proposing Matrimony to a woman who was a graduate of this University, Domina et Magistra.
Back in 1920, Dorothy Sayers pulled strings to ensure that she was one of the first batch of women to be 'done at that memorable ceremony. Later, in her Gaudy Night, where she marries off Lord Peter Wimsey, Harriet Vane's final acceptance of his addresses is made to evoke a University ceremony. In Wimsey, the once-male University affirms and respects the full status and integrity of women within the ancient continuum of the English and European academy.
Wimsey and Vane have emerged from a concert in Balliol (the institution which occasioned the best joke ever made about the architecture of an Oxford college, C'est magnifique mais ce n'est pas la gare) and they are walking down New College Lane to 'send their love to London River' ... 'the light wind fluttering their gowns as they walked'.
She stood still; and he stopped perforce and turned towards her. She laid both hands upon the fronts of his gown, looking into his face while she searched for the word that should carry her over the last difficult breach.
It was he who found it for her, With a gesture of submission he bared his head and stood gravely, the square cap dangling in his hand.
The Proctor, stumping grimly past with averted eyes, reflected that Oxford was losing all sense of dignity. But what could he do? If Senior Members of the University chose to stand--in their gowns, too!--closely and passionately embracing in New College Lane right under the Warden's windows, he was powerless to prevent it. He primly settled his white bands and went upon his walk unheeded; and no hand plucked his velvet sleeve.
(The Proctors patrolled the streets to keep order among the undergraduates; and at degree ceremonies performed a ritual walk among the Regent Masters to enable any Master to veto the graduation of a supplicant by plucking a proctorial sleeve. 'Placet' is the formal ceremonial assent to a formal proposal.)