Jane Atkinson: The First Female Resident at New College
In 2017, the resident population of New College is roughly a half split of males and females. Wind back the clock to 1973, and the halls of college would have looked, sounded and likely smelt vastly different.
Jane Atkinson was New College’s first ever female resident. The College opened in February 1969 with a full intake of 210 male students. When Rev Dr Stuart Barton Babbage became Master in 1973 he recommended that the College become co-ed, with the first women admitted in 1974.
As the woman who drove this significant change in the history of the community, we were curious to find out where life has taken Jane, and to hear her reflections on her era at New College as the first female.
Where did you grow up?
I was born and grew up in Leeton; a small town in the Murrubidgee Irrigation Area. For those who don’t know that area, Leeton is not quite midway between Griffith and Wagga… sort of! I now live in Albury and have taught at The Scots School Albury for a number of years.
What did the process of applying to live at New College involve for you? What were your years of residency?
I was a Collegian from 1973 to 1975.
Towards the end of my HSC year, my brother informed me that Phil Grouse, the Dean of New College was looking for someone to help his wife Margaret with the children and with their housework. He asked if I was interested and naturally I said ‘yes’. I didn’t really have an interview but I did meet Phil and I suppose I must have made some impression as I became their babysitter, cleaner, and ironing lady. I learned quite a lot in that year in addition to my academic education. It was a bit like a gap year while studying.
What is your favourite memory from your time at New?
I think the people I lived with are my favourite aspect of living in New College. I made a number of very good lifelong friends. We supported each other, studied together, celebrated lots of birthdays, went out to dinner parties, and talked about many things and so on.
What is your funniest memory from your time at New?
In hindsight, one thing stands out as quite funny (or perhaps a little sad in hindsight) but I think the outcome would be quite different now, were the same thing to happen again.
In this early period of New’s existence, it had been a men’s only college so there were no women’s sports teams. I had played hockey at school and enjoyed the game immensely so during dinner one night, I boldly wandered up to the coach and asked if I could play on the men’s team. As one would imagine he was aghast! Women could not keep up with men in that era, in sport, academics, or anything really! When I said “How about I try out?’ he eventually relented. If I could keep up with the men on the team, I could be a member of the team. This was a very bad decision from his point of view.
After dinner, we went on a block run around the campus perimeter. I figured if I could stay with the fastest one or two runners, I’d be OK. It worked out to be a good plan. As we approached the south and final stretch along Anzac Parade to the front door of New, most of the team and the coach were way behind the three of us who were leading. I suppose ‘good manners’ kicked in and I contemplated the impact on the first two runners of a first year girl beating them so I allowed one to pass me just before the door. The other remained behind me. I was concerned that they would be given a difficult time over being beaten by me. Today I’d be quite happy to hold my place and stay ahead of them all. I think I gained a bit of respect from that run. At least I was no longer that timorous little girl anymore!
How would your experience differ from a girl currently living at New College?
Naturally, as the only girl in the college and a student who participated in the full life of the college, it was a rather unique experience. Prior to my arrival, many of the students found it amusing to engage in the odd food fight to express their annoyance about whatever the current gripe was. I think that having a female student eating in the dining room, playing sport in a newly ‘mixed’ team, studying with close friends in a range of places had an impact on all students. I was unaware of this until someone commented on the fact that there had been no food fights all year. I had no idea that these had ever occurred!
Another thing that makes quite a difference in terms of then and now is that now women at university have such a wide range of courses that they can study. While there were female law and med students in the 1970s, it was generally quite difficult to study some disciplines. Generally, teaching, nursing or being a bank-teller were acceptable for girls. The belief that ‘girls can’t do mathematics’ or the engineering subjects has, thankfully, mostly disappeared. However, it still exists once a woman gets into the workforce and can be seen in pay disparities and other discriminatory actions. Women today have high expectations of themselves and have been encouraged to push for what they want to study and achieve.
What have some milestones been since living at NC?
I am very proud to have participated in the U.N. Committee on the Status of Women in New York City in 2003 as an NGO representative. There were hundreds, perhaps even thousands of women there. This involved reading and advising on international law, meeting Kofi Annan, the U.N. Secretary General and his wife, attending lectures and a range of other activities. I was absolutely stunned to see a former student of mine at the same Committee and later when we were in one workshop together I was humbled to have a roomful of women congratulate me on this young lady’s education and competence.
I was also awarded a scholarship from the German Academic Exchange (DAAD) in 2008 as part of my law studies. I was able to go to Germany, Luxemburgh and France to observe the various European Courts, EU Parliament and the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. We were lectured by a range of University lecturers from all over Germany. Again, one of my former students was in the group and two friends of another former student of mine also participated. They ‘knew all about me’ despite this former student being completely unaware of my participation in that Winter law school. What a small world!
Jane is currently training multiple times a week for the upcoming 2017 Australian National Dragon Boat Racing National Championships. She is also involved in several different groups related to mental health, homelessness and multicultural inclusiveness.