Hurrah for boat race gender equality. Now what about class?

Let’s be clear: the boat race is still profoundly elitist


Today’s Oxford and Cambridge boat race will, for the first time, see women of the two universities permitted to race on the same course as the men and on the same day in front of a live television audience.

This is a step forward for gender equality and another blow to patriarchal assumptions that women are too ‘delicate’ for such sporting endeavours. As recently as 1962 the captain of Selwyn College at Cambridge wrote to the university’s women’s boat club to chastise them for perpetrating something that was “a ghastly sight, an anatomical impossibility and physiologically dangerous”.

But let’s be clear: the boat race is still profoundly elitist. We should all welcome the levelling of the playing field between men and women, but the next step is for Oxford and Cambridge – and by extension the boat race – to open themselves up more fully to those from non-privileged backgrounds.

Just one in 10 children who attend either Oxford or Cambridge are entitled to free school meals – compared with a fifth of children in Britain as a whole. A quick glance at some of the surnames which still dominate at Oxford makes the same point in a slightly different way. According to a 2013 study by the London School of Economics, a disproportionately large number of places at Oxford were taken up by people with Norman Conquest surnames such as Baskerville, Darcy, Mandeville and Montgomery.

This isn’t because a Norman surname is a sign of super intelligence; it’s because we live in a society where class privilege cascades down the generations like a tennis ball bouncing down a flight of stairs. More young people from the London borough of Richmond attend Oxford and Cambridge than from the entire city of Birmingham.

And so as much as today’s boat race may be a victory for gender equality, we should not ignore the class inequalities that persist at our top universities – and in society more generally – in a fit of liberal hubris. As I’ve written a number of times, equality isn’t a state of affairs that is half upper middle class women and half upper middle class men.

James Bloodworth is the editor of Left Foot Forward. Follow him on Twitter

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