An interview with our first female JCR President, Ginny Knox (1982, History) by our current JCR President Ellie Hall (2019, History)
It was a pleasure to have the opportunity to speak to Ginny Knox, who in the early 1980s was the first woman to take on the role of JCR President. I found it incredibly interesting to discover the similarities and differences between our roles across nearly 40 years. Some highlights included the comparison of our committee sizes (from just 5 core members in the ‘80s to the 20+ strong group we have now), how similar the structures of our weeks were (even more so as two History students!), and what bops, then known as college discos, were like! I was proud to be able to tell Ginny that being a woman JCR President at Merton is no longer so unusual, and that I am following two consecutive and wonderful women leaders who were amongst the many to have grown from the foundations she built. While it was in some ways comforting to hear about how much the life of a JCR President has remained the same, speaking to Ginny and learning about the difference she made has inspired me to keep pushing for further change.
Ellie Hall: How did your time growing up in Istanbul help to prepare you for the potential culture shock of coming to Oxford from a comprehensive school in West Sussex? Can you tell us a bit about your journey to Merton?
Ginny Knox: I was a young girl when we went to Istanbul, and we were only there for 2 years. However, I do think it helped me in life to learn to enjoy, rather than fear, the challenge of new and alien environments, where I'm not quite in control. I still love exploring new cultures, especially if I can't speak the language!
EH: It is impressive that you became JCR President in the early 1980s, so soon after women were first admitted to Merton. Can you take us through the election process? Was there anything in particular that inspired you to run?
GK: Well, I guess there was maybe a subconscious factor, in that my father had been Merton JCR President in the 1950s, and I was always pretty competitive with him. But really, I think that a number of us thought there should be a female candidate, and my friend Anna Curzen wouldn't run, so in the end it was down to me.
EH: What was the reaction (from men and women peers, tutors, people in other colleges, and family) when you won the election?
GK: I don't think anybody thought it was very extraordinary. It was time. The oddest thing really is that there weren't any female members of the SCR and there was also a very small minority of women in the student body. The only strange reaction I ever had to being a woman was when I was asked (years after having left Merton) to make a speech at the first Gaudy I was invited back to. A number of year groups from the 1970s were also invited, and this was a decade when there had been a student campaign to keep women out. It was rumoured that there was a move afoot to stage a walk-out when I stood up to speak. I was nervous, but in the end, it all came to nothing.
EH: What was the greatest challenge you faced as a woman leading your peers and representing the mixed student body to the college?
GK: I'm not conscious of there being particular challenges because I was a woman. Maybe there were, but at the time, my main issue was finding enough hours in the day.
EH: Your proudest achievement as JCR President was persuading the college to add unisex bathrooms on staircases in Mob Quad, and remove the urinals, meaning that women could live in rooms there. What was the process of achieving that goal?
GK: I seem to remember that it was much easier than you would think. It was more a question of pointing out to the College authorities that it wasn't feasible for a woman to live on a staircase with just a urinal. I don't think it had occurred to anyone before! I also managed to get all the college bedrooms fitted with long mirrors in much the same way.
EH: You have thrived in environments where women have traditionally been underestimated, including Oxford and the business world. What are your tips for earning legitimacy from male colleagues in these spaces?
GK: Know your stuff, stand up for what you believe in and don't feel you have to make a noise if you haven't got anything to say.
EH: How do you guard against self-doubt when you are a minority within certain spaces?
GK: Frankly, it's very difficult. Without a doubt, men and women tend to approach problems and conflict in different ways, and a "female way" can come across as weaker. I have had to give myself some stern talkings-to. It has also helped to have good friends, male and female, who have counselled me.
EH: Managing the role of JCR President and being a full-time student isn’t always the easiest job. How did you manage to juggle student-College relations whilst also going about your academic life?
GK: Yes, it was hard – particularly since I also switched courses at the time, so I had extra academic work. I think it would probably have been OK without that extra complication. I don't know whether this is still the case, but in my day, you did the JCR President job at Merton in the 2nd year, rather than the 3rd, as in most other colleges. I thought that was very sensible.
EH: Did you think this was made any more difficult because you are a woman (for example, people expecting you to be readily available, less assertive of personal boundaries etc.)? Or because you were the first woman president?
GK: No, not really. I do remember feeling the pressure of thinking I needed to be funnier than I naturally am though. The previous JCR president seemed very witty and more of a confident showman.
EH: When you left office, did you have any particular hopes for your successors, or any changes you hoped would follow?
GK: Well I spent a lot of time as President campaigning (and failing) to secure JCR representation on College bodies. I hoped that would come soon after I left.
EH: What advice would you give to future women about to take on the role of JCR President?
GK: Enjoy it! It is a great privilege to be given an inside view on a place as impressive and amazing as Merton College.
EH: How did your time at Merton, especially as a trailblazing JCR President, prepare you for your working life?
GK: Probably the most useful thing my experience gave me was an idea that time is in some way flexible, and if you want to or have to, you can squeeze an almost infinite amount of jobs into the available time! This has served me well and stopped me from panicking in times of extreme pressure.
EH: Is there one thing in your career which you are the most proud of?
GK: There's not really one particular thing. I was very happy in Ranks Hovis McDougall to be running a company which was doing an outstanding job and where most people involved were proud to be a part of it.
EH: What led you from History to the hospitality industry?
GK: Well, really, it was History to food marketing. My move to hospitality is only very recent. Food has always been my passion and had in fact been the determining factor in my application to Merton! History has taught me to marshal an argument and find the salient facts in mountains of information. I found those pretty useful skills in the world of fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG). So, things were more linked than they looked. My recent move into tourism, with my husband Jim, was born out of another lifelong obsession: the North of Scotland. I think it is extremely important to do things that really light your fire.
EH: Do you have a favourite memory of Merton?
GK: The gardens in summer and sitting on one of those seats in the wall in the Fellows’ Garden, looking over the Meadows. What could be more perfect?
EH: Is there anything that you are surprised about when reflecting on Merton (for example, how much or little it might have changed, things you anticipated happening that did or didn’t)?
GK: I am delighted that Merton and other colleges now reflect a normal gender split, rather than the tokenism of my day. In particular, it is brilliant that we have had two female wardens. I have remained very disappointed with Oxford as a whole, however, in its attempts to attract and accept state school applicants. I read that in 2020 the proportion of state school students in the intake has risen to around 70%. On the one hand, this is infinitely better than the approximately 56% in 1982, when I arrived. On the other hand, it is woefully short of 93% - the proportion of all kids in the UK who attend state schools. Come on Oxford. You are better than this!