Celebrating 25 Years of Women at College House
On October 9 we held a cocktail evening and celebrated a significant milestone in our history – 25 years since women students were first admitted within the white walls.
We were delighted to host over 50 women associated with CH from across the spectrum – former staff members who remember well the transition from single-sex to co-ed, alumni from that first 1990 year-group and through the 90’s, 2000’s as well as more recent alumni, current students and board members.
The event was well-supported by Passionberry, a fantastic cocktail company owned by Fiona McIntyre, a 1997-1998 alumna and her husband Jason. Passionberry kindly sponsored all our delicious strawberry cocktails served during the evening.
Our guest speaker for the night was Anna Wilkes, alumna 1994, tutor 1997-1998 and board member since 2005. You can find the full record of her wonderful speech below.
It quite alarms me to be standing here knowing that those of you who are current students of College House were not yet born when I was a student here.
My association with College House is not quite 25 years, but not far off. Yet I never tire of setting foot amongst these white concrete block walls, for even more than I feel a part of a College House, it is very much a part of me.
As a first year student in 1994, having recently returned from a Gap year in England, I was blissfully unaware that women were still relatively new to College House. In the four short years since women were first admitted in 1990, we had embedded ourselves into the culture and traditions that we know so well, and it was as if it had always been so.
Alas no, the admission of women to College House had involved the changing of an act of Parliament and was a protracted and painful process. The College House Act of 1985 is a private act “to amend the objects of College House to permit the admission of women as well as men, and to authorise the variation of the trusts attaching to certain funds established for the purposes of College House.” The trusts had of course been set up purely for the education of men.
It took a decade from the first board discussion in 1980 until the first 34 women arrived in 1990, mostly wearing Levi 501s, white linen shirts and a Country Road bag slung over their shoulder. Mothers all over the country were grateful that there would be someone on hand to show their lad how to operate a washing machine. And possibly an iron.
Obviously some necessary but subtle refinements to the male-dominated traditions were required. Sunday crate days were slowly refined into wine and cheese evenings, and cocktail functions have become more prevalent over the years. The dining hall floor took a beating from the stiletto heels.
A female streaker was appointed within hours of the first women arriving. Midnight fire drills took much longer than previously as people needed to rush back to their own house for the roll call. Rugby still dominated tv viewing, except when Friends or Beverley Hills 90210 was on.
Sadly some traditions were lost, the Christchurch Bathing Society’s activities lost their glory. The thrill of the chase to Bishop Julius, a women only hall at the time, to have a bath and steal the bath plug as their trophy, was not enough to impress the women of College House. Although thankfully a comprehensive collection of signed bathplugs has been kindly donated by the former members of the Society as evidence of their antics.
But the women of the 1990s were staunch – initiation was a far more gruesome affair than it is now, and no girly dispensions were granted; women downed as many bottles of food colouring as the boys in their preparations for the chunder mile – that is one tradition that is definitely not missed by anyone, not least the local residents who had inadvertently picked the wrong Sunday afternoon to take a stroll in Ilam Gardens.
Let us not forget the impact that the arrival of women had on the College House staff. While the reduction in men may have made life a bit easier for the House Mums – I never heard of any of the girls successfully persuading a House Mum to make their beds, yet a number of boys managed to achieve this – the kitchen staff suffered a dramatic increase in workload with the arrival of the Parnell Vegetarians. Gluten free, dairy free, fat free, fun free or any particular combination, it all went out the window when it was steak and cheese pie, chocolate self-saucing pudding or anything involving bacon. To all the kitchen staff, I salute you for your patience and tenacity.
In 2007, we welcomed Laraine Sharr as the first female principal of College House. The title of BM slipped easily from Boss Man to Boss Ma’am. Laraine’s unflappable style and poise made her an ideal role model for the women of the house, but also gave the young men of the House a bold initiation into abiding by the command of a woman; odds on in their careers they will more than likely have a female boss at some stage.
Women have most definitely made their mark on College House, and College House women are making their mark on the world. To name but a few of my contemporaries:
Sharon McCaw, now Zollner – Senior Economist at the ANZ Bank; Sarah Shepherd – completed a civil engineering degree and went on to become a textile artist creating costume fabrics for films such as the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe; Claire Trevett – Political Editor at the NZ Herald, only journalist chosen to accompany John Key on his historic visit to Balmoral Castle; former screaming banshee who was locked in the College House bikesheds for several hours for throwing a bucket of water over the groundsman as he walked beneath her window…
Some say that the friends you make at school will be your friends for life. I say not true. The friends you make at College House will be your friends for life. My closest friends are scattered across the world; I met them all while I was a student or tutor here. Not one of them has a bad thing to say about the time they spent here. In fact, any mention of College House and a barrage of ‘remember when’ stories unfold and typically end in fits of laughter. We have all chosen different paths in life and the things that we value are different. But what is most valuable to us all is the deep bond of our friendship; regardless of the miles between us, or the time that has passed since we last caught up, we just pick up where we left off.
There are special times ahead for College House. This year is the dawn of a new era. Now in our 165th year, we have 159 students, the most we’ve ever had, thanks to the addition of Maidment House as part of the rebuilding of main block, the kitchen and dining hall. It was a thrilling sight to see the art recently reinstated in the dining hall, that to me, marked its completion. We can now turn our attention to the chapel where there is much to do before we can use it again.
We would love to see the numbers of women increase back to the 50/50 ratio we achieved several years ago. You are our best ambassadors, and word of mouth is our most valuable marketing tool. So take any opportunity that presents itself to share your CH experience with younger women who may be considering studying at Canterbury, invite them to come and take a look, meet with Alistair, and see for themselves what College House can offer. As we all know, it’s a very special place.
So on that note, let us get on with the business of celebrating 25 wonderful years of women at College House, and many more to come. Please, charge your glasses, and toast the future of College House.