Photo: Rachael Padman (6K)





Dr Rachel Padman, who says she is willing to resign if colleagues are unhappy about her

Photo: Germaine Greer (8K)

Greer. "We feel we have been made monkeys of"

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Tuesday June 24th, 1997

Fellow who had sex change divides all-women college


THE sole remaining all-female college at Cambridge University has broken 126 years of tradition by admitting to its fellowship a woman who started life as a man.

The decision to admit Dr Rachel Padman, 43, as a Fellow of Newnham College has caused discord among senior academics, including Germaine Greer, the leading feminist who is a member of the college's governing body.

Although Dr Padman, a physicist specialising in star formation, underwent a sex-change operation to become a woman in 1982, legally she remains a man. According to the statutes of the college, which was founded in 1871, all fellows must be women.

Although Dr Padman advised Dr Onora O'Neill, Newnham's Principal, of her past before taking up her fellowship last October, news is only now beginning to circulate in the college. The issue has caused disharmony and brought distress to Dr Padman, who is a committed and well liked teacher.

Dr Greer, who admires Dr Padman's work, is horrified that she has been admitted as a fellow because of the apparent breach of college statutes. "We have driven a coach and horses through our statutes and I can't believe we did it. It's disgraceful that Dr Padman has been placed in this situation. It makes me very angry," she said.

Although Dr Greer regards sex-change operations as mutilations, her opposition is based on principles not personality, she said.

"I like Dr Padman. We all know she is a distinguished physicist, but what is the point of having clear statutes if we just ignore them? We should have answered these questions before her appointment. We have to be true to the spirit of the original bequest to the college as a women's college for women."

Dr Greer said her position was supported by a number of senior colleagues. "Our position is not that Dr Padman should resign but that she should never have been placed in this situation in the first place. The dignity of the college is marred by this unfortunate event."

She added that many members of the governing body, which includes all fellows, were unaware of Dr Padman's change of sex. "Dr Padman's past was kept secret from us on the governing body. We were told by people outside the college making fun of Newnham and, frankly, we feel we have been made monkeys of." Dr Greer, whose first instinct was to resign, is now considering calling an emergency meeting of the governing body to discuss the matter.

Dr O'Neill, who became Principal in 1992, declined to discuss the legality of Dr Padman's appointment. "I am not a lawyer," she said.

Dr Padman's status was known to senior staff who wholeheartedly support her, Dr O'Neill said. "Dr Padman's change of state is ancient history. Furthermore it is not secret, covert or unknown among colleagues. Naturally, there will be some colleagues who know more and some who know less. I continue to give all the fellows my full support," she said.

Dr Padman, who, like Dr Greer, was born in Australia, said she would consider resigning if colleagues were unhappy with her position at the college. "If I thought there were any significant number of women in the college who were, despite what I perceived, unhappy about me being there because of my past, then I would resign. Obviously, I don't want to go because it would be losing something I love. It is an exhilarating feeling being surrounded by clever and intelligent women," she said. Dr Padman was initially reluctant to join Newnham because of her operation and rejected the first letter of approach from Dr O'Neill.

"I wrote back to her saying that there was this in my past and that I wouldn't want to bring the college's name into disrepute. I said I didn't think me joining was a good idea," she said.

Dr O'Neill replied saying she was already aware of Dr Padman's sex change and again inviting her to join the college. Last October Dr Padman, who studied as a man at St John's College for her PhD in 1977, took part in a ceremony at the Principal's Lodge admitting her to the Fellowship. She swore an oath promising to uphold Newnham's best interests.

Dr Greer said that one way to resolve the situation could be for Newnham to vote to admit men as fellows. The last time the issue was debated in 1990, it was rejected by a small majority.

If there were to be a vote, however, Dr Padman said she would oppose the admission of men. "Newnham is the only college I would like to be associated with because of its special status. I like women and I like the idea of an all-women environment.

"If there is another vote I would want to keep Newnham single sex. I think the admission of men would lead to a diminution of opportunities for women in Cambridge and I want to keep the college's special status."

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