Returning recently to my old Oxford college, Trinity, I was dismayed to see that the august portraits which once adorned the hall had been replaced by photographs of recent alumnae (women); who, overall, were of rather less academic distinction than the men they had displaced, most not even being academics. Trinity, I have since learned, claims that the new portraits ‘celebrate the outstanding achievements and wide variety of careers enjoyed by female Trinity graduates and Fellows’. They constitute an exhibition, ‘Feminae Trinitatis’, which will continue ‘until further notice’ (having already lasted over a year). Trinity says that the exhibition ‘highlights Trinity’s commitment to promoting equal opportunities for all’—which is to say that it tries to foster an environment in which all feel equally valued, encouraged and inspired. Evidently, Trinity’s fellows thought that these photographs would inspire women more than the old portraits had been doing; and that people make more of their degrees if they are well inspired.
But this argument is either facile, or reprehensible, or both. If one believes that women are more inspired by women, surely one must also believe that men are more inspired by men? and hence that, if inspiration is valuable, the removal of the old portraits will impair today’s men’s degree performance? Of course, one could argue that men have enough to inspire them as it is; but, since the sources of male inspiration have never before been so systematically removed as they are being today, such an argument would be reckless and unproved. Trinity’s above-quoted statement adduces the concept of ‘equality’, which could possibly justify an equal balance of male and female portraits; but the logic of what has actually been done can only be that ‘two wrongs make a right’.
Indeed, the presence of portraits of old men was explicable by the college’s history: it was never a deliberate snub to women. The removal of them, on the other hand, tells today’s male students that their faces are now being deliberately, thoroughgoingly excluded. For men, it seems, no corner is let alone, no ‘safe space’ conceded.
One possible explanation of this act of cultural vandalism, then, is that a few—no doubt not all—of the feminist fellows who effected it just don’t care about men’s success as much as they do about women’s. They argue in terms of ‘equality’: but ‘equality’ of different groups has always been an unintelligible notion; a front-word for a brutal power grab which will never end.
But let’s take a step back. What if one drops the apparent first premise, and accepts that any human can be well inspired by another? (We do need to drop it: otherwise, it’s hard to see what would be objectionable if a predominately-white athletics club refused to put up pictures of black athletes). In that case, the only salient point in the choice of portraits is that the original ones in Trinity’s hall, which show off the cream of 424 years, are far more academically inspiring, because far more academically distinguished, than the present rather curious assortment of 49 years’ worth of ladies. True, the ladies are mostly not academics. They better represent the range of careers that Trinity students will pursue—hence Trinity’s talk of highlighting the ‘wide variety of careers’ enjoyed by female graduates. But if the portraits have any value, it is surely to suggest that those women’s academic studies, their academic inspirations, helped them to be the middle-to-high-ranking professionals that they are today. If in fact Trinitarians could do just as well in life by spending their undergraduate years thinking about businesswomen rather than scholars, then what’s the point of an academic education at all?
The entire, unwarranted experiment is absurd. Kudos, I say, to the man—or woman—who proposes reversing it.