I read on JRR Tolkiens wiki page that he was asked to be a tutor in the early stages of the women's colleges at Oxford because he was married. This was apparently not common for professors at the time.

Why would marriage status have anything to do with his work as a tutor? Did the people who thought it good for women to go to college not realise there were men working there? I would personally be highly offended if the presence (or lack thereof) of a wife affected my job prospects. Seems pretty sexist to be honest.

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    Yeah, it was sexist. Women didn't have the right to vote in the UK when Tolkien began his academic career. Who knows what would have happened if they were tutored by (gasp!) an unmarried man? Apr 11 at 8:37
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    Presumably it was not considered proper for an unmarried man to be spending a significant amount of time alone with a young woman. Apr 11 at 10:16
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    @Neil Meyer You are looking at it from a contemporary perspective, where being with a young woman alone is a Normal Thing and if someone suggests that you should not be left alone with a young woman, then that may indeed be an insulting insinuation. I would think the perspective was more that spending a large amount of time with a young woman alone is simply Not Done. In the same way that woman spending time alone with a male stranger in some Muslim cultures is simply Not Done. The point is not that you personally are a threat, the point is that you are breaking a strong cultural norm. Apr 11 at 12:13
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    @Neil Meyer By the way, you may be imagining some sort of sexual assault when you say "cannot be trusted around women", but the woman's parents would (in my largely ignorant understanding of how things used to work) probably instead have been imagining the threat of a romantic relationship as a result of this situation. Apr 11 at 12:18
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    @DanielR.Collins "Married women were commonly barred from employment in Western countries up until the 1970's" I don't think that is right at all. The Wikipedia page you linked to just says that some employers banned them. It gives the impression that the number of such employers was very small after WW2.
    – toby544
    Apr 11 at 12:53

2 Answers 2


At the time, Oxford was indeed very, very sexist, although certainly not unique in that way. It was a different society from the one we have now. Note that the female students mentioned would not have been able to gain a degree at the time - that only became possible in 1920. Even their limited status was controversial enough that it was important to avoid impropriety, as opponents of women's education were suspicious of their effect on the male students and faculty. They had to be seen to be behaving respectably and certainly not having illicit sex with young men.

The Wikipedia article cites the story to J.R.R. Tolkien's Double Worlds and Creative Process: Language and Life by Arne Zettersten (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), which further quotes an anecdote in The Tolkien Family Album by John and Priscilla Tolkien (HarperCollins, 1992), as follows:

He was interviewed by the head of St Hugh's: years later he described her as a formidable woman, dressed in the style of his grandmother, buttoned top-to-toe in an ankle-length dress. He remembered the severity of her expression as she enquired, "Are you married, Mr Tolkien?", and her relief at his reply. Thus Ronald gained some employment tutoring her students.

This would have happened between Tolkien's arrival in Oxford at the end of 1918, and his departure for Leeds in 1920, so the interview must have been with Eleanor Jourdain, who was particularly strict in discipline. At the time, St. Hugh's, like the other women's colleges, operated strict "chaperon rules" concerning how and when women were allowed to be in male company. You can read about this in The History of the University of Oxford, volume 8, chapter 13 ("Women" by Janet Howarth; ed. Brian Harrison, OUP, 1994), which chronicles their detailed development, selective enforcement, and protests. As of 1919, the rules included:

[Women] must not, among other things, enter men's rooms nor go to the theatre with a man without their principal's permission and a chaperon approved by her, nor go to a cafe with a man, nor on the river, nor for walks, bicycle or motor rides unless with principalian permission and at least two women in the party. Mixed societies required permission, to be renewed annually, from the women principals as well as the proctors, and meetings in men's colleges must be chaperoned. Mixed parties in cafes were allowed only between 2.00 and 5.20 p.m.

These strictures were motivated by wanting women to be seen as respectable, and in particular to shield them from sexual life or the hint of impropriety. Being alone with an unmarried man was a potential source of scandal. At St. Hugh's, a woman could receive a male visitor in her college rooms, but only so long as he was her father, uncle or brother, it was in daylight hours, and she dragged her mattress into the corridor for the duration.

As a tutor, Tolkien would have mainly received students at his home on Alfred Street: he moved there for that reason. A female student coming to his house, where his wife was also present much of the time, would be acceptable - compared to the student visiting an unmarried fellow in his college rooms, for example. The setup made it respectable enough for Jourdain to feel comfortable with the arrangement.

  • Great answer! Curious that women were allowed to meet Tolkien even without any guarantee that his wife would be present, but a visit from dad is suspicious enough to require moving your mattress to the hallway.
    – cag51
    Apr 12 at 13:44
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    @cag51 My grandmother, who was at Cambridge a couple of decades later, reports that my grandfather had a great deal of practice in saying that he was her brother. Some gentlemen were several students' brother in the same week. The rules may not make objective sense partly because they're the synthesis of ideas from people with quite different views about the whole deal.
    – alexg
    Apr 12 at 16:16

Things were different in the past. If this is not obvious to you, I recommend reading https://www.ox.ac.uk/research/engage-with-us/local-community/part-of-oxford/history. Until 1877, university fellows were not even allowed to marry.

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    I don't think this answers the question of the OP at all. Apr 11 at 10:12
  • Who are university fellows? Students? Lecturers?
    – Nobody
    Apr 11 at 11:12
  • @Nobody Tutors, professors, and what we now call postdocs. Afaik everybody except students.
    – xLeitix
    Apr 11 at 11:31
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    @AdamPřenosil OP seemed to have very little knowledge of history so I thought they needed to be told the very basic fact that things were different in the past.
    – toby544
    Apr 11 at 12:56
  • "University Fellows" doesn't make sense in the 19th C. There were Fellows of Colleges, most of whom did the regular teaching/tuition of the undergraduates and had to vacate their fellowships if they married; and there were (far fewer) University Professors who gave lectures/did research and who could continue in office even if they married, and Heads of Colleges who could likewise marry. Apr 11 at 14:48

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