When the COVID-19 lockdown began in 2020 Nanette Fondas (West Virginia & Brasenose 1981) decided to create an oral history of some in the first wave of women to earn the Rhodes Scholarship. What she found was a community of healers, leaders, builders, and teachers.
My home fell silent when the pandemic began. No hum of lawn mowers or leaf blowers. No auto moans or rumbles. No toddlers clanging toys in the background, slightly tugging one ear toward my bedroom “office” door, as they’d done years before.
So I took those quiet weeks to think about writing a book. I explored what others had written about the history of Rhodes Scholars and found women largely missing from the pages. The pandemic lingered and Zoom became ubiquitous.
Women of the 1981 group of Rhodes Scholars are part of the first wave of female recipients, whose journey in Oxford started just four years after women were admitted to the Scholarship after long efforts to change a restriction in Cecil Rhodes’ will.
I realised I could interview women scholars who lived across the continent–indeed, across the world–easily. So I decided to conduct recorded oral histories with some in the first wave. The pandemic and technology made this possible–a miracle for an independent scholar with heavy parenting responsibilities, making round-the-globe, virtually in-person interviews possible. Technology had revived my career once before, and here it was again.
My laptop opened the portal to the women who held the information I sought: How had the trailblazing women grown up, landed in Oxford, and fared in life once they’d left Oxford, spreading across a world that needed their brains, their care, and their armour against humanity’s flaws?
So I asked the women in my class of 1981 to sit for recorded oral history interviews with me over Zoom. Among the busiest, smartest women I’ve ever known, most of them opened their calendars and said yes. They described their early lives in their families, schools, and communities, and their paths to earning a Rhodes. They discussed their feelings about becoming a Rhodes Scholar when women had been included only a few years before.
Each interview lasted from ninety minutes to four hours. To my knowledge, no one has ever conducted such in-depth, robust primary research into the lives of any meaningful subset of Rhodes Scholars. I also read many articles, books, and online posts about women in the Class of 1981.
The ‘81 women opened their hearts and minds willingly, trusting that sharing their innermost feelings, ambitions, desires, victories, and setbacks would aid the project of writing women into the history of the Rhodes and of helping younger scholars see myriad ways that “the world’s fight” is won, even when it’s only one person fighting on the ground.
The interview transcripts are filled with stories and wisdom about how Rhodes Scholars – even those we don’t know about–go out and make the world a better place, often in quiet, unheralded ways.
Healers, Leaders, Builders, Teachers
The women I interviewed were flat mates and friends, and even I didn’t know the extraordinary ways they are making a difference. Many of them individually pursue justice, knowledge, and social change as a fighting force of one. Their efforts fall into categories that I’ve named healers, leaders, builders, and teachers. Here are a few examples.
Healers: These are the scholars who pursued medicine as a profession, including one doctor who continues to see ill patients who cannot afford to pay for care. It also includes one who heals others through her religious ministry, as well as another who writes meta-analyses of medical trials to aid the scientific community producing remedies for the sick. In addition, one is an ophthalmologist who invented a mobile device and built an app to measure eyeglass prescriptions, which she uses to give glasses to indigent people.
Leaders: These scholars assumed leadership roles in business, government, and education. We often think about this type of person when we talk about Rhodes Scholars. It includes one who has served in two presidential administrations, and another who attained a high post in the military. However, it also includes a scholar who built a world class medical unit at a renowned university; one who worked pro bono to protect national trust land; as well as two who boot-strapped the founding of non-profit advocacy organizations, one to help vulnerable families and the other to support women with a rare disease.
Builders: These are the architects in the cohort but also the scholars who built organisations, like the non-profits mentioned already; and also one who built a new culture inside an august institution that needed updating for today’s racially diverse workplace. This group also includes a lawyer whose work involved building huge structures, such as a state-of-the-art sports and performing arts centre, as well as a person who steadfastly built an alumni organisation. In addition, it includes a scholar who worked tirelessly to ensure that a city’s rapid development did not saddle it with buildings it would quickly regret erecting.
Teachers: This group includes scholars who worked in the paid labour force as college professors and school teachers. It also includes a scholar whose advocacy and publications primarily educate readers. In addition, this group crucially includes women who chose to spend significant years as full-time mothers, teaching and raising their children as their primary endeavour.
Sometimes the mothers realised that their children needed extra care and attention, for example, if one had a disability. Other times the number of children or the spouse’s career made juggling work and family impossible.
How did the first wave of women Rhodes Scholars fare?
The women’s life histories are rich in details about their dreams and ambitions but also their sacrifices to accommodate beyond-career devotions. Usually this meant family, broadly defined, but sometimes it meant dedication to an institution or idea, such as marriage, motherhood, ministry, medicine, country, or equality.
Oftentimes their campaigns to win “the world’s fight” were conducted on a smaller stage than that of fellow scholars who served as or for presidents and prime ministers, yet their communities benefited tremendously from their efforts. Many chose–or were nudged by life occurrences–to fight singly, as “one on the ground.” But fight they did, with ambition as armour, brains as ammunition, and bullet-proof hearts.