Day in the Life of a Woman Historian: 1980s

Manon Williams
Saturday 24 July 2021

What was it like to be a woman student of History at St Andrews in the 1980s? Taking inspiration from popular modern day ‘Day in the Life’ blog posts and YouTube videos, a group of current undergraduates explored personal papers, University Calendars, photographs, and records from the University’s Special Collections, to try to bring to life the experiences of women History undergraduates at St Andrews.  

The 1980s proved a fruitful and exciting decade for St Andrews undergrads – not just because the decade commenced with a University Challenge win in 1983! As the University expanded its economic resources to promote St Andrews as a reputable research institution, whilst simultaneously welcoming more students internationally, so student life was enriched with a new distinctive outlook.

For female undergraduates, St Andrews became a prominent place to explore gender parity and rights, the popularity of the British Women’s Liberation Movement (WLM) during the seventies reaching and being actively propelled by students of St Andrews. Indeed, the small town provided a close nexus to intellectually and politically engage with contemporary issues. Although such issues were yet to be reflected in the History curriculum, female undergraduate historians enjoyed an enriching academic and social life, mixing with both genders and engaging in activities that parallel much of student life today.


Female students relaxing in a student dorm, ca. 1976.

Student Accommodation

  • Students would reside in a range of Halls of Residence, self-catered flats, student houses and private lodgings.
  • Many students lived in halls familiar to us today (University Hall, Mcintosh Hall, JBH, DRA, etc.), providing the chance to meet new students and socialise over meals and other activities. As indicated in figure 2, larger cohorts of students were occupying halls and were increasingly integrating genders.
  • Student residence fees varied; in the 1985-6 academic year, catered Halls of Residence fees ranged from £847 to £936. £582 for self-catered flats, and £510 for student houses.

Financial Assistance and Considerations

Groups of students outside David Russell Hall, 1989-1990.
  • A variety of bursaries and scholarships were offered to students to alleviate living costs, based on academic merit and financial need. For living costs, students may have applied for the Alice Thomson Bequest, whereby students would apply directly to the Warden for financial assistance living at University Hall.
  • Other bursaries would be controlled by the Master of the United College, offering funding such as the Lapsed Bursaries Fund (financial assistance based on academic excellence and need), the Student’s Welfare Fund, and the Lady Donaldson Fund (helping students struggling due to illness).
  • Other financial considerations were flagged in the 1985-6 university Calendar, including prices for gowns, laundry, clothing, travelling, and day-to-day expenses.


Academic life

A compilation of History timetables from University Calendar, 1985-6; pp.159-162.
  • Students would consult their university timetable to find out when their classes would be scheduled, timings differing according to different years of study. For history undergrads, classes would take place anytime from 10am to 3pm (see figure 3). All History classes would typically take place four times a week.
  • The Syllabus predominantly focused on the British Isles and its wider relationship to Europe, along with additional areas of foci such as Scottish History (e.g. Scottish History, 1100-1850), and Economic and Social History (e.g. Britain in the World Economic since c. 1600). Modern History also engaged with North American History (e.g. The History of the USA from the Colonial Period) and Russian History (e.g. The History of Russia from 1815).
  • History students were certainly rigorously worked! Single Honours Examination for Ancient, Medieval, and Modern History for example, entailed preparation for eight x three hour papers, or seven papers and a dissertation.
    Medieval History Tutorial led by Dr Barbara Crawford, 1982

    Additionally, there was a languages component – entry requirements for Medieval and Modern History required “some knowledge of a foreign modern language”, and Ancient History “some knowledge of Greek and or Latin” – providing a linguistic component to engage with within their historical studies. Whilst this would have provided a holistic academic approach to the subject, History students certainly deserved the minimum 10am start!


  • Academic prizes were offered in History to award students with intellectual prowess, particularly to those engaging with Scottish History. Among these prizes included:
    • Mary Anderson Book Prize £90 awarded for the best essay on a prescribed area of Scottish History)
    • Hume Brown Prize for Scottish History – £260 awarded for an essay on a prescribed subject, open to students from any Scottish University
    • Janet I. Low Book Prize – £40 awarded to the most outstanding student in the Honours Class of Modern History
    • John Adamson Honey Prize – £30 awarded to the student who excelled the most in a Final Honours Examination in Medieval History
  • Should History students want to be intellectually engaged beyond their degrees, they could also apply for the university’s Frank Muir Prize for Humour – £120 awarded for the best submitted piece of original humorous writing!


Extra-curricular activities

  • To unwind, female undergrads had access to a wind range of activities and social events. At the beginning of the academic year, students would pay a £520 matriculation fee which automatically enrolled them into the Students Union and Athletic Union (alongside other fees such as laboratory access and exam entry). Students were therefore encouraged to participate in the array of sporting and extra-curricular activities the University offered.
  • Sports: Both mixed and single-sex team sports were offered for female
    Swingnastics at Physical Education Centre, 1976.

    students to get involved in. Sports that became increasingly popular among women included golf, rowing (the female ‘boat race’ team was very popular),and rugby, with the formation of a female rugby team. “Swingnastics” was a particularly popular sport women participated in at St Andrews (pictured in figure 4). This involved dance and cardio exercise to pop music!

  • The Arts and Societies: Societies provided many mixed-gender opportunities – participation in the Chapel Choir, Mermaids Drama Society, and orchestra were all popular creative outlets for female students. Other societies that were popular included the Debating Society and Charity Committees.

Social events and traditions

  • Parties and social events were popular among student life – from informal dinner parties, 21st birthday celebrations, hall balls, to Friday night bops. Rock Society provided the opportunity to attend live music concerts and nightclubs in Dundee – for when St Andrews felt limited for choice!
  • Committees were created specifically for socialising, such as the Bacchus Society (created for mixed gender garden parties), and Reibelairs Society (a society focused on socials).
  • Familiar traditions and events also took place – Sunday morning pier walks, Raisin celebrations, and Kate Kennedy parades (although Kate Kennedy membership was still exclusively for men at the time).

    Sunday pier walk, 1982.

 This is just one of the blogs in a series of ‘days in the life’ from various decades. If you’ve enjoyed this post, please check out the other decades: 1930s, 1960s, and today 

 This blog post was written in 2021 by May Lutyens-Humfrey, who is going into her third year studying International Relations and Modern History at the University of St Andrews.

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