The American author and polemicist tells John Garth how she hated Oxford in the 1980s – but came back to find it transformed.

Why did you apply to Oxford?
Even as a young American girl I had a clear sense that Oxford was the origin and the centre of the English literary tradition. I graduated from Yale in 1984 and applied for a Rhodes Scholarship.

What did you study?
19th-century English literature, focusing on women novelists. I didn’t finish my doctoral thesis, though a lot of the thinking went into my first book, The Beauty Myth.

What were your impressions of Oxford at that time?
There was a very intact class-system and a fairly intact exclusion of women. It was a really entrenched system that had no room for you no matter how smart or promising you might be. I didn’t feel energised intellectually.

What kind of student were you in your twenties?
Cranky. I spent most of my time in the common room at Oriel – where my boyfriend and a lot of my male friends were – chain-smoking and complaining about the weather.

Were you involved in student politics?
No. I went to the Union in 1985 and they would have some debating centrefold or a motion along the lines of ‘Feminism is a waste of time.’ If you’re a bright young woman, you think: ‘Why waste my time with this? It’s just humiliating.’

So why did you come back in 2011?
I come from an academic family, so not having finished my doctorate felt as if I was slacking off in some very profound way. With Dr Stefano-Maria Evangelista at Trinity, I’ve been working on exactly the kind of topic people laughed at 23 years ago: the origin of discourses about sexuality in the nineteenth century. When I’m not working, I pack everything I can into every day: the Union, punting, student productions – I just can’t get enough.

Do you feel Oxford has changed?
It was always beautiful, impressive and august, but it is now much more lively intellectually, more inclusive and diverse. It’s by far the best educational experience I’ve ever had – leagues away from my great education at Yale. The drawing-in of gender perspectives and post-colonial perspectives, plus a more diverse student body, have boosted intellectual life here to a much more exciting level. I used to feel Oxford was a beautiful artefact at the margins of contemporary life; now I feel it’s this fantastic whirlpool of ideas at the centre. I want to encourage my daughter to apply to Oxford because the level of teaching is just so off the charts now compared to any university I’ve been to. Lectures used to be a mixed bag; but now I’m literally on the edge of my seat and just euphoric from how much I’ve learned in 50 minutes. And the people who are presenting this are not representatives of a sleepy privileged background; they’re the best of the best of the academic world drawn from the international community.

Has it all changed for Rhodes Scholars too?
When I was there in the Eighties, there were only eight women out of 32 Rhodes Scholars from the US, and we were like ghosts at the feast. Now it’s at least 50–50 and it feels so women-friendly. Under Donald Markwell’s leadership there’s a sense that whatever your ethnicity or background, you’re welcome, equal and valued.

What have you taken away from your time at Oxford?
What Oxford taught me, even in the Eighties, is that as long as you’re asking a good question in a rigorous way, nothing is off-limits. That’s always given me courage when I’m up against conventional wisdom or controversy. I like to write and lecture in the Oxford conversational style, which is discursive, anecdotal, funny and sophisticated; we really don’t have that tradition in the United States. Finally, now that I’m back in Oxford and it’s such a transformed place, it’s affecting me creatively, and I’ve gone back to writing fiction and poetry as well as non-fiction.