Group of four women at a tea party within the grounds of Somerville College. Photograph by Henry W Taunt. Copyright © Oxford University Images / Oxfordshire History Centre — All rights reserved.

100 years of Oxford’s amazing women

One hundred years may have passed, but many of these women are still firsts: the first in their family to go to university or the first woman to hold a particular post — sometimes both.

Oxford University
Oxford University
Published in
13 min readMar 8, 2020


Grainy early photos would have you believe that the first women at Oxford spent their time at elegant garden parties. Stilted and corseted, captured in fading black and white, they sit in groups of Misses on cultivated lawns, apparently proper daughters of Victorian gentlemen and well-to-do young women. In truth, they were doing much more than that. In addition to taking tea, rowing in unsuitable clothing and wearing preposterously large hats, Oxford’s first women tackled their work with clear determination.

The faces of those women hold purpose. While they are conventionally attired and occupied, being in Oxford in those all-women groups placed them outside the social norms of the day. Whoever they were, women just didn’t go to university; to do so risked ridicule and social isolation. And, although there had been women studying in Oxford since the 1870s, it took nearly 50 years before they were even eligible to graduate. Some of the eager young women in sepia were older ladies by the time they collected their degrees.

In line with society, today’s university women are less homogenous and, as we will learn, they have followed diverse paths to Oxford. They are a lot more informal, not a hint of a stiff neck. Many challenges remain but, in a series of interviews, 17 of today’s Oxford women show they have the same determination that inspired the early pioneers — albeit without the extravagant headwear.

One hundred years may have passed, but many of these women are still firsts: the first in their family to go to university or the first woman to hold a particular post — sometimes both. Our group demonstrates what a wide variety of women are studying, researching and working in the university — showing you do not have to be a certain type’ to be at Oxford. They come from different backgrounds and have very different experiences to share.

Today, we will learn about the journeys of seven of these Oxford women, and each day this week we will hear from two more. In our first instalment, we hear from a war refugee and from an early eco-warrior; an engineer who wants to change the world and a woman from an estate who is changing Oxford. We will hear from the proud northerner who holds a very prestigious and previously male-only role and a high-flier who is challenging ideas about women and children in the legal system.

They are incredibly diverse — and frighteningly impressive. Like those straight-laced pioneers, they are amazing women, with fascinating stories behind the posed photographs.

The Head of College

Professor Kathy Willis, Principal of St Edmund Hall

Focus on the solutions rather than the problems

Kathy Willis was not, on the face of it, a typical Oxford student.

Professor Kathy Willis

‘At my state school in London,’ she says, ‘applying for Oxford or Cambridge wasn’t really on the cards. Those one or two individuals who did apply were often viewed as rather odd and rarely did anyone get in. I read environmental sciences at Southampton University because this both addressed my emerging interest in the environment and a keenness to spend as much time outdoors as possible. At the time, Southampton was one of only five universities offering environmental sciences — today, many do.’

She then went on to take a PhD in Plant Sciences at Cambridge. She came to a University lectureship in Oxford in 1999, moving up the ranks to Professor in 2009 and then went on secondment to the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, as their first Director of Science from 2013–18. She is now back in Oxford as Principal of St Edmund Hall and Professor of Biodiversity in Oxford’s Department of Zoology. She has a CBE for services to biodiversity conservation and sits on the Government’s Natural Capital Committee advising on the 25 Year Environment Plan and the emerging Environment Bill.

Kathy has come a long way from her original life plan (or her mother’s!) to be an environmental lawyer (or her own ambition to be an opera singer). She admits to being an early ‘eco-warrior’: think Swampy, without the tree. And the world finally seems to have caught up with her. A fringe-interest in the 80s, environmentalism is today’s hot topic, and Kathy appears almost bemused that her ground-breaking work, mapping and modelling natural capital, is now so cutting-edge.

After 21 years in Oxford, Kathy says the best thing about it, aside from the fantastic libraries, museums and buildings, is the ‘truly inter-disciplinary’ nature of the University. ‘One day you can be sitting next to a chemist, the next a scholar of medieval German’ — and the work she is currently engaged in has really benefitted from input from other experts. ‘We couldn’t have done it without input from many other disciplines, especially engineering and computer sciences,’ she says. ‘You are surrounded by brilliant minds. Oxford is intellectually inspiring and challenging at the same time.’

But she is not one to rest on her laurels, so she maintains a track record of regularly seeking new challenges. At the same time, she is a strong believer in encouraging young academics and enabling them to have the same advantages and support that she has had.

‘It’s important that everyone has a career trajectory which is without invisible barriers,’ says Kathy.

The recent graduate

Anisha Faruk, President of the Oxford Student Union

You need to be committed — but it’s a privilege to study here.

Anisha Faruk was elected to office on a platform of empowering the student body, and a big part of her job now is being the representative voice for students in the University.

Anisha Faruk

Sitting on committees alongside senior academics and staff, it is her role to make the student case: ‘I often have to disagree….it can be a bit pressurised but that doesn’t stop me speaking up.’

Anisha is softly spoken but she evidently knows what she wants and is rather good at getting it. Coming on a visit to Oxford with her state school, she came upon The Queen’s College and decided she wanted to study there. She did. Anisha decided she wanted to study history, when her family wanted her to do medicine. She studied history.

‘I went on a UNIQ summer school,’ she says. ‘I thought Queen’s was really lovely. And I have loved the people I have met and the opportunity to study somewhere so beautiful.’ But, she warns: ‘The workload is intense, especially with the extra pressure of being involved in student politics.’

Anisha graduated last summer and is in post for one year, until July. She is interested in politics but is thinking about, maybe, doing a post-grad course, somewhere overseas: ‘Somewhere warm and sunny.’

The Senior Professor

Professor Carol Harrison, Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity and Lay Canon, Christ Church

The whole thing is a gift, really.

Carol Harrison is a first: the first in her family to go to university, in the first group from her school to go to Oxford, the first lay person and the first woman to be appointed to the senior Christ Church professorship, the Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity. (Her illustrious predecessors include the former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams).

Professor Carol Harrison

Yet, Carol talks with astonishment at her good fortune — and her love of Augustine. For more than 30 years, the Saint has been the focus of her research. Though she has spent half a lifetime in Oxford, there is more than a little about her of the Northern girl come south: ‘I grew up in the shadow of Durham Cathedral…the North is home.’

Carol first came to Oxford as a teenager, when many colleges did not admit women. Her college, Lady Margaret Hall, had just begun to admit men. Two years earlier, her all-girls’ school in Durham had begun to take boys. ‘It didn’t occur to me until later that this was unusual,’ she admits, ‘being in a female context and men coming in.’

But it was an experience that had an impact on the young Carol, who says she benefitted from seeing women in very distinguished roles: ‘The teachers were from a generation of academic spinsters, everyone was Miss.’

Thanks to them, she and her friends decided to apply to Oxbridge, the first from the school to do so. They were shut in a large cupboard to take the compulsory entrance exam and, to the amazement of all, five of them succeeded, winning places, scholarships and all.

Completely overwhelmed, the headmaster took them to a local hotel for high tea. Carol laughs at the memory and then describes her academic progress from undergraduate and postgraduate at Oxford to a lectureship in Hull to a senior role in Durham, where she spent 25 years — and back to Oxford, as the first woman Lady Margaret Professor.

‘The whole thing is a gift really,’ she says.

The University strategist

Dr Mariama Ifode-Blease, Head of Outreach Solutions

Potential is the key

Mariama Ifode-Blease wants to extend a welcome to Oxford in general — and to her team’s office, in particular. The University’s Head of Outreach Solutions explains enthusiastically: ‘I want us to be welcoming to potential.’

Dr Mariama Ifode-Blease

She maintains: ‘There are lots of young people with whom we need to connect the opportunity of coming to Oxford…part of this is to offer the welcome.’

Dr Ifode-Blease and her colleagues, through their access and outreach programmes, are trying to make sure that young people are welcomed and know that there is a place for them at Oxford, whatever their background. As the first in her family to go to university, she knows how they feel: ‘I don’t want young people to be afraid of academic journeys or of their own potential [recalling her journey from a London council estate to a Cambridge doctorate].’

But, she emphasises: ‘Just because I’m here, doesn’t mean other people are going to find it easy…I don’t want to be the only black person in a room.’

Dr Ifode-Blease pays particular attention to detail. She wants young people to know that Oxford cares about them and their student journey and she is concerned that she cannot offer a suitably warm welcome to her office. There is no tea and the new rug is not down. But the welcome is warm and the hospitality genuine.

The American masters’ student

Sarah Tress, Rhodes Scholar and 1st-year masters’ student

It’s literally Hogwarts

As a Rhodes Scholar, US student Sarah Tress is aware of the burden of history. She follows in the footsteps of ‘tonnes of famous people’, including Commonwealth prime ministers, thinkers and writers as well as US scholars Edwin Hubble (of telescope fame), John Templeton (of Templeton College fame) and Bill Clinton (of White House fame).

Sarah Tress

But this is no fluke; Sarah graduated last year from the highly-prestigious MIT, where she majored in engineering. ‘It is a privilege,’ she says of Oxford. ‘Having a Rhodes Scholarship opens a lot of doors.’

It makes her all the more determined to justify her opportunities. She says: ‘I already dealt with it, getting into MIT. You feel there has been a mistake. But you have to get over it. You are here and you’ve got to take the opportunity.’

‘If you get a Rhodes Scholarship you would have strong goals, with or without the scheme.’

It is no empty rhetoric. While still an undergraduate, Sarah worked on creating a cut-price inflatable wheelchair cushion — pressure sores are one of the leading causes of death among wheelchair users in developing countries. The current US market price is $400 for the highest quality air cushions. She used bicycle inner tubes to create one for $10.

Oxford has been a big change, though, living in a small community, compared with a huge American college. And, obviously, there’s the weather: ‘It’s sad. I can do cold but the rain and the darkness gets to me.’ But meeting a diverse range of people from all different backgrounds and disciplines has been key to her Oxford experience. As for wearing special clothes to take exams and go to dinner: ‘It’s literally Hogwarts.’

The Museums Officer

Rana Ibrahim, Collections Project Officer for the Multaka-Oxford project, History of Science Museum

Really welcoming and accepting

Rana Ibrahim is very happy to be working in Oxford. As an Iraqi archaeologist by training, she has managed to hold onto her identity since leaving war-torn-Iraq as a forced immigrant and settling in the UK. But, it is clear, she is not defined by these experiences. Rana says: ‘It is important to find the similarities and learn from each other, accepting each other. Even sisters are different.’

Rana Ibrahim

Rana is full of energy and has a dizzying portfolio of responsibilities that she seems to take in her stride. Currently, she is busy with the University’s History of Science Museum and Pitt Rivers Museum on the award-winning Multaka-Oxford project, which engages forced migrants with the museums as volunteers. Rana trained Multaka tour guides to share their stories about the Islamic scientific collections.

‘Through the objects and in the open space of the museums, there is an opportunity for people to express their heritage and their faith,’ says Rana. In partnership with the Botanic Garden in Oxford, she is looking to complete and translate her late father’s work on Islamic herbal medicine, ‘Iraqi Flora’.

When she recently returned to Iraq, for the first time in 18 years, Rana explored the impact of the war — you can see the results on YouTube. ‘It was really emotional,’ she says.

Rana is particularly proud of an Arts Council project she initiated — the Iraqi Women, Art and War project — where she works with Iraqi women to express their stories in the exhibition called ‘Of Ordinary Things’.

She looks forward to the day she can return to Iraq and take her new skills and training to help the people. Also, to take her children to Iraq for the first time inshallah (God willing).

The postdoc researcher

Dr Shona Minson, Postdoctoral law academic

It’s a privilege to be a researcher here

Dr Shona Minson has had a bad day. While everyone else is running around with umbrellas, the rain is the least of her problems. Shona is worried that press attention is about to make things very difficult for a vulnerable family — and unlike most academic work, Shona’s involves working with vulnerable families.

Dr Shona Minson

The Oxford academic is what can only be described as a ‘driven woman’, a woman determined to make a difference and drive change. Shona never expected to be an academic. Until she had her family, she was a barrister, working out of the Inns of Court. But she returned to Oxford, where she had been an undergraduate, to take a doctorate — as a mature student.

‘Everyone was very welcoming,’ she says. ‘Despite me being older. But I got a young person’s railcard.’

It’s a rare moment of humour. Shona is researching the impact on children of parental imprisonment. Obviously, it’s not a laughing matter. And it is shocking to hear just how bad things are. Unlike Family Courts, which take account of children’s interests, Criminal Courts take no account of children’s rights, she says. Unlike the children in the Family Courts, the children of prisoners have no protections. No one is checking to make sure they are all right. There is no system even for working out where they live.

‘The stigma for the children is huge,’ says Shona. ‘They are ripe for exploitation, for being dragged into County lines…and yet there is no real concern by statutory agencies for their situation…How can you know how they are, if you don’t know who they are?’

Shona, works on ‘robust research to underpin advances and change’. And you just know, change is coming.

Looking ahead this week: more amazing Oxford women

Tomorrow, and every day this week, we will hear from two more amazing women. First, we hear from Grace and Mai — a first year undergraduate from West Wales who didn’t believe she had won a place, and an academic, whose parents thought she was studying law when she was actually taking Classics.

On Tuesday, we learn about the journey of Katherine, a Fellow of All Souls, who took and passed what is said to be the most difficult exam in the world, and we hear from Judith, who was the first full-time woman chaplain in Oxford.

Get set to be blown away on Wednesday, by interviews with two more ground-breaking women: Esther, a third year PPE student and Clare, a professor, curator and fellow.

On Thursday, we hear from another determined Oxford pair. We learn about Aneta, who has overcome many obstacles and now proudly wears a custodian’s bowler hat, and we hear from Akshayaa, who has come to the UK on a prestigious Marshall Scholarship and loves everything — except the weather.

Finally, on Friday, we are lucky to have the stories of two incredible women: Gill, the high-flying lawyer and civil servant, who has returned to take a senior position in the University, and Clara, who has overcome prejudice and controversy to work in the sciences at Oxford.

What next?

Follow us here on Medium where we’ll be publishing more articles soon.

Want to read more? Try our articles on: Women at Oxford, LGBTSTEMDay 2019 and International Day of Women and Girls in Science 2019.

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