Celebrating our women in the Wills Memorial Building

By Judith Squires, Pro Vice-Chancellor for Education

Judith Squires, Pro Vice-Chancellor for Education photographed with Winifred Shapland, former Registrar of the University of Bristol

Last night was a historic evening for the University as we unveiled a special series of portraits in the Wills Memorial Building. Never before have women graced the walls of the Great Hall, which has more recently been a space for hanging portraits of our former Vice-Chancellors. 

Although we’ve never had a female Vice-Chancellor, many incredible women have helped to shape the University and, indeed, the world. So, in the year which marks a centenary since the first British women won the vote, we wanted to redress the balance by celebrating these educators, pioneers and activists. 

As we were the first higher education institution in England to welcome women on an equal basis to men, it’s only fitting that the many visitors to the Great Hall see that the University is proud of the achievements of the inspirational women that have shaped our history and continue to shape our future. 

From our first woman lecturer to the first British woman to have won a Nobel Prize, these notable women now take their rightful place on the walls of our most prestigious building. Although the achievements of women such as Lady Hale, Professor Jean Golding and Professor Dorothy Hodgkin have been rightly honoured – both in the University and more widely – in the past, we also wanted to uncover the stories of unsung heroines, whose achievements aren’t as well-known as they should be. 

Current staff, students and alumni whose research, learning or work connects them to these women share their thoughts on their lives, careers and legacies in this online gallery. 

Winifred Shapland, University of Bristol Registrar, 1931 – 1950

I’m photographed holding an image of Winifred Shapland. Not only was Winfred the Registrar here for nearly 20 years (1931 to 1950), she was the first female Registrar of any British university. Winfred held this, the most senior professional services role, at a time when universities were led almost exclusively by men. She was a pioneer in the world of higher education, and I am proud the University of Bristol showed its commitment to gender equality from its earliest days by appointing her to the role.  

Working with our Special Collections Library, we were able to unearth the address given by former Vice-Chancellor, Sir Philip Morris, at her memorial service which gave us an insight into her life, of which she devoted over 40 years to the University. Although she was known to abhor personal recognition and publicity, we feel that marking her legacy in this way is important; reflecting the University’s early and continuing commitment to gender equality and showing generations of women who followed her in higher education that no job is beyond their reach.  

Winifred and the other nine women featured are just a handful of the many remarkable women who have made, and continue to make, Bristol truly great. Featuring them alongside ten women in today’s University community gave us the opportunity to show how their legacy is continuing to inspire our study, teaching and work today, while also showcasing our current pioneers. 

This project will be the first of many initiatives to honour our women in the Wills Memorial Building and more widely across the University, with new permanent artworks to be commissioned every year until 2028: the 100-year anniversary of full suffrage in Britain, when all women over 21 were given the right to vote, not just those over the age of 30 who owned property.  

Much has changed since those brave women fought for their rights and the rights of future generations of women. As a University, we pledge to ensure their legacy lives on and we urge all our students, staff and alumni to work together as we strive further towards equality. Please look at our Vote 100 campaign online and continue to share your thoughts on social media using #BristolUniWomen. 

Equality and diversity in health research

Lauren Curtis, Diversity and Inclusion Champion in the Elizabeth Blackwell Institute, blogs about her role, Vote 100 and equality in health research.

Vote 100 marks 100 years since the first women gained the vote in the UK: definitely something to celebrate! When you look back at 100 years of women in medicine there is much to celebrate here too. The Elizabeth Blackwell Institute at the University of Bristol is named after Bristol-born Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman to graduate from medical school. She was a pioneer instrumental in many campaigns for reform, and launched numerous innovative health schemes, including establishing the first UK medical school for women. A very fitting namesake for the Institute, which exemplifies the spirit of what we are striving to achieve today.

Black and white image of Elizabeth Blackwell
Elizabeth Blackwell

I joined the Elizabeth Blackwell Institute for Health Research as Diversity and Inclusion Champion in November last year. This unique post, funded by the Wellcome Trust, focuses on identifying barriers, and championing and challenging Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) within health and biomedical research communities at the University of Bristol. More broadly EDI is something that the University is dedicated to, and so the work I am doing is very much aligned with the work of the EDI team.

Equality, diversity and inclusion in health research is vital as it encourages a range of solutions to health challenges. Everyone should have equal access to opportunities, feel that they can contribute their ideas, and that each unique perspective is valued.

Since starting in this post, I have seen a lot of people doing fantastic work to address barriers related to EDI at the University and that progress has been made. However, we are not there yet and there is still much to do.

Lauren EDI Champion standing in front of an Elizabeth Blackwell banner
Lauren Curtis, EDI Champion

There are clear benefits to having a diverse range of staff, and in research, having lots of people bringing different ideas to solve problems is important. However, to attract and retain talented researchers everyone needs to feel that this is something that they want to and can be part of and to achieve this we must embed an inclusive culture where everyone can fully participate. EDI needs to be something that we are all involved in and should be threaded through all we do. My role is to help support colleagues in the health and biomedical research community to make this to happen.

I have worked with colleagues in the Faculty of Health and Faculty of Life Sciences to run discussion sessions and listen to staff talk about barriers and challenges they have faced or been aware of. This has enabled me to learn about the lived experiences of staff and, along with other information, has allowed me to identify some priority areas for action and ways in which we can continue to improve things.

“A blank wall of social and professional antagonism faces the woman physician that forms a situation of singular and painful loneliness, leaving her without support, respect or professional counsel.”  – Elizabeth Blackwell.

Thankfully much has changed since Elizabeth Blackwell spoke these words, but there is always more that can be done to ensure equality and inclusion for all.

Watch ‘100 Years of Medical Women: The Past, Present & Future’ on YouTube.