The Women Who Built Bristol (University)

Guest blog by Jane Duffus (MA 2008), author of The Women Who Built Bristol, for International Women’s Day 2019

Jane Duffus. Credit Jon Craig Photos

When asked to share some stories of amazing university women who make up some of the 250 entries in my book The Women Who Built Bristol, I was spoiled for choice. Which is a great problem to have. So rather than share some of the better known stories (of women such as Nobel Prize winner Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin, registrar Winifred Shapland, or the university’s first female chair Helen Wodehouse), I’ve picked some women who are maybe a little more obscure… although no less magnificent.

Alongside Marian Pease and Emily Pakeman, Amy Bell was one of the first three women to earn a scholarship to the then-new University College, Bristol in 1876. Thanks to her university education, Amy went on to become a stockbroker. And while her sex made it impossible for her to work inside the London Stock Exchange, Amy set up an office close by and operated successfully from there.

Alongside Amy, was 17-year-old Marian Pease who, in the spring of 1876 had been due to sit the London University Women’s entrance exams… but an attack of scarlet fever got in the way. In compensation, her parents allowed her to apply for one of the three scholarships to Bristol. Describing her commute to the university, Marian wrote: “I left home a few minutes after eight o’clock carrying my heavy bag of books – there were no lockers there – walked across Durdham Down, met Amy Bell who came in a cab from Stoke Bishop and then we took the horse tram from the bottom of Blackboy Hill to the top of Park Street … The journey had its difficulties on dark, wet and windy winter mornings and afternoons.”

Marian later became Mistress of Method at the Day Training College on Berkeley Square. She took a keen interest in the girls she tutored and one wrote of her: “She was to us a new kind of person. Everything seemed turned upside-down as there unfolded before our astonished eyes a new and larger world of mind and spirit than any we could have imagined.”

Mary Paley Marshall. Reproduced with the kind permission of the Marshall Librarian.

Marian was inspired by Mary Paley Marshall, who was the first female lecturer at the University of Bristol in 1878 and co-founded the economics department with her fiancé Alfred Marshall; the progressive couple agreed to remove the word “obey” from their marriage vows to show their equality. Mary had already proved herself academically by being one of the first five students to study at the all-female Newnham College at Cambridge… although being a woman she was unable to graduate. However, this didn’t stop Newnham from later enlisting Mary as its first-ever female lecturer.

The Fry family were big players in Bristol owing to their successful chocolate factories, and Norah Fry was born into this dynasty. She went on to be one of the first female Cambridge scholars to graduate with the equivalent of a double first, and would become a founder member of the University of Bristol’s Council in 1909. However, Norah used her combined powers of wealth and education for good, and became a lifelong campaigner for children with disabilities and learning difficulties. The Norah Fry Centre for Disability Studies at the University of Bristol was established in 1988.

For more than 40 years, Dr Vicky Tryon cycled around Bristol doing her rounds. Vicky had been born in Bristol and attended the University of Bristol, where she became Woman President of the Union in 1919. However, she was far from a demure character. This is one description of a degree ceremony Vicky attended: “Singing and shouting interrupted the proceedings and on one occasion a hen was let loose to fly over the heads of the assembled students and dignitaries.”

Like other women who were attempting to forge careers in medicine in the early 1920s, Vicky was met with misogyny upon graduation. After applying for the post of House Surgeon at the General Hospital, Vicky was only offered the job if she promised to call one of the male doctors if there was any difficulty. It took 24 hours of hand-wringing before she reluctantly agreed. However, Vicky was to prove herself so capable and skilled in the role that the hospital then made a point of only appointing women to that position in the future.

You can buy The Women Who Built Bristol on Jane’s website. Volume two will be published in October 2019.

What does it mean to be a woman today?


Today’s guest blog is by students May Mundt-Leach and Erandi Barrera Moreno, founders of the newly formed Women Talk Back! group.

Every week on a Sunday evening, the Multifaith Chaplaincy is filled with women from across Bristol. The atmosphere is light-hearted but quietly expectant as we close the door and settle down together with a cup of tea and a piece (or several…) of homemade cake.

Women Talk Back! was inspired by bell hooks’ Talking Back: Thinking Feminist, Thinking Black and is a new and exciting space for women at the University of Bristol to talk about our lives and experiences in a relaxed and confidential setting. We may come from different courses, countries and backgrounds, but we all have one thing in common – the desire to discuss what it means to be a woman today. We use the long-standing, grassroots method of feminist ‘consciousness-raising’ to do so.

A central part of the Women’s Liberation Movement in Britain and the US in the 1970s and 80s, consciousness-raising (‘C-R’) attempts to bridge the gap between what we think and what we say. Through C-R, women learn that problems we thought were individual to us are, in fact, widespread political problems which emerge from structural forms of oppression. We realise that systems of power are present in our daily lives and majorly influence how we interact with both others and ourselves.

At Women Talk Back!, we choose a different topic to discuss every week. All women are free to attend as many or as few meetings as they like, with newcomers always welcome. So far, we have explored topics ranging from how it felt to grow up as female, to our feelings about motherhood, to cultural and social expectations that are placed on us around food and eating – all in the first three meetings!

Our programme for this term aims to leave no stone unturned. Pornography, race, sexuality, and body hair are all issues we will be discussing in the near future. We encourage women to suggest topics for us to discuss – and nothing will be deemed too trivial, obscure or off-limits.

The stigma of female body hair, for example, is something that pervades society and heavily influences women’s, particularly young women’s, relationships with our bodies. We’d like to ask why this is. Why do some women face harsher penalisations for their body hair than others? Whose interests does hair removal serve? Can our decision to remove our body hair (if we do) be simply reduced down to ‘choice’, or is the reality more complicated?

Women coming together with other women is a political act. Reserving space for ourselves as women, in light of our similarities and differences, is a political act. Looking each other in the eye and seeing not only her, but also an image of ourselves reflected back at us, can be simultaneously ground-breaking, frightening and exhilarating.  María Lugones, Argentinian philosopher, organiser and educator, describes how “by travelling to [another woman’s] ‘world’ we can understand what it is to be them and what it is to be ourselves in their eyes”.

It is only through facing the true nature of the systems of which we are embedded in, that women can begin to piece together what is happening to us. And it is only through recognising the authenticity of our own, discrete experiences that we can begin freeingourselves from such systems. We started Women Talk Back! with one single aim – to provide a space where every woman feels she can speak her truth, and in doing so, reflect on not only her own life but the lives of all other women around her.

So come and join us – and if nothing else, we have cake!

Join the Women Talk Back! group via the Bristol SU website, or follow it on Facebook and Twitter to keep up to date with meetings, which are held every Sunday at 7pm in the Multifaith Chaplaincy.

Give a little RESPECT  

Sally Patterson, Bristol Students’ Union elected officer for equality and liberation, has written today’s blog on the work to tackle sexual harassment and violence. 

As we mark 100 years since the first women gained the vote in the UK, it feels apt to celebrate the considerable progress made by our foremothers; contraception, safe abortions, the criminalisation of rape within marriage. Yet the reality is that we still have a long way to go.  

Sally Patterson stood outside in front of green plants
Sally Patterson, SU officer for equality and liberation

Sexual violence still exists in many forms in our culture – from cat calling, unwanted sexting, harassment and abusive relationships to sexual assault and rape – including within our University. Research commissioned by Bristol SU at the end of the last academic year explored students’ relationships, sex lives, experiences of sexual health services and experiences of harassment and assault.   

Our ‘Let’s Talk About Sex’ research found that students arrive at University with a range of different experiences and levels of education.  Just 24% of student surveyed had received formal education around sexual assault and rape and 24% had received formal education on healthy relationships.   

Unfortunately, and perhaps unsurprisingly, our research mirrored the bleak picture at other universities: 52% of all Bristol students had experienced sexual harassment whilst studying, largely on a night out in a nightclub, bar or pub.  

The results from our research remind us that we have a long way to go until women and non-binary students are equal and safe at university. Drawing from these results, as well as previous research and anecdotal evidence, we have launched the RESPECT campaign this term. Bristol SU and the University will be collaborating on a campaign that promotes a welcoming, positive, supportive and safe environment for everyone.   

The response from students at the Welcome Fair was hugely positive: we had over 80 people sign-up to be ambassadors and gave out over 1,500 condoms and postcards with information.   

RESPECT is made up of seven themes; relationships, empowerment, safety, pleasure, equality, consent and trust. Real change requires appropriate support for people who have been affected, whilst also working to change a culture under which sexual violence prevails, thus preventing similar experiences from taking place in the future. The University and Students’ Union are committed to eradicating sexual violence in line with our Zero Tolerance Pledges. Now it is up to all of us to make this a reality.   

Race, Female Suffrage, and Parliamentary Representation: Centenary Reflections

Today’s guest post is from Dr Sumita Mukherjee, Senior Lecturer in History, discussing the roles of history and race in global suffrage.

In February 2018, I held a workshop in parliament to discuss the ways in which we could learn from the history of suffrage struggles, and the fights for political representation in the Global South, and use those lessons in reflecting on the centenary of the Representation of the People Act in Britain. The workshop was supported by PolicyBristol, History&Policy  and the national Vote 100 campaign. Some of the podcasts from this event are available online. Speakers came from a range of academic and policy backgrounds, with an equally mixed audience.

Dr Sumita Mukherjee,, Senior Lecturer in History standing in front of a bookcase
Dr Sumita Mukherjee, Senior Lecturer in History

We were guided by a number of key questions, including:

  • How can we inspire, or encourage, Black and Minority Ethnic women to feel included during commemorations this centenary year that celebrates a predominately white suffrage movement in Britain?
  • In what ways can we acknowledge the historical issues that women of colour have faced in campaigning for greater political and social equality?
  • How can we use examples of the ways women in the Global South have campaigned for greater political equality to inform current policy making and strategies for change?

This centenary of the Representation of the People Act, which gave some women the vote in the UK and Ireland, has been used by a number of groups within and outside parliament, to propel change towards greater gender equality. But women are not a homogenous group. Britain was not the first country to give women the vote, nor does Britain have the most women MPs in parliament in the world today; 65 countries do better than the UK in terms of the ratio of female to male politicians in parliament. There is a long way to go for gender equality in the UK, and we shouldn’t automatically assume that Britain can’t learn from the Global South, historically and contemporaneously, on successful campaigns for equality.

Black and white photo of Indian suffragettes in a procession of 1911
Indian suffragettes in a procession of 1911

If we look at the Inter-Parlimentary Union data, Rwanda tops the list for the highest proportion of women in parliament, with nearly 64 per cent (in 2013). This is a direct result of the 2003 imposition of a quota of at least 30 per cent women members of parliament. Political parties also adopted voluntary quotas for their shortlists. 16 countries in Latin America have adopted similar quotas, mostly from the 1990s onwards, with similar interventions in many other countries around the world. The UK has resisted. Meanwhile in countries without interventions there have been incidences where the proportion of women in parliament has declined. Being ‘patient’ is not good enough. It is clear that without intervention then structural inequalities, whether relating to race, gender, sexuality, or disability, are unlikely to be addressed. The assumption that appointments are made merely on merit and that the best women (or people from minority groups) would be elected or promoted if they were ‘good enough’, needs to be challenged because it does not take into account the structural inequalities many individuals face in their lives and careers.

A group of women sitting in parliament
Women in the Rwandan parliament

History doesn’t necessarily offer lessons from the past, but it offers comparable examples. More importantly it shows how long it can take for change to take place; this is particularly apparent when looking at the suffrage struggles both in the UK and elsewhere. History allows us to see not only how the 1918 Act came to pass, but also the effects afterwards. We can see the value of petitioning, but also of organising, leadership, and persistence. What history shows is that there has been slow progress in gender equality in the UK since 1918. It also shows that inequalities based on race and class were not addressed sufficiently in the suffrage movement, and that the rhetoric of empire loomed large over debates over citizenship. Examples from around the world allow us to stop centring Britain as the centre of the world, or merely middle-class white feminists as the centre of the global feminist movement. History teaches us that those struggles and battles will continue beyond 2018.

You can listen to Sumita answer our ‘three questions’ series on feminism and the next 100 years at

Behind the scenes at Vote 100

We work in the marketing and communications department and this year have been highlighting women and equality as part of Vote 100 – a national campaign to commemorate 100 years of women’s suffrage. As Bristol Uni Women ourselves, we wanted to kick off this blog series by talking about why we are excited to be involved in this project. 

Philippa, Sarah and Kate in the Wills Memorial Building
Philippa, Sarah and Kate in the Wills Memorial Building

Throughout 2018 we’ve been asking fellow feminists to tell us about the women they think more people should know about; the next thing they’d like to see change; and the everyday acts we can all take part in to improve equality. 

The answers have been as varied as they are inspiring and are testament to the difference a single voice can make. So what changes are we making in our own lives? We’ve started deliberately supporting women’s art, literature and film; spoken out against sexism; and learnt more about the importance of intersectionality in our activism. We’re also starting conversations about the everyday challenges faced by women, encouraging people to reflect on their own actions and beliefs. 

A pile of open books

It’s been wonderful to work on a project that has allowed us to look into our fascinating past, discovering the trailblazing Bristol women who changed our University, and our city, for the better. From entrepreneurial alum Chloe Tingle to Students’ Union Chief Executive Sam Budd, our staff, students and alumni continue to help shape policy and culture today.  

This November we are commemorating the 100-year anniversary of the first women being able to stand for election, with an event in the Wills Memorial Building. Baroness Shami Chakrabarti joins an expert panel of activists and historians, with interactive voting to bring our audience into the debate. In the run-up to the event, we’ll be asking some of our #BristolUniWomen to contribute to this blog, discussing what changes we need, how to best achieve this, and what equality means to them. 

The Victoria Rooms lit up in suffragette colours
The Victoria Rooms lit up in suffragette colours

We’d love you to join us in this conversation. Use the hashtag to tell us about your favourite #BristolUniWomen and what topics are most important to you. 

We’re also planning an historic surprise at our venue for the night – so make sure you don’t miss out. You can book your free ticket here:   

Find out more about women at the University of Bristol and our campaign at   

 By Kate Ashley, Sarah Ashley, and Philippa Walker