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.

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 bristol.ac.uk/women/three-questions.

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: https://women-and-equality.eventbrite.co.uk   

Find out more about women at the University of Bristol and our campaign at bristol.ac.uk/women   

 By Kate Ashley, Sarah Ashley, and Philippa Walker