Five Amazing Female Thinkers from Cambridge
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Without a doubt, Cambridge is one of the world’s most revered universities. With alumni famous all around the world in all fields, from philosophy, politics, astrophysics and the works of the Footlights comedy society, there is certainly no shortage of famous and influential former students you can name from this institution, whose students benefit from exceptional research, academic opportunities and intimate teaching in small groups called supervisions.
That said, however, the opportunities offered by Cambridge were only available for half of the population until very recently. Although the first colleges for women founded back in 1869 (Girton College) and 1872, Newnham College, women were not made full members of the university and admitted to their degrees until 1948, and were excluded from governing the university. Finally, starting with Churchill, Clare and King’s Colleges, the former men’s colleges began to admit women between 1972 and 1988, who had been limited to women-only colleges prior to this.
So, with International Women’s Day earlier this month, what better time to celebrate some of Cambridge’s incredible female alumni across various different fields who have made a difference in the world, despite all the obstacles thrown in their way by their gender.
Marjory Stephenson (1885-1948)
Marjory Stephenson was a pioneering biochemist who was one of the first two women (the other being Kathleen Lonsdale) who was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society. Reading Natural Sciences at Newnham College, when Stephenson studied, this was at a time when women were still excluded from the university’s chemistry and zoology laboratories. Stephenson was restricted to using Newnham’s own chemistry library and she attended biology practicals in the Balfour Laboratory.
Originally wanting to study medicine after Newnham, she became a domestic science teacher due to a lack of funds. Later, she worked as a researcher in University College London and became a Voluntary Aid Detachment commandant during the first world war, and was awarded an MBE and an Associate Royal Red Cross for her work. Following the war, she became an active member of the Cambridge Scientists’ Anti-War Group. Returning to Cambridge after the war, she completed pioneering work on bacteria and their metabolism, and was actually given a university appointment in 1943, which was rare at the time.
During her time at the laboratory, Stephenson produced more than twenty papers as either an author or co-author. Widely remembered for her seminal book, Bacterial Metabolism, which ran to three editions between 1930 and 1949, this was the standard work on the subject for generations of biochemists and microbiologists. Finally, in 1947, Cambridge recognised Stephenson for her many years of service and appointed her as the first Reader of Chemical Microbiology, however, she died of cancer only a year later. Stephenson was also influential for generations of students to come, and improved the teaching of microbial biochemistry by helping to set up a special Part II Biochemistry (Microbial) in Cambridge. A founding member of the Society for General Microbiology, and later president, the Society established the Marjory Stephenson biennial memorial lecture in her honour 1953.
Philippa Garrett Fawcett (1868-1948)
Philippa Garrett Fawcett was the daughter of the famous suffragist Millicent Fawcett and the niece of Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, the first female English doctor. Attending Newnham College – which had been co-founded by her mother – she became the first woman to attain the top score in the Cambridge Mathematical Tripos exams, beating the second place result by 13%. However, as she was a woman, she did not receive the prestigious title of ‘senior wrangler’ (the top mathematics undergraduate in Cambridge, and quite possibly, the country), due to her gender.
Thanks to the timing of Fawcett’s result, coming as it did at the heart of the women’s suffrage movement, this achievement gained worldwide media coverage and discussions of the abilities of women, with the lead story in the Telegraph at the time claiming: ‘And now the last trench has been carried by Amazonian assault, and the whole citadel of learning lies open and defenceless before the victorious students of Newnham and Girton. There is no longer any field of learning in which the lady student does not excel.’
Following this, Fawcett won the Marion Kennedy scholarship at Cambridge and conducted research in Fluid Dynamics, becoming a College Lecturer in Mathematics at Newnham where she was known for her exceptional teaching and later moving to South Africa to train mathematics teachers in Johannesburg, South Africa. Returning to England later in life, she helped to develop secondary schools and reached a high rank on the London County Council.
Jane Goodall (1934-)
Dame Jane Goodall is a British primatologist and anthropologist and is also considered to be the world’s foremost expert on chimpanzees. Goodall studied for a PhD in ethology (the study of animal behaviour) at Newnham College without actually having a BA or a BSc first, and was only the eighth person ever to do so in history.
Now 83, Goodall has completed 55 years of studying social and family interactions of wild chimpanzees since she first went to Gombe Stream National Park, Tanzania in 1960. She founded in the Jane Goodall Institute (a global conservation and environmental organisation, has won countless awards over the years and was named a UN Messenger of Peace in 2002. She is also a board member of the Nonhuman Rights Project since it was founded in 1996, and is a well-known figure in popular culture, having written numerous books and is the subject of more than 40 films.
Arianna Huffington (1950-)
With one of the most famous surnames out there, Arianna Huffington is a Girton College economics alumnus, and the co-founder and editor-in-chief of The Huffington Post (which is now owned by AOL), and stepped down in 2016 to run a new startup, Thrive Global, which focuses on health and wellness information. Huffington was rated at number 12 in Forbes’ list of Most Influential Women in Media in 2009, and was listed by Forbes as the 52nd Most Powerful Woman in the World in 2014.
Lady Anne Finch, Viscountess Conway (1631-1679)
Finally, ending with an early female thinker from Cambridge – hundreds of years before Cambridge women would actually be admitted degrees from the university – Lady Anne Finch, Viscountess Conway (1631-1679) unusually for a 17th century woman, studied French, Greek, Hebrew, Latin, Mathematics and Philosophy. Through her brother, she became acquainted with the famous Henry More and the other Cambridge Platonists, and More instructed her in philosophy via letter. However, she was very much a thinker in her own right, and influenced the German philosopher, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, who studied her writings nearly 20 years after her death (since he acknowledges her work in correspondence). Her work, The Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy was published anonymously and posthumously in 1690.