The Female Presidential Shoot
Showcasing the female presidents of Cambridge University societies
Just last year marked thirty years since Magdalene became Cambridge's last college to admit women. In 1982, when St. John's finally admitted female undergraduates, their Head Porter Bob Fuller described the entrance of women as an “invasion”. He also flew the college flag at half mast and wore all black in "mourning" for the college; the same grim welcome met the new female students of Magdalene in 1988.
Just one generation ago, the admission of women into Cambridge colleges was likened to a death. Today, The Tab Cambridge documents the progress that has been made since then; we photographed twenty female and non-binary presidents of Cambridge societies, including the Cambridge Union President, the African-Caribbean Society President, and the JCR President of the oldest Cambridge college, Peterhouse. The Tab Cambridge called for nominations for female identifying and non-binary presidents across our social media platforms, and those who attended the shoot are featured below. Of course, there is still more work to be done for gender equality in Cambridge (strikers this week protest the 18% gender pay gap amongst other issues, for example), but the number of women in positions of power demonstrates how far the university has come.
These twenty female represent only a fraction of Cambridge's female presidents. Others not featured in these photos include Angela Lu-Stanton (Cambridge University Chinese Society), Millie Morgan (Cambridge University Karate Club), Jess O'Brien (CUSU Disabled Student's Campaign), Rihab El-Hussain (Cambridge University Sudanese Society), Ilinca Manolache (Cambridge University Romanian Society), Miske Ali and Shukri Abdullahi (Cambridge University Somali Society), Asma Ibrahim (Cambridge University Yemen Society), and Mia Lupoli (Magdalene College JCR).
Many of the women in these photos are the first female presidents in the history of their societies, and in some cases the first women of colour to take these positions of power. The Tab Cambridge spoke to them about their experiences presiding over traditionally male spaces. Aisha Farooq told us that "as the first brown and female JCR President of Peterhouse," she was initially daunted by “the prospect of representing a notoriously right-wing, white male dominated College", but has found that "pushing the ethnic minority voice into the mainstream has been the most rewarding part of the job by far". Wanipa Ndhlovu, President of the Cambridge University African Caribbean Society, says that “being a black woman in a position of power” has found her at both her “strongest” and at her “most vulnerable”. Whilst she loves the work that ACS does, she says that the role “comes with an immense amount of pressure”. There have been times when she’s felt disrespected, and “made to feel too stubborn and assertive. [She has] been told but not asked, overshadowed, and overpowered”. She says that she “only lets the world see the public version” of herself – “makeup done, hair laid, glistening smile… this is the 'Wanipa' most [people are used to]". Despite “the hours of stress, the anxiety, the tears when things go wrong”, Wanipa feels that she’s grown as a leader, as a person and as a woman. For her, “that is everything [she] could ask for”.
Some of these presidents have found their roles challenging at times due to systematic bias in a changing system. Georgina Gledhill says that her experience as Sidney Sussex College JCR President has at times been “difficult, testing and quite thankless”, not only because of the demands of the role but also because, in her words, she is “a queer, Northern woman”. She is confident that, had she been “an able bodied, privately educated, heterosexual and most likely Southern man”, her time would have been "different”.
Over the course of the shoot, these women told The Tab Cambridge about their proudest achievements during their presidencies. Wanipa, President of ACS, notes that the fruits of the society’s access work are visibly paying off. She has worked hard to ensure that the experience of black students at Cambridge is “beautiful and empowering,” and she tells us that she never expected to have her voice heard on so many platforms. Wanipa has given presentations to “rooms full of old white alumni”, spoken on national television and radio, and worked generally to improve access at Cambridge, itself an important area of improvement for many of the women featured in this article. As Co-Presidents of The Cambridge Refugee Scholarship Campaign, Anki Deo and Jacqui Cho have urged the university to provide financial aid to those whose education has been disrupted by “conflict, displacement and political instability”. Their main point of focus this year has been supporting the first cohort of the Rowan Williams Campaign Studentship (a scholarship for students from backgrounds of instability).
Many of the presidents we spoke to have focused their efforts this year on increasing diversity within their societies. Rachel Tustin, President of The Cambridge Union, has spent her term creating systems which prioritise the representation of minority groups, such as the institution of a Diversity Officer role and a Diversity Sub-Committee, which Rachel considers her “biggest legacy”. Discussing her own legacy as Sabbatical Officer for the Disabled Students' Campaign, Jess O'Brien has been keen to prioritise "the experiences of women and non-binary students" by "discussing the intersections between disability and femininity, including our experience of pain and [the] likelihood [of] being misdiagnosed with personality disorders due to gendered diagnostic criteria for Autism and ADHD". Next term, Jess plans to run an event on the history of women and mental illness.
Social impact has also been a priority for these women. Georgina, described by one student as “Sidney’s most effective president”, was nominated for her community-driven work, which included setting up a menstrual products donation scheme for homeless women in Cambridge and issuing a mandate to the College Council to secure a civil marriage licence, ensuring that same-gender couples could be married in college. The sports society presidents we spoke to also highlighted their emancipation of women in traditionally male-dominated spaces. Millie Morgan, the first female President of Cambridge University Karate Club since 2015, was nominated for her efforts in encouraging female and non-binary representation in combat sports. She told us that, as President, she's been "working on making martial arts safer and more accessible for women, empowering girls to kick some ass". A similar goal was expressed by Larkin Sayre, the President of Cambridge University Women's Boat Club, who has found her position “empowering”, particularly given the widespread media attention that the Boat Race receives.
The photographs of these trailblazers, standing before portraits of past Union presidents from a more patriarchal era, are a symbol of the struggle for equality that began in 1869 with the first admission of female students to Girton College and which continues to this day.
The use of "female" and "woman/women" in this article refer to both female and non-binary identifying people.
Directed by Izzy Ormonde and Claudia Rowan
Photographer: Domininkas Žalys
Location: The Cambridge Union