Newnham to Westminster: an exhibition highlighting political pioneers

The exhibition celebrates the political careers of Newnham alumnae

In celebration of Newnham College’s 150th anniversary, students of Newnham Politics and Debating Society (NPDS) have developed a pop-up exhibition titled ‘From Newnham to Westminster’. The exhibition showcases a number of Newnham College alumnae who have held elected positions within the UK Parliament.

The exhibition was a collaborative project between the society and the college, as part of Newnham’s 150th anniversary programme.

The ten Newnham alumnae are featured are: Susan Lawrence, Mary Agnes Hamilton, Grace Colman, Anne Campbell, Helene Hayman, Patricia Hewitt, Diane Abbott, Angela Smith, Rupa Huq, and Lucy Frazer.

Some of these names – like Diane Abbott or Patricia Hewitt – may be familiar. However, this exhibition also brings attention to some of the trailblazing women whose political contributions have been largely unacknowledged.

Image credit: Claire Sawford

Susan Lawrence was the first female MP to speak in the commons (which she did in order to oppose school meal cuts) and also the first woman to chair the Labour Party Conference in 1930. In 1921, alongside 29 other councillors, she was jailed for five weeks for refusing to collect the poor rate as part of the Poplar Rates Revolt. Helene Hayman was the first MP to have a child whilst serving as an MP.

When Mary Hamilton successfully ran for Labour MP for Blackburn she received more votes than any other female Labour candidate ever before. Diane Abbott (one of Newnham’s more well-known alumnae) was the first ever black woman MP.

Susan Lawrence, Mary Hamilton and Grace Colman all attended Newnham at a time when women were not allowed to be awarded full degrees (this wasn’t reformed until 1948) making their career accomplishments all the more impressive.

The launch of the exhibition took place on 3rd of February. Rupa Huq and Anne Campbell were both in attendance, as well as current Cambridge MP Daniel Zeichner.

Rupa Huq and Anne Campbell both made speeches at the event. Huq spoke of how while a student at Newnham she had campaigned for Anne Campbell when she stood successfully for the Cambridge seat in 1992. She addressed the audience, made up of students and staff of the college, with the sentiment that “Newnham made us all who we are today”.

In her speech, Campbell encouraged everyone to consider a career in Parliament and spoke of how rewarding it can be despite the challenges.

Image credit: Charlotte Armstrong and Mia Sawjani.

Diane Abbott, current MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington and former Shadow Home Secretary, was unable to attend but instead sent a message of support in which she described her time at Newnham as “probably the most formative experience of my life.”

Other Newnhamites featured – including Patricia Hewitt, Angela Smith and Helene Hayman – did not attend but sent in messages of support which can now be viewed as a part of the exhibition.

Charlotte Armstrong, the current co-chair of the student debating society said: “We were inspired to take on the project to showcase those alumnae who had made this transition ‘From Newnham to Westminster.’ For us, the exhibition will not only celebrate their achievements but will also draw attention to the continued challenges faced by women in politics.”

Her fellow co-chair Mia Sawjani remarked on how “the individuals within the exhibition have lived in the same buildings, studied the same degrees and have had experiences that tangibly map onto those of the students today. We hope this raises awareness of the potential of all students to contribute to Newnham’s historical and evolving legacy.”

Charlotte Armstrong (left), Mia Sawjani, and Newnham Principle Alison Rose (right) pictured at the launch. Image Credit: Claire Sawford

The NPDS was formed by Mia and Charlotte in February 2020. They wanted to create a space for welcoming and unintimidating political debate. Despite the challenge of starting a new society immediately before the pandemic, the NPDS have since hosted the likes of Sir Vince Cable, Sir Oliver Letwin and Hilary Benn.

The exhibition is free and open to all. It is located in Sidgwick Hall within Newnham College and will run until February 14th. The opening times are 11am-2pm and then 5pm-7pm on weekdays, and 12pm-6pm on weekends.

Featured image credit: Claire Sawford

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