Perspective on 1972 by Dr Tiffany Bergin and Dr Emanuela Orlando, Research Fellows.

by Dr Emanuela Orlando on 17 November 2013

On a chilly November Saturday, whilst admiring the ornate ceiling of King’s College chapel, we realised how lucky we are to be Research Fellows today. Only a few decades ago women in Cambridge faced much greater challenges to be accepted as full members of the Cambridge college system, despite Newnham and Girton Colleges already having been in existence for over 100 years. We were at the chapel to attend a concert as part of the 1972 gala, which commemorated an important step in overcoming these challenges. In 1972, for the first time, three traditionally male colleges – King’s, Churchill, and Clare – admitted female undergraduates. This was also the year in which the first undergraduates were admitted to Lucy Cavendish College, the college for mature women where we are now based, and which, up until that point, had only admitted Graduates.

From our seats in the chapel we enjoyed observing numerous alumnae from that era reconnect with each other, and revive the memories of those significant years. The gala event had begun earlier that afternoon with a tea at Clare, where we had heard more stories about the challenges women at Cambridge faced in previous decades. Not surprisingly, many of the pioneering women who entered the four Colleges in the 1970s have achieved great success in their careers. One example is Judith Weir, the eminent composer, who was a graduate student at King’s during that time. Her song little tree was performed by female voices from the four colleges’ choirs, who joined together for this occasion. This performance was one of the many powerful moments from the concert.

The dinner following the concert offered a menu designed by the well-known cookery writer and chef Tamasin Day-Lewis, in collaboration with the Head Chef at King’s. Day-Lewis is a King’s alumna from 1973 and the menu was conceived to remind attendees of the 1970s. Despite the many strides that have been made since 1972, in a speech after the dinner, Sir Leszek Borysiewicz, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cambridge, reminded us all that work still needs to be done. Even in 2012, only 16% of full professors at Cambridge are women.

The success of this event illustrated the many benefits of the Cambridge college system. The gala was a unique collaboration among the four colleges. Such extensive cross-college collaboration, I have been told, is something quite unusual at Cambridge. Yet the fruitful results of this collaboration show that it should happen more frequently.

In the past year, since taking up our research fellowships at Cambridge, we have met so many women embarking on innovative research projects in different fields within the university. We are very grateful to the women of 1972 and the previous century, who helped open the doors to the opportunities that are now available to us. We hope and expect that their legacy will endure, and that in the coming decades women will achieve ever-greater levels of participation in all aspects of university life. 

The second 1972 event will take place at Churchill College on Saturday 28th the Alumni Festival weekend.

More information can be found on the special website to celebrate the 1972 anniversary: