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40 years of women at Trinity: new photographic portraits

When pupils from a local primary school visited Trinity recently, one girl looked around the imposing dining hall and asked: ‘Why are there no ladies on the walls?’

Schools Liaison Officer, Caitlin de Jode, explained that 40 years ago, for the first time since Trinity was founded by Henry VIII in 1546, women were allowed to become members of College – as postgraduate students in 1976, Fellows in 1977 and undergraduates in 1978. Consequently, the visual representation of women of Trinity is limited.

In a bid to change that, and as part of the 40th anniversary of women’s arrival at the College, a series of photographic portraits of female Fellows of Trinity will be exhibited in the Wren Library. The exhibition will be open to the public from 26 June, Monday to Friday, 12-2pm.

Eugenio Polgovsky was commissioned to make the portraits. He is Trinity’s current Fellow Commoner in the Creative Arts – the first filmmaker and photographer in the 50-year history of this fellowship.

The exhibition features 20 female Fellows of Trinity including: Professor of European Law and Employment Law, Catherine Barnard, who is Senior Tutor at the College; Professor of the History and Philosophy of Science, Sachiko Kusukawa, who is the Dean; Professor of Materials Science, Judith Driscoll; Reader in Modern and Contemporary Art History, Dr Alyce Mahon, who is Director of Studies in History of Art; and Head of High Energy Physics at the Cavendish Laboratory, Professor Valerie Gibson, who is Director of Studies in Physics.

Professor Barnard said:

Eugenio’s distinctive portraits capture the dynamism of Trinity’s women Fellows, whether they are long-standing figures in College, mid-career academics or relative newcomers. At an institution like Trinity, we are all relative newcomers, but I think it’s fair to say that as women we have made our mark – and we encourage other women, as undergraduates, postgraduates and academics, to do likewise.

This exhibition is one of several projects to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the first woman passing through Great Gate as a member of College. What we see around us should reflect the people with whom we work, study, research – and ultimately share in this extraordinary institution of which I am very proud to be a member. These portraits are vital and mark a step change at Trinity.

Professor Gibson agreed:

We are committed to reaching out to more young women with the ability to study here, regardless of financial circumstance or background. This year we ran a women-in-maths residential with Christ’s College, which will be repeated in 2018. We are very keen to promote women-in-STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects. Building on the success of the 2016 residential, this year’s women-in-STEM event will have greater capacity. And in 2018, we are planning an event for younger girls to inspire them about science before they make important exam subject choices.

Professor Driscoll said there was a connection between efforts to recruit more women to study STEM and the visual representation of female academics in those subjects at Trinity.

This is a very good initiative as young women need role models, particularly in the sciences, and nothing should prevent them from realising their potential.

While reaching out to young women at various stages of their school careers was important, so too were efforts to support them in their applications to Trinity and Cambridge, Professor Barnard said.

We strongly encourage more women wanting to study the whole range of subjects on offer at Cambridge to apply to Trinity. It’s an amazing institution – and there is a place for any woman with the ability, passion and motivation to succeed.

The choice of photography for the exhibition marks a departure from the oil portraits of men that typically hang on Trinity’s walls. Dr Mahon said that the new portraits would have a very positive impact on the College.

These portraits are an important step towards re-fashioning our visual culture in Trinity, both for members of the public visiting the College and for the students and Fellows who work and reside here. The portraits pay homage to the vital role women play in all fields of scholarship and in the recent history of the Fellowship: that vitality is reflected in the choice of the medium of photography for the project, and in the many spaces in which women are portrayed – from the Fellows’ Parlour and Great Court to the gardens overlooking the river.

Through this project and the lens of Eugenio Polgovsky, women scholars are being rightly acknowledged and celebrated and the conventions of a still predominantly male academy are being challenged. We hope this exhibition helps inspire younger generations of women, and reinforces the need to encourage and nurture their talent and ambition.  

Mr Polgovsky said he was honoured to have participated in the initiative.

My work has focused on celebrating Fellows’ roles as teachers, researchers, leaders, and role models. The Fellows I photographed shared a passion for their work and commitment to their students. Through the art of photography, my portraits are a modest tribute to Trinity’s impressive women academics.

Professor of Earth Sciences and Director of Studies in Natural Sciences at Trinity, Marian Holness, welcomed the creation of the portraits.

 Sitting at lunch in Hall I am struck by the almost entirely male make-up of the great and the good lining the walls, although this was refreshingly changed when the portrait of Elizabeth I joined her sister during an all-too-brief sojourn above High Table. I hope that this is the start of a real shift in the gender balance of college imagery.

Reader in Slavonic Studies, Dr Emma Widdis, who is Director of Studies in Modern and Medieval Languages at Trinity, said:

Our students are surrounded by images of men, most notably with Henry VIII at the head of the hall. This is our history, and we value it, but Trinity has other stories to tell, now and in the future. One of those stories is about women, and their place in Trinity – and in the world. We hope that this exhibition presents a different iconography for the College, and opens up a sense of possibility for our students.

The exhibition can be viewed in the Wren Library, which is open to the public 12-2pm Monday to Friday, from 26 June (except for 6 & 7 July).

All portraits © Eugenio Polgovsky

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