Women at St John's
Six centuries of influence
From Lady Margaret Beaufort’s financial bequest, which enabled the College’s foundation in 1511, to the appointment of the first female Master of St John’s in 2020, women have played a crucial role in shaping the College community we know today.
Below are some of the key developments in the history of women’s involvement at St John’s. The Library's Biographical Archive contains comprehensive information on many of the individuals and milestones mentioned here. Please get in touch if you would like to find out more.
St John’s is founded on the legacy of Lady Margaret Beaufort (1443-1509), Countess of Richmond and Derby and mother to King Henry VII of England.
Born in the early 1440s, Margaret inherited her father John Beaufort’s considerable estate before her first birthday, making her a valuable pawn in the unstable Lancastrian court. By age 13 she had been widowed by her second husband, Edmund Tudor (half-brother to King Henry VI), and given birth to her only child, Henry Tudor. In her middle years she conspired against King Richard III, and saw her son crowned King Henry VII of England following Richard’s defeat at the Battle of Bosworth Field. As the King’s mother, Margaret was granted two rights usually reserved only for queens – the right to own property separately from her husband, and the right to sue in court – allowing her a level of legal and social independence from men that was denied to her contemporaries.
Today, Lady Margaret’s portrait presides over the High Table in Hall, having first been hung there in 1598. Her book of hours – a beautifully illuminated prayer book annotated by Margaret herself – is preserved in the College Library.
Donations from Mary Talbot (1555-1632), Countess of Shrewsbury, fund the construction of Second Court.
Mary Talbot (née Cavendish) was the daughter of Bess of Hardwick. Bess had risen from a modest background to become a friend of Elizabeth I and one of the richest women of her time, and was renowned for her ambitious building projects, including Chatsworth House and Hardwick Hall in Derbyshire. Following in her mother’s footsteps, Mary – a countess of Shrewsbury herself, having married her stepfather’s heir – pledged to St John’s the huge sum of £3400 for the construction of the grand edifice known as Second Court.
As Richard Rex remarks in St John’s College Cambridge: A History (ed. Peter Linehan): ‘the College’s first century was thus book-ended by two powerful female benefactors. Lady Margaret had provided First Court. The countess of Shrewsbury provided Second Court, with a new back gate every bit as splendid as that at the front.’ Several decades after its completion, in 1671, a statue of the countess was mounted in the niche halfway up the splendid ‘Shrewsbury Tower’ on the court’s west range.
Sarah, Duchess of Somerset gifts to the College substantial estates at March (Cambridgeshire) and Wootton Rivers (Wiltshire), as well as funding several generous scholarships. The duchess’s property proved particularly important to College finances in the ensuing decades, and her portrait still hangs in the College Hall.
An unofficial welcome
Several Fellows of St John’s are part of a small group of Cambridge academics who begin providing lectures to women in Cambridge. By 1872 the College is providing accommodation for the female attendees, in Merton Hall.
Under the influence of Anna Bateson (née Aikin, wife of the Master, William Henry Bateson), St John’s lends land to enable the foundation of Newnham College. Anna is an active campaigner for the rights and education of women, and co-founder (with Millicent Garrett Fawcett) of the Cambridge Women’s Suffrage Association.
The College appoints its first Nurse, providing her with a room in New Court from which to practice.
The road to co-ed
Mrs M. Bulman becomes the first woman to preach a sermon in the College Chapel, on Sunday 1 May. Her sermon, entitled “Marriage?”, is printed in full in the following term’s issue of The Eagle (No. 267).
St John’s students conduct a ‘co-education survey’, with the aim of showing ‘that the climate of opinion in Cambridge, and in particular in St John’s College, [is] favourable to co-education’. More than 95% of respondents are revealed to be in favour of seeing more women undergraduates in Cambridge, while 63% are in favour of St John’s becoming co-educational. The results are published in The Eagle (No. 268), along with a detailed analysis by the survey’s authors.
The principal objections to co-education elicited by the questionnaire, were firstly the feeling that a single sex community is likely to be more conducive to study, and secondly a fear that co-education could reduce the number of male undergraduates by eliminating marginal males in favour of intelligent females. […]
It is interesting to observe that several of these same reasons were given by people in favour of co-education to support their case. These people stressed the probably harmful effects on students of passing through the University and quite frequently leaving knowing no women there at all. Many felt that undergraduates should be acquainted with women socially, as opposed to purely sexually or romantically; the question not being one of sexual conquests. It was also pointed out that academic standards would probably rise with the exclusion of marginal males.
The article concludes optimistically: ‘we hope to have established that co-education is both a feasible and a desirable system on which to run an educational institution, and look forward to witnessing its introduction later this century.’
Eileen Rubery is elected to a Meres Studentship. Although not admitted to membership of the College, she is the first woman to be elected in any capacity at St John’s.
College Fellows secure a two-thirds majority to change the College Statutes to allow the admission of women.
On 18 March the Council approves a change in the College Statutes to the effect that ‘In these Statutes and in any order or regulation made under them words of the masculine gender shall import the feminine.’ A subsequent article in The Eagle (Easter 1982) dubs the event ‘one change that is among the most profound in our history’.
In October the College’s first female Fellow, Dr Kathleen Wheeler, is appointed. She is joined by the College’s first female research students (ten in total), with Birgit Müller being the first female postgraduate student to have her name entered in the Admissions Register.
Tami Davis becomes the first woman to join the Lady Margaret Boat Club, and its first female cox.
The first women undergraduates (43 in total) are admitted to membership of St John’s, with Sharon Chen Cooper being the first female undergraduate student to have her name entered in the Admissions Register on 1 September.
Dr Lucia de Almeida becomes the First female to be elected to a Fellowship under Title A (Research Fellow). The SBR elects its first female President, Mary Short. Louise Makin becomes the first Ladies’ Captain of the Lady Margaret Boat Club. Sharon Chen Cooper becomes the first woman to read Grace in Hall.
The College’s women’s sporting club, The Flamingos, is founded.
The first women BA graduands are presented by the College. LMBC member Henrietta Butler (née Shaw) becomes the first woman to cox the men’s Blue Boat.
St John’s appoints its first female Tutor, Dr Naomi Segal, and welcomes Dr Olga Frances Linares as the first female Overseas Visiting Fellow.
The JCR elects its first female President, Katharine Joy, while Jo Griffifths becomes the first woman to captain the Lady Margaret Boat Club.
Onwards and upwards
Professor Jane Heal becomes the College’s first female President.
The Revd Elizabeth Adekunle becomes the first woman to be appointed College Chaplain (later also serving as the College’s first female Acting Dean of Chapel, in 2015-16).
Jennifer Egan and Professor Jane Stapleton are the first women elected as Honorary Fellows of the College.
Dr Annis May Timpson becomes the College’s first female Senior Tutor.
Helen Murley becomes the College’s first female Domestic Bursar.
Heather Hancock becomes the first woman to take up the Mastership of St John’s.
The inclusion of girls and women in the College Choir.
Online exhibition: Women & St John’s College
Online exhibition: This woman’s work: Female staff at St John’s 1650-2011
Article (2019): From black armbands to withheld wages – the chequered history of women at St John’s
Article (1982): ‘Johniana’ in The Eagle, Volume LXIX, No 290 (Easter 1982), p.22
All previous issues of The Eagle can be searched and browsed online via the The Eagle Scanning Project