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The 'Hidden Histories' of Women at Trinity

The Undergraduate Experience, Amelia Hutchinson (Trinity College, 2017)

When Trinity first advertised an internship looking into the 'hidden histories' of the women of the College, I was immediately interested. 2018 marks the fortieth anniversary of female undergraduates being accepted into the college, and it was only a few years earlier that women entered Trinity as postgraduate students (1976) and then fellows (1977). The short length of time in which women have been able to study and teach at Trinity may indicate that the impact of women upon the College has been fairly circumscribed, and the history of women at Trinity relatively brief. This, however, is not the case. Stories of women at Trinity go back centuries.

Figure 1 Hidden Histories
Figure 1: Memorials on the proposed admission of women to membership of the University (1896)

 Marian Hobson, the first female Fellow appointed to Trinity, whose portrait can now be seen hanging in Trinity's hall, said, 'there are women in the history of this College, it is just that they haven't been all that visible. You have to go looking.' The more I looked, the more ways I found in which women had influenced the College, as bedmakers, housekeepers, visitors, donors, and the wives of Masters. The very existence and architecture of the College has even been influenced by women, with Katherine Parr persuading King Henry VIII to merge the existing colleges of Michaelhouse and King's Hall to form the College of the Holy and Undivided Trinity, and Mary I and Elizabeth I both issuing royal commissions for the building of the chapel.

Throughout the first four weeks of the internship, my eyes were opened to the craft of archival research, which I had not had much experience with in school and during my first year at Cambridge. Surrounded by the impressive interior of the Wren Library, I spent my time carefully leafing through college employment records, handwritten letters from the ladies of the Lodge, and books donated to the library in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, such as a signed copy of Mary Somerville's 'Mechanism of the Heavens.' It all led me to think of G. M. Trevelyan's well-known quote: 'The poetry of history lies in the quasi-miraculous fact that once, on this earth, once, on this familiar spot of ground, walked other men and women, as actual as we are today, thinking their own thoughts, swayed by their own passions.' Imbued with the trappings of whiggish history, Trevelyan's words nonetheless rang true, as I gained insights into the lives of many remarkable women. At times, I even felt like I was prying on emotional words shared privately between friends.

Agnata Ramsay delivered an especially moving speech at the Perse School in 1912. Ramsay, the wife of former Master of Trinity Henry Montagu Butler, had studied at Girton, where she was the only student to place in the First Division for Part 1 of the Classical Tripos in 1887 (although she could not receive a degree). In the speech, she told her listeners 'If you are to pay back the debt you owe to those who helped to win you freedom and the enlarged sphere of action that lies before you, you must aspire to earn an even better heritage for your successors, to do something for the world you live in.' Today, whilst there exist areas in which progress can still be made, the University of Cambridge and its constituent Colleges are a place where both men and women can pursue a higher education.

As Trinity celebrates the fortieth anniversaries of opening its doors to female students and Fellows, there is much well-deserved focus on positive changes that have occurred since 1976-8. Now, as Agnata Ramsay so emphatically urged, we must not forget the debt we owe to our predecessors. Not only did the opportunity to research the 'hidden histories' of women at Trinity give me a chance to dive into archival research, but it also gave me a new appreciation of what it means to be a woman at Trinity today.