Hertford College has commemorated the 40th anniversary of the first admission of women to the college by replacing the formerly all male selection of portraits hanging in the hall with those of women.
The project, pioneered by Hertford fellow Dr Emma Smith, includes images of the college’s first woman fellow, Julia Briggs; former Home Secretary Jacqui Smith; museum curator Xanthe Brook; and BBC News reporter Natasha Kaplinsky.
Smith remarked, “We haven’t gone for our most famous, most successful or richest. They’re not necessarily intended to be aspirational figures – they’re just some individuals who have done some interesting things.”
Twenty-one photographs were commissioned, most from photographer Robert Taylor. As part of the initiative the college even attempted to source a doe’s head to replace the stag trophy hanging in the hall. “Alas, there’s no doe so far”, Home Bursar Dr Andrew Beaumont told Cherwell. “Funnily enough, hunters don’t tend to keep does’ heads as trophies – the conspicuous lack of antlers among female deers being a fairly major reason – so try as I might, I’ve not been able to source one. The stag will be sharing my office for the time being. You’re welcome to visit and pet him if you like”.
Florence Kettle, co-founder of the Hertford Feminist Society told Cherwell, “I love what the portraits represent – our college’s commitment to equality and progression. Sitting in hall, we’ve joked about not being able to relate to all these anonymous historical white men or the anonymous stag, and it’s fantastic to see change in our environment, provoking us to think about what we surround ourselves with and why.”
She continued, “Seeing these women on our walls challenges what we value and how we express that as a college and university, and gives us a chance to stick it to the racists and sexists of the past. Hertfordians are not all men, not all white, and are very much alive and delighted to see these portraits change. It is about time we saw physical manifestations of who we are today as Hertford, and who we want to be in the future.”
Under the initiative, which has been in the pipeline since last year, the portraits are intended to hang for one year, but Dr Smith seemed hopeful that their stay might be extended. Speaking to Cherwell, she said, “We will wait to see what people think – especially our students – when they come back in a couple of weeks, before making a decision about what happens after that.”
Second-year Hertfordian Rebecca Grant added, “This is a very visible commitment to reflecting women’s achievements and contributions to Hertford and the world. Hertford’s Hall, like that of other colleges, is an important social and ceremonial space – as sixty percent of our undergraduate body is made up of women, it seemed odd that the pinnacle of success was represented exclusively by deceased white men – that’s my excuse for not getting a distinction in Prelims anyway.”
Meanwhile when asked if other colleges should do the same, Hertford student Ellen O’Neill commented, “it might do something to combat the Riot Club-style perception of this university. We absolutely should celebrate such great C16th alumni as we have, but I am looking forward to sitting in the hall every day and seeing people who are really worth my admiration (and whose identities are actually known) as well as knowing I am in an institution that publically accords the same respect to living women as dead white men.”