International Women’s Day


About life-changing inventions by women, prominent female Oxonians, and more…

Prominent female Oxonians

International Women’s Day (8 March) is a good occasion to publish a blog post about famous women with a link to Oxford.

As the first women’s colleges were only founded in the nineteenth century, and women became full members of the University in 1920, the history of Oxonian women history is quite short.

Hacks at high table!

Oxford currently has eleven female Heads of House (sometimes known as Wardens), namely the Principals of Green Templeton College, Mansfield, St Anne’s, St Hugh’s, and Somerville; the Provost of Oriel; the Masters of Pembroke and St Cross;  the Presidents of St John’s and Trinity; and the Acting President of Wolfson.

Further, the University of Oxford has a female Vice-Chancellor, Professor Louise Richardson since 1 January 2016.

The two female Prime Ministers the United Kingdom have had so far both are Oxford alumni too: Theresa May studied at St Hugh’s College and Margaret Thatcher at Somerville College.

Also Indira Gandhi (Somerville College) and Benazir Bhutto (Lady Margaret Hall) were formidable Oxonians and went on to head their countries. The Pakistani young lady Malala Yousafzai is currently at Lady Margaret Hall too.

The high place of the University of Oxford in university rankings also is due to the numerous Nobel prize winners, of which two are women: Dorothy Hodgkin from Somerville College, who received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1964, and Aung Sang Suu Kyi, who studied at St Hugh’s College, and who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1991.
Mary Somerville (1780-1872) was a famous mathematician, after whom the Oxford Somerville College is named (more about her below).

Further, we find famous female Oxonians who even many youngsters know, such as Emma Watson, British actress known from the Harry Potter movies, who was a visiting student at the beautiful Worcester College. Further, also Nigella Lawson, chef and broadcaster, graduated from the University of Oxford with a degree in Medieval and Modern Languages.

Shortly after the first women’s colleges were created in Oxford and Cambridge, the two university women’s boat clubs were founded (1926).  The Oxford club (dark blue) has been very successful in recent years winning 11 of the 15 Women’s Boat Races (against Cambridge University) contested since the Millennium, though Oxford women’s boat club have in the past suffered long periods of defeat by their light blue rivals, especially between the 1960’s and 1990’s. The 2018 Oxford-Cambridge Boat Races will take place on 24 March.

Life-changing inventions by women

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Circle Vector Texture

As a matter of fact, Women’s Day is global, and out of interest I mention here some women (as far as I know not linked to Oxford) with a rather unusual track record: both in Japan and in the Netherlands, flagship projects on high-speed trains were led by women! A new 2018 Japanese express train has been designed by the female architect Kazuyo Sejima.  The special thing about this train is that this is a chameleon-like train designed to blend into the countryside that it is streaking through: you hardly see it… Another express train was the predecessor of Thalys, Eurostar and ICE, the good old Trans Europe Express (TEE).  The Dutch interior designer Elsebeth van Blerkom designed the locomotive for the TEE.  She did this with great enthusiam and deepened her knowledge in aerodynamics, and this train was a luxury icon for trans-European train travelers (first class only), linking 70 European cities.  You could, for instance, travel in 4 hours and 20 minutes from Paris to Amsterdam: almost the same time as the Thalys today, and … much cheaper.  The aim was that this train should give the voyager a flying feeling. I have taken it once from Luxembourg to Brussels (a nice side effect of a problem with the Belgian railway). This Youtube clip is spoken in Dutch, though it has English subtitles. It is all nostalgic history…

Further of course, there are also many other inventions, about which, however, it is not so well known that they were by women.

Melitta Bentz, a German entrepreneur, invented the coffee filter in 1908. And here you can read all about 18 other inventions by women that changed the world.  Amongst these are very practical things, such as the life raft, the electric refrigerator, the dishwasher, the ice cream maker, the paper bag, the Monopoly game and central heating, but also … the computer algorithm and wireless transmissions technology, CCTV, bullet proof vests, and beer!

Lists of women in specific areas

Finally, here I share a selection of  lists of females in significant roles:

  • The world’s 100 most powerful women;
  • So far, we had sixty female astronauts; 
  • Five famous female mathematicians.  One of them is Mary Somerville (1780-1872), after whom the Somerville College at the University of Oxford is named.  She was born at a time when it wasn’t seen as necessary to give girls a good education. Mary was very interested in mathematics however, and tried to study whenever she could. She taught herself at home and spent time learning with friends and family members.  Though her fisrt husband did not support her at all, he did not prevent her from studying. Her second husband however took pride in his wife’s educational accomplishments. They became friends with numerous eminent scientists, including the French mathematician Pierre-Simon Laplace. Mary published her first scientific paper, on the Magnetizing Power of the More Refrangible Solar Rays, in 1826.
  • Best female authors of all time.  Virginia Woolf is still ranked second. – I was told that she is read far more by women than by men, though I can recommend her to everyone;
  • Famous female magicians;
  • and even the World top female futurists. I am proud to be mentioned for the European Parliamentary Research Service as one of the current 46 in Europe…


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EU visiting fellow at the European Studies Centre, St Antony's College, University of Oxford

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