42 years after the University of London and 28 years before Cambridge, Oxford finally allows women to take degrees. 300 Somervillians are retroactively qualified to graduate thanks to the foresight of Principal Emily Penrose. Vera Brittain describes the atmosphere in the Sheldonian as ‘tense with the consciousness of a dream fulfilled…’
In recognition of the decisive role she played in securing degrees for women, the honour of being the first Oxford woman to receive her degree is conferred upon Principal Emily Penrose. Penrose is seen here with her great friend and ally, the classicist Gilbert Murray (and without the much-reviled 'soft cap' women were permitted to wear in place of a mortar board).
From Somerville to Westminster
Somervillian Eleanor Rathbone becomes the first Oxford woman elected a Member of Parliament. Sitting as an independent, she will go on to be the architect of the 1945 Family Allowances Act.
Founding the Chapel
Somerville is offered the gift of a chapel by an anonymous donor who is later confirmed to be the Somerville alumna and adventurer Emily Georgiana Kemp. The acceptance of the gift is controversial but the resulting building – ‘a house of prayer for all peoples’, as the motto above the entrance reads – overcomes (almost) all objections in time.
'The Philosopher's Pupil'
Iris Murdoch arrives at Somerville as an undergraduate to read English. She switches to Greats (Lit. hum.), where she studies alongside as three other major philosophers, Philippa Foot (1939) Mary Midgeley (1938) and Elizabeth Anscombe (at St Hugh’s). She gains a First and is anxious to stay on at Oxford and study for a PhD, perhaps to become a Don, but has to take on war work.
The Isle of Man
When the Second World War breaks out, Somerville’s students are allowed to remain on site. But one building (West) is used for the war effort, housing nurses and medical students, and nicknamed ‘The Isle of Man’.