Life in the Oxford pressure cooker comes with challenges as well as opportunities, but that is nothing new. Perhaps what is different in the 21st century is the pace and scope of change, the additional stresses that can be a consequence of social media, the pressure to succeed and concerns about the future in an uncertain world. We are fortunate that, thanks to the welfare support offered by our JCR, MCR, Fellows and staff, our students are able to grow in confidence and resilience at the same time as they grow in intellectual capacity. Our Thatcher Scholarship Trust Development Programme focuses particularly on equipping students with the skills they need to manage their lives amidst the competing demands of today’s busy world.
“If you want to change the world, come to Somerville” has become an unofficial slogan for us. The ground-breaking research undertaken by our Fellows and graduate students is a testament to this sentiment, as are the careers followed by our alumni and many of the initiatives taken by our undergraduates. Currently 3 Somervillians, two past one present, are involved in an exciting charity start-up using technology to help the homeless in Oxford. This has the potential to change the world of those who do not have a roof over their heads and will make our giving more effective and efficient.
The appointment last week of Somervillian Sam Gyimah as Minister of Universities and Science is a matter for celebration and also proof of how Somerville empowers its members to make a difference and change the world. As Sam has said, his “exciting new brief has our future at its heart, giving students the best opportunity to make the most of their lives, championing cutting-edge science, research and innovation, and supporting our world class universities”. I hope that we will be able to welcome him back to Somerville in the not too distant future, not only to meet and talk to our students and Fellows but also so that we can share with him some of our ground-breaking research which will enable us to meet the problems of today as well as the challenges of tomorrow.
So we look to the future, but in this centenary year of the extension of the franchise we also celebrate the advances that have been made since the suffragists and suffragettes succeeded in their campaign for women’s suffrage. We have come a long, long way since 100 years ago last week the House of Lords voted for women’s suffrage (despite Lord Curzon and 70 other naysayers describing the probable effect of Votes for Women as ‘incalculable’, ‘catastrophic’ and ‘without justification’). In that time, the extraordinary women from all walks of life on whose shoulders we stand have enabled us to make great progress on our journey for a more equal and socially just society, but we still have some way to go.
I am immensely proud of the role that Somerville has played in the realisation of progress. As another Somervillian, Jane Robinson, says of Somerville in her excellent new book Hearts and Minds: The Untold Story of the Great Pilgrimage and How Women Won the Vote – it is “surely one of the most important institutions in the history of British feminism”.
Throughout this year we will be organising an exciting programme of events to mark the march for progress and look at the way in which democracy and the struggle for rights has changed our College, our community and our country. We will also be collaborating with Oxford’s expanding research programme Women in the Humanities and the wider University. As we do this we remember that we have benefited enormously from the bold step the College took in 1994 to welcome men, and we celebrate the achievements of all of our amazing alumni, Fellows and students. The fact that we are a former women’s college with a remarkable history makes Somerville very special. Now, in the new year, it’s time to look for new ways for Somerville to change the world!