Baroness Shirley Williams (1948, PPE) and Helge Rubinstein (1948, Modern Languages) were primary guests on Woman’s Hour this morning in an episode focused on friendship, part of a series of programmes Radio 4 is currently airing on the subject.
Today’s episode looked at platonic female friendships, opening with a quote from Testament of Friendship, a book by Williams’s mother Vera Brittain (1914, English), that emphasised how little female friendships had been celebrated through history and literature, unlike their male counterparts.
Jenni Murray, host of Woman’s Hour, then launched into an interview with Williams and Rubinstein about their own friendship, which had begun at Somerville as undergraduates.
In 1955, Williams and Rubinstein married within a month of each other. Rubinstein was bridesmaid at Williams’s wedding and Williams delivered the speech at Rubinstein’s, which was highly unusual for the period.
“It was [remarkable] in the early 50s,” said Rubinstein. “One waiter was heard to mutter: ‘that woman should be a politician.’”
The two new couples then shared their first marital home in London. Two of their respective children – Williams’s first and Rubinstein’s third – were born within a few weeks of one another in the house that they shared.
Baroness Williams went on to become an MP, a Labour cabinet minister and one of four founders of the Social Democratic Party, as well as writing several books. Rubinstein would launch Ben’s Cookies (with its pioneer store in Oxford’s Covered Market, displaying a logo designed by Quentin Blake), become a marriage guidance counsellor, and write a number of books on food, as well as editing one on marriage.
Murray asked both women what had made their friendship so deep and durable.
“We were brought together by the fact we travelled quite a lot,” said Williams. “We had a lot friends in common and…a common excitement with books. And finally, unlikew the social networks, we defined friendship as something a whole lot deeper.”
“You go back to your shared values, your shared friendships, your shared loves, and those become the backbone for a very rich friendship,” said Baroness Williams.
Shirley Williams and Helge Rubinstein revisited Somerville together last November, when Lady Williams unveiled a portrait of herself and named a new room in the college after herself and her mother, the Brittain-Williams Room.
The programme (which included other guests after the Williams-Rubinstein interview) can be heard on the BBC Radio 4 website.