Cambridge marks women’s equality struggle – with a two-storey vulva

Cathy de Monchaux sculpture at Newnham College celebrates 70 years since the university allowed women to graduate

The hallowed college quads and courts of Oxford and Cambridge hold many more statues of men than of women; a testament to the long tradition of male dominance at Britain’s leading universities. But a bronze sculpture of a vulva to be unveiled later this week at Newnham College, Cambridge, is set to help redress the balance with a flourish.

The two-storey tall artwork, created by former Turner Prize nominee Cathy de Monchaux, is called Beyond Thinking and was inspired by the words of Virginia Woolf. It arrives in Cambridge on the 70th anniversary of the staging of the first degree ceremony for its women graduates. “The piece is about making a stand,” said De Monchaux this weekend. “Woolf’s famous essay, A Room of One’s Own, argues that young women need the same space to sit and contemplate that young male students have traditionally had. It is a startling fact that women did not get degrees here until 1948, so I was moved by how woefully short the history of women’s education really is.”

De Monchaux, who was shortlisted for the Turner prize in 1998, said she was pleased with early reaction to her new sculpture. “Those who have seen it already, like the college porters, seem to really like it. They are quite intrigued,” she told the Observer.

Virginia Woolf’s landmark essay was based on the text of two lectures she gave at Newnham – one of Oxbridge’s few remaining all-female colleges – 90 years ago. Cambridge was the last British university to grant its female students equal rights, although it had allowed them to attend some lectures from the 1870s.

Detail from Beyond Thinking.
Detail from Beyond Thinking. Photograph: Alun Callender

“In 1928 Woolf wanted women to have the economic and social freedom to pursue these things and we are not quite there yet,” said De Monchaux.

Cast in bronze and standing out in relief from a wall, the sculpture repeats an intricate genital motif which can also be seen as an open book, the pages lined with the branches of a tree of knowledge.

De Monchaux’s work from the 1990s often alluded to genitalia and this new work takes a similar form. “That is not the first thing I want people to see. It is not explicit,” said de Monchaux, 57, who lives and works in Hoxton, east London. “However there are hopefully many readings to the work.”

Newnham College, alma mater of writer Germaine Greer and historian Mary Beard, commissioned the artwork to celebrate the achievements of its graduates and mark the opening of its new Dorothy Garrod building, named after the pioneering archaeologist. Newnham’s principal, Professor Dame Carol Black, confirmed this weekend that there had been no attempt to steer De Monchaux away from her trademark use of the shape of vulvas.

“Once we had made the commission we gave Cathy a pretty free hand,” said Black, who added that the artwork was a “moving” way of highlighting the college as a place where women students can develop in an “unfettered” all-female environment. “It does not suit every woman,” she said. “But now, perhaps more than ever, it is important we are here.”

Rosalind Franklin, the scientist who helped discover the structure of DNA, studied at Newnham college, but was not able to graduate.
Rosalind Franklin, the scientist who helped discover the structure of DNA, studied at Newnham college, but was not able to graduate. Photograph: Pearson Education

The college already has a statue of another distinguished alumna, scientist Rosalind Franklin, who was involved in the discovery of the structure of DNA. She left Newnham in 1941 but, as with other women at the time, was not able to graduate.

Cambridge was 28 years behind Oxford in allowing women to be awarded a degree. Its first female intake was in 1869, but they had to live 30 miles away in Hertfordshire. Until 70 years ago they also had to make do with university certificates rather than degrees. In July 1998 900 surviving women students who studied before 1948 were invited back to finally receive full academic honours.

The last male Cambridge college to fully integrate women did so as late as 1988, when Magdalene accepted its first female cohort. There were many protests at the time, including female genitalia graffiti. Some undergraduates wore black armbands and the college flag flew at half-mast to “mourn” the end of male exclusivity.

• This article was amended on 7 October 2018 to clarify a quotation


Vanessa Thorpe

The GuardianTramp

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