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Happy International Women’s Day

I’m writing this expecting it to go out on March 8th, globally recognised as International Women’s Day; set a week into Women’s History Month, and I find myself struggling to connect to the very concept. Here I am, UCL SU’s elected women’s officer, at an institution that has played a fundamental role in the history of women, so why is it that looking back to feel connected to the swathes of women who came before me and their innumerable contributions to our society is proving so difficult? 

Initially, I assumed that it was just the uniquely awful nature of this last year; the isolation trapping us all in the confines of our own lives, making it feel impossible to see through the zoom calls and doomscrolling into the structures that we’re a part of, and the different people that fought to create them. But the more I think about it, I’m not convinced we ever did see it. 

Of the hundreds of times I walked to campus, I must have walked down Bedford Square at least three times a week. And yet, not once did I look and see the green plaque at 47 Bedford Square. Not once did I notice that I was walking past the location of Bedford College, the nation’s first higher education institution for women. Not once did I think of the recently widowed Elizabeth Reid buying that small London house in 1849 and using it to formally provide education for those first 68 women, inadvertently becoming many British firsts, from the first British institution partially owned by women to having the UK’s first Social Sciences department. 

This, of course, is separate to the key role that UCL plays in the history of women in higher education. The ability to study in higher education did not equate to the ability to be awarded a degree. While Bedford College had been admitting and educating women for decades by this point, it was in 1868 that the University of London held their first ‘General Examination for Women’, and thus was able to give women a ‘Certificate of Proficiency’ from the University - which is notably still not a degree. That wouldn’t come until a whole decade later, when UoL was the first awarding body to allow women to also be able to sit exams for and be awarded degrees. UCL would then become the first college in the University of London to admit women to the same courses and for the same qualifications that men were, and this is where the specificity around UCL’s claim comes from - we say we were the first English university to admit women on equal terms to men. 

It’s worth noting that Edinburgh University became the first in the UK a decade before, and Armstrong College in Newcastle was also permitting entry to women beforehand, but no one applied until 1881. 

My point here, that got a little sidetracked into a historical infodump, is that none of this is information that most students here have any real level of knowledge about. Even before we all fell into a spiral of Microsoft Teams and despair, no one really expects the history of women and the battles that were fought for us all to be here to be something that lives in our collective consciousness. Even back when we walked past plaques like the one at 47 Bedford Square every day, there’s no real sense of connection from them to us, despite the immense contributions they have made to our present. 

That subconscious disconnect from the people who built the structures we benefit from is one of the most insidious symptoms of the millennia of sexism in society. Women’s contributions to history have been overlooked, downplayed, unattributed or discarded over and over again, and we cannot allow it to continue. There would be no wifi if first there wasn’t Heidi Lamarr’s contributions to radio. There would be no Star Wars if first there wasn’t Mary Shelley’s scientific and creative acumen. And the most tragic of all, there would be no polio vaccine, HPV vaccine, Human Genome Project, and not even most cancer treatments if not for Henrietta Lacks and leaps and bounds medical science was able to make from her dubiously harvested cells.

We need to make sure that we are working to amplify silenced voices, so that those women who are doing that groundbreaking work today, those who are making history, will not go unspoken of in the future. Not again.