A New Photo Exhibition at an Oxford University College Prompts Reflections on Progress for Women

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Left to Right: Charlotte Hogg/Banker, Theresa Moran/Teacher, Shahnaz Ahsan/Thouron scholar,
Stephanie West FBA/Emerita Fellow in Classics, Alison Woollard/ Fellow in Biochemistry

Did James Brown Get it Right?

I recently installed a portrait exhibition at Hertford College, Oxford University. The exhibition was commissioned to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the first admission of women to that college. The women featured are remarkable in their very different ways, some of them prominent figures on the national scene. The collection of 20 images, together with texts – written by the women themselves – confirms the undoubted place and power of women in contemporary Britain. But there are still some real concerns.

The images and texts can be viewed here

[The booklet accompanying the exhibition can be down loaded at  Hertford Women Exhibition Booklet (pdf)]

How are we doing on gender equality these days? In many parts of the world, indeed even in parts of twenty first century Britain, being born male is still one of life’s great lottery wins. Just 50 years ago the legendary soul singer James Brown had a hit with his song “This is a Man’s World”. The song attributed the key manifestations of modern civilisation exclusively to the efforts of men, offering only a rather limp salute to the ‘little ladies’ by going on to claim that despite all the great things created by men, it would all ‘mean nothing, without a woman or a girl.’  Such chauvinism didn’t seem that outrageous in 1964.

As much as the old charmer obviously enjoyed women, the phenomenal rate at which he got through them, his criminal convictions for assaulting some of them when they stepped out of line, and the lack of impact this had on his star status suggest that all was not well on the gender equality front, back then. To heap irony on top of all that, the song was at least partly written by a woman, who it is claimed never received due credit, or all the royalties that were owed to her. Those were the days!

50 years on, things have certainly changed for the better, for lots of women – but by how much and for whom? There are no straightforward or easy answers.

Meanwhile, the University of Oxford has been making some interesting moves. Hertford College Oxford’s celebrations of the 40th anniversary of the first admission of women include commissioning me to create an exhibition of portraits of women connected to the college. Hertford College’s main hall had previously always been adorned with large painted portraits of men. The sort of chaps who have traditionally owned or controlled things. All suitably grand, gowned, stern and correct looking. My portraits of the women will replace all the men for a whole year. It’s not yet clear what will be hanging in the hall after the year is up.

The 20 women in my exhibition, nominated by Hertfordians past and present, represent a mix of ages, classes, cultural backgrounds, and a broad range of achievements. They include acknowledged leaders in their fields, as well as those less publicly recognized including: the first woman Home Secretary (Jaqui Smith), the current number two at the Bank of England (Charlotte Hogg), the first woman president of the CBI (Dame Helen Alexander), a leading scientific researcher (Professor Dame Kay Davies), a leading philosopher (Baroness Warnock), a QC, a champion rower, a broadcaster, and many more women, all flourishing in by no means typically female environments.

The collection gives a very reassuring nod to the place and power of women in British society today. And yet, even though their talents and achievements are undisputed, the way we relate to that success can be problematic.

In a recent UK government re-shuffle a number of women were promoted to some very senior jobs. Great news in itself, but it was disappointing to see the amount of media attention directed to things that had little relevance to their experience, skills and talents in the political and governmental sphere. There was much written about what the women wore, spurious discussion about their love lives, often in language tailored to sustain some pretty obnoxious ideas about the place of women in society. Even if the mass media manage to keep off the subject of women’s sex appeal and sartorial choices, they still harbour some pretty dodgy assumptions about a person’s capacity to be a parent as well as holding down a top job, if they happen to be a woman: “Mother of three poised to lead the BBC “was the recent headline in the Daily Telegraph, reporting the appointment of the new head of the BBC Trust. Successful male parents are rather less prone to this sort of nonsense!

Anticipation of these kinds of problems even infected parts of the process of deciding how to depict some of the Hertford College women in my portraits. Much as I would have loved to make more of the way some of the women looked, in celebration of their attractiveness and striking dress sense, there was a wariness of attracting too much of the ‘wrong’ kind of attention. Consequently, some of the picture options that I and my sitters might have favoured were passed over in the editing process in an attempt to maintain the very delicate balance between surface/cosmetic appeal and other factors such as character, charisma and presence.

There’s another tricky issue, perhaps as relevant to discussions of racial/cultural identity as gender – that of self exclusion. Whatever tangible and concrete barriers there may still be to equal opportunity, some members of disadvantaged groups self-exclude/stay back/don’t apply/ for things for which they are eligible and qualified, for fear of experiencing the humiliations of unfair exclusion, inappropriate enquiries into their private lives, or just straightforward discrimination on grounds that they don’t do women, or gays, or foreigners. Quite a few of the many very successful women I’ve photographed and interviewed over the years have admitted that they’d sometimes not applied for things they were undoubtedly supremely well qualified for, for fear of exclusion on ‘non relevant gender related grounds such as absence of other women or evidence of toxic ‘canteen cultures’.

Despite lots of equality legislation and much upbeat societal discussion, women are still at an unfair disadvantage in all sorts of ways including: often being paid less than men for work of identical or very similar value, still being subject to sexual harassment at work, still suffering our legal system’s patchy responses to domestic violence and rape, still suffering an unequal division of domestic labour and child care responsibilities (long after weaning has been completed). Some of the more subtle forms of discrimination and exclusion are harder to confront. There are still lots of informal men-only social networks that function as unofficial gateways to all sorts of information and opportunities, often at the highest levels!

For all that, it is undeniable that things have moved forward a great deal for some women over the last 50 years.

If things are going to continue to develop it’s likely that we’ll have to be creative and energetic as we try to change perceptions and practices, as well as continuing to legislate and allot places on the ‘naughty step’ for persistent male offenders. There are now many great female role models, in various fields, and amazing stories of the different strategies employed, by women, and men, to ensure that girls and young women plotting their futures see that anything (or at least much more) is possible. We can all help by doing our bit to share tales of things that have worked out really well, and not just sighing and complaining about the persistence of out of date attitudes and practices.

This will all make much more sense if there is a simultaneous conversation about new possibilities for what men choose, or are allowed to choose to do with their lives. There will need to be as much creativity with our perceptions and decisions about men’s roles at work, in the home and more generally if it’s going to be practicable for women to achieve more without having to be superhuman. Many women are now undoubtedly achieving great things in their education and careers, but many of them they are still facing nineteenth and twentieth century burdens at home and other informal spheres. This is hardly a fair or meaningful version of progress.

The Exhibition is in the Hall at Hertford College, Catte Street, Oxford OX1 3BW. It will be open to the public from Sunday 12 Oct 2-4pm, and then each Sunday 2-4 pm up to and including 30 November 2014. It will be open again in 2015 during university term, dates to be confirmed.


The booklet that accompanies the exhibition can be down loaded Hertford Women Exhibition Booklet (pdf) 



Selected Media Coverage





Daily Telegraph



BBC News



New York Times (Artsbeat)






Oxford Mail



Oxfordshire Guardian



USA Today



A Hertford College Post



A University of Oxford Post