Pembroke's Portraits: The Power of Symbolism

Leila Mani Lundie argues that the integration of women and ethnic minorities into the fabric of our university is far from complete.

International Women’s Day is a time to celebrate the achievements of women. However, it is also a time to reflect on our history’s subjugation of women and the ongoing effects of patriarchal domination - not only within society at large, but also our college. Pembroke was founded by a woman – Marie de St Pol, the Countess of Pembroke – in 1347, yet it was not until 1984 that women were admitted to Pembroke. This made Pembroke the third last college to admit women. The legacy of this exclusion of women from the college is not difficult to see.

Pembroke’s hall is a symbol of the extent to which women have been marginalised within the college’s history. It is filled with portraits of men, with only two women being commemorated: the Foundress and Emma Johnson, a clarinettist whose portrait was hung only last year. When I sit in hall, the eyes of those men gaze upon me, reminding me that people like myself are not considered as worthy of recognition. Symbols are powerful and they matter. That our hall is a symbol of the exclusion of women means that women are constantly made aware of the tradition into which they are latecomers. While I can’t speak for all women, this blatant lack of representation - and that of other the portraits are white - is a persistent reminder that this place was not built for us. We had to fight our way to make it here, and now that we are here we must continue to resist the obstructions and symbols that make it so difficult to truly feel welcome.

“But the fact that most of the portraits in hall are of men is because there are so many more accomplished male alumni than there are accomplished female alumni,” you say? Well, of course. A quick look at the Wikipedia list of famous Pembroke alumni displays a shocking lack of women. Yet this is because, while men have been allowed in this place for 670 years, women have only been afforded this privilege for the last 33 of those years. Not to mention that the path to traditional success for women is blocked by far more obstacles than it is for men. If we want women (and other marginalised persons) to feel as though they truly belong here, and as though their accomplishments matter as much as those of white men, a place to start is in the hall.

The material representation of women in places like our hall matters because we are so underrepresented in many other aspects of the university. As a philosophy student, I study (probably) the most male-centric and white arts subject around. For eight weeks straight this year, I wasn’t set a single female author to read for my supervision essays. It wasn’t the fault of my supervisors for not setting me any texts written by women to read; Rather, for those eight weeks there just weren’t any women on the reading list for the topics I studied.

The same goes for people of colour: every text I read was by a white man. As a woman of colour, this hurts. It hurts because it suggests that people like me do not have a place in my subject. The only thing that softens the blow is the fact that the majority of writers I am reading for my dissertation are women of colour. I can take solace in two things - firstly, that women of colour (contrary to the canon of Western philosophy) are incredible philosophers, and secondly, in the fact that I am writing a piece that criticises the dominant framework of Western political philosophy from an intersectional perspective. But I shouldn’t have to actively seek the work of philosophers from outside of the curriculum in order to feel represented and to allow me to love my subject. The curriculum just should represent me, as it should represent all of us.

Pembroke’s hall and its portraits are a microcosm of the domination of women and other minorities both within broader society and our university. It shows that people like me are not truly considered part of the fabric of the university. We are pushed to sidelines, underrepresented and our achievements are not taken to be as significant as those of white men. I hope that on International Women’s Day, especially, we can reflect on this injustice, and hope for a future where our hall no longer stands as an imposing symbol of female subjugation. •

Leila Mani Lundie is a third year Philosophy student and the facilitator of SolidariTEA, Pembroke’s intersectional feminist discussion group.