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International Women’s Day 2024: Girtonian women, past and present, who #InspireInclusion

Happy international women's day #inspireinclusion poster image

Throughout Girton College’s 155-year history, women have shaped the successes and developments of this educational institution.

In honour of International Women’s Day 2024 we’re celebrating the trailblazing women who represent this year’s theme of inspiring inclusion.

Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon (Co-founder of Girton College)

Artist, feminist, journalist and prominent campaigner for law reform and women’s rights was both a founder and a funder of the College. Unconventional, enthusiastic, and charming, she was a long-standing friend of Emily Davies, and Girton’s largest early benefactor. She gave £1,000 to the initial fund, lent a further £5,000 in 1884, and then left the College £10,000 in her will in 1891. Though Barbara Bodichon’s generosity was crucial to Girton’s foundation and survival, her involvement went well beyond financial affairs. She took a particular interest in the health and comfort of the students and the decoration of the new buildings. Many of the paintings she donated still hang on the College’s walls today.

Image: Portrait of Barbara Bodichon by Emily Osborn, not dated (archive reference: GCPH 11/33/31)

Hertha Ayrton (1876, Mathematics)

Born Phoebe Sarah Marks, was among the most influential British women scientists. A Girton student from 1876 to 1881, she was the first woman elected to the Institution of Electrical Engineers (1899); the first to read her own paper to the Royal Society (1904); the first nominated for election to that society (though barred by virtue of marriage) and the first to be awarded its prestigious Hughes Medal in 1906. Practical as well as scholarly, she made many important discoveries, including the connection between current length and pressure in the electric arc. 

She registered 26 different patents and invented the Ayrton Fan – over 140,000 of these were distributed to disperse gas from World War One trenches. Hertha Ayrton’s success was underwritten by the early generosity of Barbara Bodichon, which enabled her to study Mathematics at Girton despite family hardship after the death of her father. This philanthropic history is continued in Girton today, thanks to a 1925 gift from her friend Ottilie Hancock to endow the Hertha Ayrton Science Fellowship.

Image: Hertha Ayrton in her laboratory, taken by J Russell & Sons, 1910 (archive reference: GCPH 7/3/3/2.

Dr Una S. Ryan (1963, PhD)

A biologist and angel investor. She is a limited partner at Breakout Ventures and managing director of Golden Seeds and Astia Angels, both of which are investing groups focused on women-led companies. After an extensive academic research career in cell biology, Una progressed into the biotech industry. She was Director for Health Sciences of Monsanto Company; CEO, president and director of AVANT Immunotherapeutics; and is currently the chairman of The Bay Area BioEconomy Initiative.

Una’s vision and continued support are instrumental pillars of the Cavendish Arts Science Fellowship, which is based at the Cavendish Laboratory and delivered in partnership with Girton College. The Fellowship is designed to support artists to develop thought-provoking ideas through engagement with physicists and those in other fields, and experiment with new approaches to their practice that are transformative and push boundaries.

Arianna Huffington (1969, Economics) 

Co-founded The Huffington Post and is the founder and current CEO of Thrive Global, which aims to improve health, wellbeing and productivity through behavioural change. She has authored 15 books, including international bestsellers Thrive and The Sleep Revolution. She has been named by Time Magazine’s list of the world’s 100 most influential people and the Forbes Most Powerful Women list. Originally from Greece, she moved to England when she was 16 and graduated from Girton College, Cambridge with an MA in economics. At 21, she became president of the famed debating society, the Cambridge Union.

Professor Dame Ann Dowling (1970, Mathematics) 

Deputy Vice-Chancellor at the University of Cambridge and was formerly the first woman President of the Royal Academy of Engineering. She is a mechanical engineer who researches combustion, acoustics, and vibration, focusing on how to reduce road vehicle and aircraft noise. In 1993 Dowling was appointed as the first female professor of Engineering (Mechanical) at Cambridge where, from 2009 to 2014 she was Head of Department. She has an Honorary Doctorates from 21 universities including Oxford University, Imperial College London, Trinity College Dublin, KTH Royal Institute of Technology Stockholm and McGill University Canada.

Professor Dame Athene Donald (1971, Natural Sciences) 

A physicist of soft matter and biological physics and an outspoken champion of women in science. Her 2023 book Not Just for the Boys: Why We Need More Women in Science argues the moral and business case for greater diversity in modern research, the better to improve science and tackle the great challenges we face today. 

Athene is also the first woman President of Churchill College at the University of Cambridge. Within the University she has served on Council from 2009-14 and several of its dependent committees and was the Gender Equality Champion from 2010-14. She was appointed a Dame Commander of the British Empire for Services to Physics in 2010. At The Times Higher Education Awards 2019, Athene received the Lifetime Achievement Award for her efforts to push gender equality to the top of the science policy agenda. 

Jane Fraser (1985, Economics) 

A banking executive and the CEO of Citi, the first woman CEO of a major US bank. Prior to joining Citigroup in 2004, she worked at McKinsey & Company for 10 years, rising to partner. During her time at the bank, she has served as CEO of Citigroup Private Bank, CEO of US Consumer and Commercial Banking, and in CEO of Citigroup Latin America, in which role she was responsible for the bank’s operations in 24 countries.

In 2019, she was named president of Citigroup and CEO of its consumer banking division. In September 2020, Citigroup announced that she would replace Michael Corbat as CEO of Citigroup Inc. Since becoming CEO in March 2021, Jane has launched a multi-year strategy to transform, simplify and modernise the bank for the digital age. She was included on Fortune's Most Powerful Women in Business list in 2014 and 2015 and has been called the Number 1 Woman to Watch twice by American Banker. 

Priscilla Mensah (2012, Politics, Psychology and Sociology) 

An Accessibility Program Manager at Microsoft who was the first Black woman president of Cambridge University Students Union while at Girton College. Her work involves supporting Disability NGOs, charities and non-profits via assistive technological solutions and support. She has extensive government relations and stakeholder management experience following multiple years as a UK representative to the UN and World Trade Organisation in Geneva. 

Priscilla is passionate about furthering disability inclusion through building community, promoting disabled leaders, supporting inclusive policy and sharing best practices for accessible technological innovation.

Professor Dame Lesley Regan (2024 Honorary Fellow)  

Professor of Obstetrics and Gynaecology at Imperial College's St Mary's Hospital Campus, and Honorary Fellow at Girton College. She is also PI of the Recurrent Miscarriage Tissue Bank, co-director of the UK Pregnancy Baby Bio Bank and she chairs the Department of Metabolism, Digestion & Reproduction People and Culture Committee (Athena SWAN). 

In 2022, the UK government appointed Dame Lesley as the first ever Women's Health Ambassador for England. She is Honorary Secretary of the International Federation of Gynaecology and Obstetrics (FIGO) and Past President (2016-2019) of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, only the second woman to ever hold this role and the first in sixty-four years. She is also Chair of CHARM - the Charity for Research into Miscarriage and Chair of Wellbeing of Women (WoW), the women's health research charity.