Tim Hughes reports on an Oxford college that’s shrugging off centuries of male dominance with photographic portraits of its high-achieving women

It’s no secret that despite decades of co-education, the hallowed halls of Oxford University can still seem like a gentleman’s club.

Despite the glittering list of famous female alumni, the walls of the uni’s colleges are adorned with dry-looking pictures of men – with barely a woman to be seen.

Frustration with the lack of female role models rendered onto canvas has prompted one college to strike a blow for feminism.

To celebrate 40 years of mixed-sex admission, Hertford – that’s the one with the Bridge of Sighs, in Catte Street, near the Bodleian – has transformed its dining hall to better reflect the times.

For the next 12 months the hall’s longstanding portrait gallery of all-male luminaries (including William Tyndale and John Donne) will be replaced by a photographic collection of female fellows and alumni.

The new portraits feature women from all professions and walks of life, ranging from the philosopher Baroness Warnock to world champion rower Stephanie Cullen, Professor of Anatomy Kay Davies DBE and curator Xanthe Brooke.

Hertford is one of five Oxford colleges that went fully coeducational (both teaching and housing female students in college) in 1974 – the first at the University to do so.

Dr Emma Smith, Fellow and Lecturer in English, coordinated the year-long project. She said: “Marking the coeducation anniversary gave us the opportunity to make a big statement not only about the importance of women to Hertford’s successes since 1974, but about the range of careers and lives our students – both women and men – go into.

“It’s not just that our previous portraits were all of men, but more that they represented a narrow definition of achievement, and a very hierarchical one. Our new portraits show that we are as proud of unsung achievement and of potential as we are of high office or salary.”

The gallery, unveiled last weekend, includes women from every decade of coeducation. Some were nominated by colleagues or peers, others chosen because their personal stories drew on their experience of the college itself in different ways.

Hertford College principal Will Hutton says: “For centuries the gender of the portraits in Hertford’s hall had been 100 per cent male. On top of that, colleges like ours only admitted men as undergraduates until 40 years ago, which still strikes me as amazingly close to today.

“We were one of the five male undergraduate colleges first to admit women in 1974 and break this all male preserve, and it seemed fitting for this year of all years to give the hall’s portraits over to Hertford women to celebrate the anniversary.

“It hardly corrects the role of hall over the years as a bastion of male portraiture, but it is a signal of our future intent.”

The portraits were taken by photographer Robert Taylor. He said: “Too often, even in the 21st century, women are still much more prone than men to judgments and assessments based on superficial and largely irrelevant aspects of their physical appearance and sartorial choices.

“I combined the portraits with the sitters’ personal written reflections with the intention of celebrating the presence, character and talent of a collection of confident and intriguing women.”

The hall at Hertford College is open to the public on Sundays during term from 2pm-4pm, starting October 12.

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Portraits of broadcaster Natasha Kaplinsky and philosopher Baroness Warnock by Robert Taylor which now hang in the hall at Hertford College

* Julia Briggs (died 2007): Philosopher and Hertford College’s first woman fellow
Stephanie West (Fellow in classics 1990-2005 and current emeritus fellow): academic (Classics)
Joanne Wicks QC (law, 1985): Barrister
Stephanie Cullen (chemistry, 1999): Rower
Shahnaz Ahsan (History and English, 2006): Thouron scholar and novelist
Theresa Moran (History, 1983): Teacher
Sukhvinder Kaur (Geography, 1981): Charity executive
Charlotte Hogg (History and Economics, 1988): Banker
Baroness Warnock (honorary fellow since 1997): Philosopher
Kay Davies DBE (college fellow): Professor of Anatomy
Jacqui Smith (PPE, 1981; honorary fellow since 2007): Hospital Trust chair and former Labour MP
Julie Dearden (Modern Languages, 1979): Educationalist
Alison Woollard (fellow in biochemistry since 2000): College dean and academic (biochemistry)
Marian Bell CBE (PPE, 1997): Economist
Helen Alexander DBE (Geography, 1975 and honorary fellow since 2002): Business leader
Xanthe Brooke (History, 1978): Curator
Louise Gullifer (Law, 1979): Academic (law)
* Sarah Crompton (English, 1976): Journalist
* Natasha Kaplinsky (English, 1992): Broadcaster
* Carol Sennett (History, 1982): Television editor
* Serine Najarian (Economics, 1998): Banker

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