The Rising Tide: Women at Cambridge

The Rising Tide: Women at Cambridge exhibition marks 150 years since the foundation of the first women’s college and shines a light on the life of women at the University, from Nobel Prize winners to student activists to those who worked as bedmakers, gardeners, typists and cooks … women who faced a variety of challenges and broke down many barriers.

The Rising Tide: Women at Cambridge

The North and South Galleries of the University Library are lined with paintings and photographs of women who have made exceptional contributions in so many fields, to the University and to women’s equality.  From Baroness Brenda Hale of Richmond (President of our Supreme Court, who quashed the recent prorogation of Parliament and who also has a nice line in brooches) to Helen Stephens (the first female Head Porter of a Cambridge college) and Kate Litman (CUSU Women’s Officer 2019), to name just a few, these women have shaped and are shaping the University that we know today.

Baroness Brenda Hale of Richmond
Baroness Brenda Hale of Richmond

Downstairs in the Milstein Exhibition Centre, the story of the lived experience of women at Cambridge and their fight for equal educational rights is told through costumes, letters, documents and audio visual material.  It’s astonishing to realise that women were only given full membership of the University in 1948, previous requests for equality in 1897 and 1921 having been put to the vote and rejected.

Cambridge University Poster 1897
Image reproduced by kind permission of the Syndics of Cambridge

Girton College (founded 1869) and Newnham College (founded 1871) offered courses to women but they could not be awarded degrees.  Between 1904 and 1907, Trinity College Dublin offered these women the chance to travel to Dublin to officially graduate and receive a full degree – those who took up this offer were known as “steamboat ladies” due to their mode of travel!  And on what must have been a joyous day in 1998, 900 women who had never been able to graduate with full degrees processed up King’s Parade to Senate House to graduate at last.

Trinity College Dublin c. 1904
Trinity College Dublin c. 1904  Image credit: Girton College

Cambridge University Library has existed in some form since the middle of the 14th century.  Since 1934, its collections have been housed in a magnificent but slightly forbidding looking building on West Road designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, the architect who also created our iconic red telephone boxes and Battersea Power Station.  The Library contains more than 8 million books and periodicals, 1 million maps and thousands of manuscripts.  As a legal deposit library, it is entitled to acquire a copy of every book and journal published in the UK and Ireland, which explains its 125 miles plus of shelving and the fact that said shelving extends by 2 miles every year.

Cambridge University Library
Image credit: Cambridge University Library

There is so much to see in this moving and thought provoking exhibition.  It’s a wonderful chance to explore collections from across the University and colleges in this iconic Library building.  The exhibition and a linked programme of events is free and open to all.  The Rising Tide: Women at Cambridge runs until 21 March 2020 and is open every day except Sunday.

“Illuminating Cambridge Libraries” photography exhibition

The University of Cambridge is a world leading seat of learning and at the heart of each of its thirty one colleges sits a library, the hub that preserves books, manuscripts and documents and which has disseminated knowledge down the generations.  Photographer Sara Rawlinson has turned her lens onto these contemplative places, which are often hidden from public view, in her project “Illuminating Cambridge Libraries”.

Corpus Christi College, Parker Library
The Parker Library, Corpus Christi College.  Image credit: Sara Rawlinson

As well as wider shots of the libraries, Sara particularly likes to concentrate on tiny details of structures and textures such as radiator grilles, bolts, shelving systems and their numbering.  Sara will be showing images from twenty five college libraries at her “Illuminating Cambridge Libraries” exhibition which is happening at the Heong Gallery in Downing College from 11 – 17 February.  The exhibition will also feature several rotating pyramidal lecterns designed by Sir Christopher Wren in the late 17th century and which are being loaned by the Wren Library at Trinity College.

Handles at Emmanuel College, Cambridge
Handles at Emmanuel College Library.  Image credit: Sara Rawlinson

Sara grew up in Minnesota, USA, working throughout her childhood alongside her photographer grandmother in the dark room.  She went on to have a very successful research and academic career, taking a PhD in Seismology and Earth Sciences and subsequently running a Masters degree course in Natural Hazards at the Australian National University.  Throughout her scientific career, Sara continued to take art classes and eventually left the academic world to pursue her love of photography.  She relocated to Cambridge with her husband and young daughter a couple of years ago and now runs a full time fine art photography studio from her home in the city.

Sara Rawlinson at King's College, Cambridge
Sara in King’s College Chapel.  Image credit: Sara Rawlinson

Alongside the “Illuminating Cambridge Libraries” project, at the invitation of the Dean of Chapel at King’s College, Sara has been photographing the historic Chapel in a new light with an artist’s eye, capturing images of areas that are hidden from view and tiny details that are often overwhelmed by the grandiosity of the space.  It’s as well that Sara has a head for heights as she’s climbed the tiny stairwell and negotiated the narrow corridors to get on to the Chapel roof and has also, by serendipity, been up in a cherry picker (which was deployed to replace lights in the Chapel), allowing her to take some amazing shots from a lofty perspective.

Old Library, Jesus College, Cambridge
Old Library, Jesus College.  Image credit: Sara Rawlinson

Sara’s work was featured in the national press and online in 2018 as three of her images across both projects were shortlisted for the Historic Photographer of the Year award.  She is a member of Cambridge Open Studios, a community of around five hundred artists, craftspeople and designer-makers working throughout Cambridgeshire.  Last year, she transformed her house into a gallery for the first time to showcase her photography as part of the annual Open Studios event which takes place over weekends in July each year.  This year, Sara is planning to show her work at Open Studios again but this time in the Cellarer’s Chequer in Beche Road, a Grade 2* listed building owned by Cambridge City Council which is on the site of Barnwell Priory and which is rarely open to the public.

Library, Newnham College, Cambridge
Newnham College Library.  Image credit: Sara Rawlinson


The “Illuminating Cambridge Libraries” exhibition at the Heong Gallery will be open from 10.30am – 6pm each day from 11 – 17 February and entry is free.  There will be a Private View on 11 February from 6.30 – 8.30pm which will include readings from Cambridge based poet Michael Brown of poetry he has written in Pembroke College Library.  For more information on the exhibition, on Sara’s work, to register for the Private View and to buy prints, visit