Where are the Women on the Walls?

Emil Sands 13 February 2019

Along with St John’s, Christ’s is one of the very few Oxbridge Colleges to have been founded by a woman. Lady Margaret Beaufort, Henry VII’s mother, the richest woman in England, and one of the most powerful in Europe, founded both. She was formidable, devoutly religious, and is remembered in both Colleges with interesting portraiture and by her coat of arms, adorning corridors, dining halls, and great gates. However, this is where her recognition stopped. From then until now, it seems that she has been subject to unjust treatment, slighted by contemporaneous female oppression. I was shocked to discover on a first-week tour of Christ’s, that the devout woman who paid for the whole construction was not even allowed in her own chapel. She was denigrated to sitting outside, receiving communion from an inner window in her house (now, the Master’s Lodge) that looked onto the chapel. The internal window still remains, acting as a poignant reminder of female oppression, even in the very top echelons of society.

You might expect some sort of recognition since those days. You’d be wrong. The portraits that line the walls of Christ’s formal hall have not historically reflected either the influence of women on the College, or even specifically Beaufort’s impact, choosing instead to prioritise the male, white alumni that have made Christ’s proud: Darwin, Milton, the list goes on, with little thought either for artistic quality control or moral standing. Christ’s message is clear, if you had a penis, made a difference, and went to Christ’s, you’re up there. I’ve heard of more positive life lessons to subtly give to young, impressionable students (especially in the case of one portrait of a famous war hero cum infamous racist). Where are the women? Where is the diversity? Frankly, who cares that Milton went here once?

But, something new and exciting is (slowly) happening in Christ’s College. Led by the ongoing pressures of Dr Carrie Vout, Fellow and Director of Studies for Classics at Christ’s, a temporary rehang has occurred, in line with the fortieth year of women at Christ’s. Before the academic year begun, students at Christ’s were alerted to the Lady Margaret Beaufort Portrait Competition. Brief: create a new, relevant portrait (whatever medium) of LMB: woman, pioneer, and foundress, with the best of the bunch to be hung in the hall.

Carrie’s work has paid off. A visit to Christ’s hall is now a totally different experience. She, and I do mean specifically she, having received very little support from other more backward thinking fellows, has taken down all the men and rehung them with the very many portraits of the foundress that either existed from her day, gathering dust in random supervision rooms between Christ’s and John’s, and the competition entries. The only person on the wall is ‘her’: modern interpretation or old oil. It is refreshing. Although, we are still looking at one of the wealthiest and influential white women of her time, and many questions of diversity and relatability remain unanswered, this rehang is a step in the right direction.

We need to think about who we want to surround us in college – while we eat, while we work, while we come in drunkenly after a night out. After a week, no doubt, most of us are immune to the pale, stony faces staring out at us, and yet these do make a difference. They affect who thinks they can apply to these institutions, they alter our picture of what success looks like, and they bed us not in an exciting future, but a distant past, wholly unreachable for so many.

Christ’s has claimed there simply are not enough women affiliated with the college to meet their portrait-deserving standards. It is not a change in the standards that needs to occur, but a rethink of representation. It’s not that there simply aren’t enough. It’s that there simply aren’t enough who have been canonically recognised for their achievements. If Christ’s can get its head out of its past then it can start accurately reflecting the present student body and all of its accolades. It is Christ’s practise that needs to change to reflect the times, i.e. an increasingly diverse background of students, not the women who go here.