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No Little Women

To celebrate International Women’s Day and the upcoming release of our annual donor magazine, The Marguerite, here’s a sneak peek of one of the articles readers can look forward to…

The Marguerite is St John’s annual benefactor magazine which reviews some of the donor-supported highlights of the previous academic year. In 2018 the UK celebrated many historic milestones worthy of our attention. In light of the recent Time’s Up and #MeToo movements, 100 years of suffrage and 35 years since undergraduate women were admitted to St John’s couldn’t have fallen at a more pertinent socio-political moment.

In 1918 the Representation of the People Act gave (some) women the right to a parliamentary vote. Here, we check in with six bursary recipients who are using this freedom to examine women’s issues in different ways — not only to contribute to College life, but also take this perspective of change with them as they head into the wider global community and sow seeds for future generations, as their forebears did in kind.

At the end of my first year at St John’s, I wanted to try a bit of rugby. Most of my male friends played with the College team and it looked pretty fun. John’s was part of a joint women’s college team at the time (feeding from Magdalene, Trinity and Jesus). Around five Jesus girls would show up to training and I struggled to convince anyone else from John’s to join me. I felt that it was important to improve women’s participation given how large a presence the Redboys have in College.

With huge support from the men’s captain, Sam Fitzsimmons (2015), I managed to recruit around 15 women from John’s to our weekly training. Over the next two terms, we went from a group of complete beginners to easily the biggest college team, with three members getting involved in the Varsity squad. We bonded over injuries and miserable playing conditions and developed a deep camaraderie. Sport and physical exercise are a huge boon to those who participate, not only providing mental relief from the stresses of such a rigorous academic environment, but often providing non-pharmacological treatment of chronic pain, a hugely undervalued route. All of this was done with support from College and our donors, who encouraged the team and supplied us with official kit and training equipment.

Sport is only one aspect of the gender divide. As a scientist, I hope to continue fighting for improved equality in science leadership and policy, keeping women in science all the way up to tenure. My time at Cambridge and funding from St John’s have already enabled me to meet inspirational scientific leaders such as Professor Elizabeth Blackburn at the Lindau Nobel Laureate, not to mention testing out numerous lab environments through summer placements supported by the College.

I will forever be grateful for the incredible environment that John’s has provided, where I can pursue a huge variety of interests both in and out of my degree, without having to worry about my financial circumstances.

Witnessing the cumulative achievements of 35 years of female undergraduates, my friends and I celebrated. Reflecting upon the great work made by women in Cambridge, I felt inspired to join St John’s Feminist Society.

The bursary funding I received enabled me to pursue my passion, providing the financial freedom to work for a think tank, where I led a project on gender inequality for leprosy patients in India. In tandem, I also worked in a Cambridge research group focusing on refugee resettlement in the UK.

Travel funding meant that I was also able to visit a refugee camp in Greece, where I managed a mother and children’s centre for trauma victims. From this experience, I secured an intern position at the World Health Organization working on injury prevention in low-income countries.

Upon completion of my Master’s in Global Health, I hope to utilise my passion for women’s health to improve child and maternal health for vulnerable populations in the UK. The bursary support has been integral to facilitating my prior achievements and will have a long-lasting impact in developing my future career within the field of female self-determination.

My inaugural year at John’s was a tug-of-war between my drive to get lost in academic engagements and my body’s inability to keep up with the tempo dictated by Cambridge. The plan had been to have surgery to address my endometriosis the summer before starting university. However, my appointment was cancelled by the NHS and I was placed back on the waiting list. I was battling chronic pelvic pain and nausea on bad days and extreme fatigue and emotional swings on ‘good’ ones. It meant missing lectures, countless extensions and, as a result, questioning my own academic ability. I went from my professors confidently advising me I would glide into a First to hoping for a 2:2 thanks to the amount of time I was missing. Naturally, this took a toll on my mental health.

I was extremely lucky that my John’s Director of Studies and Tutor were extraordinarily understanding from the start, which had not always been my experience. GPs themselves were dismissive for years before somebody took me seriously. The average woman waits eight years to be diagnosed with endometriosis and there is no cure, even though one in ten women live with the condition worldwide.

Becoming part of a community at university is so important and the people I met helped me feel more connected when I was going through flare-ups. The way John’s handled the situation made me feel supported and vindicated in my choice to come here.

In contrast to the serious health issues in my private life, I tried to use comedy as an outlet when I could. The female comedians of our University in the ‘Stockings’ comedy group made the scene feel accessible for someone like me with no drama experience. When the opportunity came up to audition for a Fringe show about challenging stereotypes in media and showcasing female talent in comedy, I couldn’t resist!

It’s impossible to exaggerate the difference the Bambrough Bursary made. I was able to see a therapist, whom I would never have had access to otherwise, given the extreme NHS waiting lists, and I’ve regained an appetite for life. I am now able to focus on what matters to me: my studies. At one point during the year I was forced to spend a significant amount of money (at least to someone like me) at the pharmacy. If I hadn’t had a bursary to lean on, my budget would have meant that I couldn’t have paid for food that week. The Bambrough Bursary money managed to close that gap and meant I didn’t need to worry about my finances on top of everything else.

I have been empowered by other women with my condition who are achieving highly in the world, such as Hillary Clinton. I aspire to become one of these women, helping to legislate for change and to push for cures and adequate support. I have great confidence that everything I’m gaining by being at John’s and Cambridge will go a long way in enabling me to do just that, and I’m immensely grateful for the opportunity.

During my final year at St John’s studying Natural Sciences, I undertook a research project investigating human papillomavirus (HPV), which is the main risk factor for cervical cancer, the second most common cancer for women and, in the majority of cases, completely preventable. In the UK the HPV vaccine is currently available to girls aged 12–18. However, when this was introduced in 2008, the vaccine was only provided to girls in year 8. Those over the age of 13 were missed and remain vulnerable today.

Screening programmes allow for early detection and treatment, yet 90% of cervical cancer deaths occur in developing countries, with mortality highest in regions where women’s health and rights are
least prioritised and there is little access. to healthcare. My research investigated how HPV is able to maintain a long-term infection, which is vital as its incurability is a key component to the disease’s progression.

Alongside my studies I took up Jiu-Jitsu, a martial art focused on self-defence. This was an empowering experience and one that has become even more relevant with the increasing awareness of sexual assault and harassment driven by movements such as #MeToo.

The support from donors has given me the freedom to dedicate more time to my research and let off steam physically out of hours. I have become more confident in the lab and feel encouraged to continue in scientific research. I am now undertaking a Master’s degree investigating BRCA1, a gene frequently mutated in hereditary breast cancer. I feel honoured to be able to make a contribution towards understanding cervical and breast cancer, and to make a positive impact on the health of women worldwide.

In my final-year dissertation I chose to address the concept of sexual consent in Shakespeare’s ‘problem plays’ and the disparity in the perceived culpability of different genders.

I was surprised to discover that the majority of modern critics lauded women for acts of sexual aggression, interpreting them as bold feminist statements against a patriarchal society, while condemning their male counterparts for similar crimes.

Through my research, I established that this imbalance was likely due to the early modern reverence of chastity, disregard for personal consent and the belief that women were ultimately powerless in all gender conflicts. I posited that by contrarily using women as the main sexual aggressors in these plays, Shakespeare was able to nullify concerns of purity from sexual assault, and thereby focus on and emphasise the necessity of mutual sexual consent.

Going forward, I hope that critics will address the culpability of all genders in sexual assault and treat men and women equally in all areas of literary analysis. When sexual assault is used as a means of
glorifying the power of women, this diminishes feminist literary criticism to a war on the male, rather than a desire for equality.

My time at St John’s has helped me to engage with women’s issues at a deeper level, affording me the opportunity to commit a large amount of time to forming and articulating ideas about the perception of women in literature.

The huge amount of support that John’s gave me, paired with the kind contributions of my donors, allowed me the freedom to pursue interests I was truly fascinated by without financial burden. For this, I will always be grateful.

I first began to grasp the extent of harassment and misconduct in fieldwork settings, simply from day-to-day conversations with those involved in fieldwork-based research.

This was before the #MeToo movement really took off in late 2017 and, once it did,
stories from fieldwork-based researchers appeared en masse on social media.

I carried out a pilot study in my dissertation the summer preceding this and found that 23% of respondents from the University’s Archaeology and Anthropology departments had experienced sexualised incidences, and 11% had been assaulted in the field. There wasn’t adequate support available, so we started to create it ourselves and set up a support group for students taking part in fieldwork, funded by CUSU and the Graduate Union.

Fieldwork can present huge dangers to many researchers, and we are losing talented academics because of this. While there has been a focus on Access for women and minority groups in academia, there’s been little on retention of these groups, which are being threatened by misconduct. A huge number of harassed individuals ended up changing research locations, field sites, institutions or even the discipline altogether. Outreach initiatives mean nothing if women and minority groups are entering an unsafe and hostile environment.

Carrying out my research also opens up a conversation. It is integral that this is spoken about if we want people to feel comfortable reporting cases. By giving academic space to this type of research, we can form evidence-based training and safety guidelines. Much current instruction is based on presumptions because those creating the programmes have often not experienced the very things they are aiming to protect us from, and because it has been such a taboo topic for so long.

St John’s has been extremely supportive throughout my research. Without financial aid I would never have been able to carry out the summer pilot study, or present at the Association of Social Anthropologists Conference in Oxford.

After graduation I hope to continue my work on gendered and sexual violence. When something that you passionately believe in overlaps with something you feel the world really needs right now (and we’ve seen that it does with #MeToo) you can’t ignore it.

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