A controversial exhibition celebrating our women alumnae has been relaunched at the School of Geography and the Environment.
As part of our ongoing efforts to promote gender equality we want to increase the visibility of women within the School. This temporary exhibition is one part of this process - portraying women who have passed through the School (as students or staff) and highlighting some who have become leaders in a diverse range of fields - including environmental sustainability, governance, the world of business, the charity sector and education. The Window of Women has two linked components: a photomontage made up of 150 individual portraits and a series of 12 larger portraits of women nominated by current and former members of the department.
The images in the photomontage were submitted by and for female alumnae to provide a visual 'snapshot' of the thousands of women who have studied and worked within the School since women were first admitted to study geography. These thousands of women have gone on to hugely diverse careers around the world.
The 12 larger portraits of women nominated by current and former members of the department have been re-sized, re-organised (by date of arrival in the School) and moved to a window adjacent to the photomontage of 150 individual portraits.
The 12 larger portraits are of women nominated by current and former members of the department. From over 40 nominations, the 12 were selected to represent the diversity of roles of women alumnae (from those who arrived in the 1950s to those who came in the 2010s; including those who studied here as undergraduates, masters and doctoral students as well as those who worked in the School; highlighting some whose achievements are well known and some whose lives have received less public attention). The portraits feature female trailblazers, such as the first woman Director of the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG), the first female president of the Confederation of British Industry, and the first Indigenous American to study at the School. The portraits also depict women who have made their mark in academic geography and University governance, as well as women who are using their geographical and environmental skills in their work, in community engagement, climate change and sustainability services. They also highlight women who have achieved fame in sport and politics. Look closely at the portraits and you will see that each photo is made up of hundreds of smaller photos of other women, all graduates of the School of Geography and the Environment, celebrating collective as well as individual achievement. On the wall opposite the portraits you can learn more about these women, their time in the School and their subsequent achievements.
Renowned geomorphologist, and former Lecturer and Reader of the School of Geography (1954-87), Marjorie Sweeting is one of twelve women featured in a series of larger portraits.
Any exhibition portraying the achievements of women has the potential to cause controversy (what is 'achievement'? Who should be chosen to reflect 'achievement'? How should they be portrayed? How to address intersectionality issues? Who should make those choices?). These issues were compounded in this case by the fact that one of the School's female alumna (Theresa May) received many nominations to be included, but is also a controversial political figure and a current Prime Minister. Those responsible for the exhibition thought long and hard about whether or not to include her portrait, but ultimately decided to go ahead.
The decision to include Theresa May turned out to be highly controversial, and caused much protest and debate within the School community of academic and non-academic staff and students. The protests caused the portrait to become increasingly obscured, resulting in the decision to take it down and leading to much external attention in the press and social media. As a result, and after a long process of consultation, the exhibition has now been rehung. The 12 portraits have been re-sized, re-organised (by date of arrival in the School) and moved closer to the window display to emphasise women alumnae as a group, and the overview text has been rewritten to make the overall purpose of the exhibition clearer. Further information about each woman is displayed on the wall opposite the portraits. A space has also been provided for people to add their comments and to contribute to the ongoing debate.
Theresa May's appearance in this exhibition reflects the fact that she is a woman alumna of the School in a significant leadership position. It is not a comment on her activities in that position: the School is a non-partisan body. We are not afraid of debate and discussion. The decision to include her in this re-curated exhibition was taken by the School Committee on a majority vote. The 'engagement space' provided is designed to encourage further contributions. We hope that anyone who is offended by the presence of the image of Theresa May or any other woman portrayed in the exhibition, or upset that other images have been omitted, will continue to work with us to address these concerns by contacting our Equality and Diversity Officer (firstname.lastname@example.org). We must continue to support the careers of women students and staff, and also ensure that our Athena SWAN goal of 'improving the working environment for all in the School' is achieved.