‘One of the guys’
This year Pembroke is marking 30 years since women students were admitted to the College.
Sovaida Ma’ani Ewing was one of the first women to graduate from Pembroke College. She arrived as a graduate student in 1985 to take a one year Masters of Law. As one of a small number of women at the College, she found that the male graduates were initially rather hostile to her presence in the Graduate Parlour. ‘It was definitely a male enclave,’ she says. ‘They just wanted to sit quietly, read the papers and have their private jokes. I’d just go in and decide to have a natter and I drew them in over time. It didn’t take too long, only two or three months. After that we really clicked and I became one of the guys.’
The Graduate Parlour has moved since Sovaida was a student, but despite its new location she can still find the old comment books on the shelves. Leafing through their pages you can see some of the photos, notes and witticisms that she added. These books provided her and her friends with a constant source of entertainment on cold winter nights in the Graduate Parlour and today they remain on the shelves for curious students to peruse. She’s particularly delighted to find the pages where her fellow students make reference to the upcoming presidential elections. ‘They wanted me to be the next President,’ she says. As she was taking a one year course it wasn’t possible for her to be elected, but by the spring the Junior Parlour had elected their own first female president, Vicky Bowman (nèe Robinson). This served as proof that women were truly beginning to be accepted into the community.
Many of Sovaida’s memories of her time at Pembroke revolve around dining. At her very first Formal Hall she was served an enormous fish ‘with the eye left in and staring up at you’. Unaccustomed to using a fish knife, she asked a male student to fillet the creature for her. He promptly leant across the table and began giving her a lesson. This prompted several stern looks from the Fellows, but she thought it was ‘a hoot’.
There was also a memorable experience with a mystery pudding. She enjoyed it so much that she ate three: ‘We were friends with the waiting staff so they used to bring us extras.’ It was only much later, when she kept collapsing into giggling fits, that the tee-total Sovaida discovered that the dessert was in fact soaked in rum. Despite her friends’ attempts to sober her up with coffee, Sovaida had other ideas. ‘Some of the other students were having a dinner party and had disinvited me, so I went across the street into the basement of their house and pulled out the fuses. Then I dashed back into College to watch from the window as they all blundered around in the dark. I found it so funny that I did it twice that evening,’ she blushes. ‘I haven’t eaten rum baba since – I clearly can’t be trusted.’
Her reputation as a prankster spread, but she managed to avoid becoming a target of the various student stunts. A prime example is the practice of ‘ponding’. Sovaida explains: ‘Every Thursday the grads had a dinner in the Old Library. Afterwards, someone would go round and round the table and nobody knew who was going to be their victim. Then they’d come up behind someone, put a hand on their shoulder and say, “Sorry, it’s you.” Five or six of the gentlemen would carry this person out. Some went quietly, some went kicking and screaming. Their clothes would be torn off and they’d be taken down to the pond very ceremoniously with everybody watching. Then it was one, two, three, splash.’ With a laugh, she adds: ‘I instituted a rule saying women could never be selected, so I was able to incite many pondings without ever being thrown in!’
Sovaida has fond memories of a number of the College’s Fellows. She says: ‘Michael Kuczynski was a very much a fixture in my life. Every Saturday morning I used to open up my flat for people to come and eat pancakes and socialise. Michael always came.’ In turn, he hosted drinks parties – which Sovaida claims can ‘only be described as soirees’ – inviting students to join him for musical entertainment, Lapsang Souchong tea, Fitzbillies cake and ‘wonderful conversation’. She reminisces: ‘The rooms would be packed so people would sit on the floor to join the discussion. We were having fun and meanwhile Michael was training us how to be cultured and to try new things. Now whenever I drink Lapsang Souchong I think of him.’
She also remembers Colin Wilcockson (‘who was always the shoulder to cry on’), her tutor Jay Winter (a historian who invited his students to dine at his home) and a young Law Fellow from St. Catherine’s College called Philippe Sands. At the Law Faculty she befriended seven other male students and together they would go each week to share a ‘brown bag lunch’ with Professor Phillip Allott, a Fellow of Trinity College. The purpose of these meetings was to discuss world topics. Professor Allot encouraged the group to think for themselves and to explore creative new ideas; their discussions formed the basis of his successful book Eunomia (OUP, 1990).
Sovaida has retained an interest in issues of global governance. She worked as a lawyer for 18 years and then served as an attorney-advisor in the Legal Advisor’s Office of the US State Department. After her daughter was born she changed her focus and began working as a freelance scholar and writer. She says: ‘I wanted to apply what I knew to help make this world a better place.’ To this end she wrote her own book, Collective Security Within Reach (2007), an ambitious work that offers practical solutions to pressing global problems such as climate change, terrorism, economic instability, nuclear proliferation, limited energy resources and the international use of force. She argues that by uniting the practical and the spiritual – and in particular the beliefs of the Bahá’í Faith – we can find a way to address the needs of humanity as a whole.
Sovaida now lives in Washington DC, so this is only the third time she has returned to visit the College. For this trip she has brought along her husband and her daughter, who hopes that one day she too may study at Cambridge. They’re surprised to find that the Porters still remember Sovaida and that the student guest rooms are now ensuite: ‘My jaw dropped; this is pure luxury. In my day as a student you shared a bathroom with the whole staircase and it was very basic.’ Most of all, Sovaida is enjoying the chance to take a trip down memory lane. Next stop is one of her old favourite restaurants. As she waves goodbye, she adds: ‘It was Pembroke that really shaped my experience of Cambridge. I loved it. I think it was here that I really came into my own.’
For more interviews with some of Pembroke’s first women students, see the PemWomen@30 webpages.