A toast to the Pembroke ladies

This is a transcript of the speech given by Caroline Holmes (née Buckley, 1984) at the dinner for matriculands of 1984 and 1994. The event was held at Pembroke College on Friday 19th September 2014.

I’d like to take you on a journey back to 1984. What was it really like for the Pembroke ladies and what have we achieved?

When Mark and I took up the challenge of getting as many of you here as possible, I couldn’t believe 30 years have passed! I feel just the same and walking back through College tonight it feels just the same too. Being involved in this event has made me think a lot about time. Indeed my eldest son told me that when he read all the drafts of my speech, there was enough for an episode of Dr Who. Just to reassure you I should say that the Dalecks are coming and they are after the port, and you can guess which way round they will go!

Pembroke is the third oldest College at Cambridge and out of its 667 years there have now been female members for 30. It is worth remembering that the Act of Union with the Scots is a mere 307 years old and has barely got started in Pembroke terms. Pembroke is a very special place and it was a privilege to study here, especially being the first year of girls.

People have often said to me that it must have been a daunting experience. Far from it! It felt very normal to us. It was as if College had been practicing for our arrival. Indeed, rumour has it that girls had been in College before we arrived!

In our first year, the men went Head of the River, which led to a ‘boat burning’ in the College grounds after the Mays. Well of course, we were not the ones to see a challenge like that without responding. The ladies started at the bottom of the 2nd division and there was only one way to go: up. As you all know the ladies achieved Head of the River too. It just took a bit of time!

Being the first year of girls meant that if you were at all sporty, you played in every sports team. We wanted College to be represented at everything, so we were pretty busy. Jo Prior and I set up the ladies sporting society, The Martlets. So we were the original legless birds!

One of our very first dinners was in the Inner Parlour behind closed doors. We had an auction; the main item on the block was the ‘men’s first eight’, and we went through them one by one. I cannot tell you the top price paid, £1.50 maybe and I’m not saying if that is inflation adjusted. We were rather pleased that the Dean had to come and tell us to be quiet. There was no way in the world Pembroke girls would be any less boisterous than the men.

We also had lots of fun together. We did the things that students do. There was quite a lot of jumping out of windows on fire escape ropes and scrambling over the bike shed roof to slide down the lamppost to get out of College out of hours.

There are lots of rowing memories. There was the famous time, after the end of the summer term, when we went to Henley. Women were still not allowed to row there in those days. However, we did! The first year of Pembroke ladies were not going to let a little thing like that get in our way. After hours, we acquired a four and rowed the course. Our time was fairly good – indeed faster than most of the men that day. Later that week, Robert Hardman asked me if I would mind him writing about it. You can imagine my surprise, when The Peterborough diary column the very next day read: ‘Caroline Buckley says women are better than men! Under cover of darkness, the girls rowed the hallowed course…’ Just as well that we decided not to go out in a blaze of glory with a boat burning!

Now that’s some of the fun stuff – but what did the change 30 years ago really lead to? Looking back, I think we were extremely fortunate. We felt equal from the start and that never changed. I thank those who put so much thought into our start at Pembroke and eased the way for us. I wish I could say the same about the corporate world.

I know from talking to many of you that we have all had different experiences. However, I am acutely aware that barely a day goes past without the issue of women in the workplace or gender related issues being in the news. Given the success of girls at school and at university, it is hard to understand why they have not done just as well in the work place overall. There is still a huge gender pay gap – girls on average have to work 14 years longer to equal men’s pay! Of course, we are going to live a lot longer than you guys and have a lot more fun, but that’s not really the point.

The feeling, the culture and the way of being in Pembroke was very nurturing and supportive. The thought that went into that historic decision, changing centuries of tradition – not an easy thing to do however you feel about emancipation – was an object lesson in how to do things right. What else would we expect of Pembroke?

That decision changed many of our lives and I hope that every member of College can take that with them into the world. Pembroke is rated very highly among the Colleges for its academic record. However, it’s not just about the collective intellect, but also its ethos. It fostered deep and lasting friendships and prepared us to make a great impact on the world. We were welcomed in; we did the things students normally do, we had a lot of fun, we worked extremely hard and we made the most of the experience Pembroke offered us.

The achievements of many of the Pembroke women are impressive. From 1984, there is Vicky Robinson, who has risen so highly in the Foreign Office, being Ambassador to Burma; Jo Prior, who is Managing Director of Penguin; Julia Morley, who has her Doctorate and lectures at the London School of Economics; and Gail Davey, who is a Professor of Global Health. And from other years: a BBC Young Musician of the year, the Chief Superintendent of the Greater Manchester Police, an Olympic medallist, a professor of Astrophysics, the Organist & Master of Choristers at Chichester Cathedral, a James Bond actress and a Senior Instructor of Management at Nanavut Arctic College.

Many more Pembroke women, many of them here tonight, have achieved great things in different environments – the arts, music, science, and not least raising families. We, the Pembroke women, are influential wherever we are in the world at whatever we do. There’s still a way to go for women in the world, and Pembroke was and is a vital stepping stone for us in getting there.

Master, ladies and gentlemen please raise your glasses for the toast, which is: the Pembroke ladies!