The female of the species

Rivkah Zim was the first resident female Fellow at Pembroke. She talks about her time at the College.

Dr Rivkah Zim on her admission in 1985. PC: Ian Fleming.

Dr Rivkah Zim on her admission in 1985. PC: Ian Fleming.

I came to Pembroke in January 1985. I was the second female Fellow at Pembroke and the first resident female Fellow. I had rooms on X Staircase; I used to joke that it was a strategic choice to be close to the back door in case I needed to beat a quick retreat. They smartened up the bathrooms before I arrived, for which I am eternally grateful.

I knew what I was getting in to. I was certainly aware that I would be one of the first woman Fellows, and I suspect that’s one of the reasons I was appointed.

I had been ‘hardened’ by four years at Fitzwilliam College, where they had also recently recognised the female of the species. My fixed term position there was coming to an end when I saw a job advertised at Pembroke. Previously, positions I had seen did not allow women to apply – you were ineligible simply because of your gender. I was surprised and delighted to find that I was eligible to apply for the job at Pembroke.

I was very grateful to Richard Adrian, the Master, and to Colin Gilbraith, the Bursar. They made everything much easier than it might have been. Colin in particular was immensely supportive. It was thanks to a few key figures like them who really put their backs into it that things worked so well.

The SCR decided that one thing they could do with their female was put her in charge of the gardens, because women like flowers. In fact I have always been a keen gardener and so it was an inspired way of bridging some of the prejudices. Nicholas Firman, the Head Gardener, was a great pal. I spent many happy hours designing beds and planting schemes, and leafing through the Blooms of Bressingham catalogues in the greenhouse. I was also thrilled to see that, when I came back many years later, they had kept up some of my ideas.

I started teaching women undergraduates straight away. I have very fond memories of teaching Emma Johnson, who was among the first women. We were all in awe of her even then.

I have a very soft spot for the College, although also some difficult memories. It was not a uniformly easy process for everybody to find young women in their midst. However, Pembroke were relatively late in accepting women and so I think it wasn’t quite the revolution that everyone thought it would be. All in all, I felt it was a tremendous success. We always had a sense that we were pioneers and in such a long-established institution that was something special.

As I said at my admission dinner, I was very heartened and comforted by the fact that the College was founded by a woman. I think there has been a special place for women at Pembroke ever since Marie de St Pol.