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Foundation Day's extraordinary Leading Women

This year Foundation Day highlighted the achievements of five remarkable ‘Leading Women’ as part of the University’s celebrations to mark 150 years since women were first admitted to higher education in Britain.

Written by Kim Kontos |

Foundation Day Ceremony 2018
“The culmination of an exciting and inspirational year of Leading Women.”

In 1868, nine women were admitted to the University of London. This was the first time in Britain that women had gained access to university education and this modest event was an immensely significant moment for the University, for women and for society as a whole.

The anticipation of the evening could be felt walking through the front doors and into a decorated Senate House, where groups of smiling faces looked around eagerly trying to catch a glimpse of the distinguished guests and Honorary Fellow and Graduands. As guests poured into Beveridge Hall to lovely music and waited for the festivities to begin, the event programme booklets created an extra buzz by showcasing the incredible lives of the five Leading Women honoured by the University. The official ceremony commenced with a procession of distinguished individuals in differently coloured robes and hats stepping in time to the Royal Academy of Music’s Abingdon Quintet playing pieces by Milhaud and Hindemith. 

Opening the event, Her Royal Highness The Princess Royal announced that, as part of the University’s Leading Women celebrations all of this year’s Honorary Fellow and Graduands were women. The speeches that followed described the various personal and career paths of the Honorary Fellow and Graduands, further captivating and inspiring the audience. 

The number of adversities these women overcame and what they went on to achieve created the impression that there could be few more deserving of the honorary degrees. HRH The Princess Royal appropriately described them as “extraordinary women”.

  • Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock MBE was diagnosed with dyslexia as a young girl and went on to get a PhD in Mechanical Engineering, give presentations to over 300,000 people around the world and co-hosts The Sky at Night, the world’s longest running science series on TV. 
  • Professor Sue Black left home at 16 and later became a single mother of three. She then went on to become an award-winning computer scientist, was named one of Forbes’ Top 50 Women In Tech in 2018, and was awarded an OBE for “services to technology” in 2016.
  • Dr Tansy A H Davies was in a rock band, works as a freelance musician and, due to her exceptional compositions, she has been commissioned by numerous world-class ensembles and orchestras worldwide. 
  • Gillian Wearing won the Turner Prize in 1997 and an OBE in 2011, and she is the first female sculptor to erect a statue on Parliament Square – the first statue of a female in that auspicious space in London and, therefore, a true milestone.
  • Suzanne McCarthy is not only a former solicitor and Law lecturer, she also had a longstanding Whitehall career before entering the public service and is Chair of a youth homelessness charity, among many other achievements. 
Foundation Day Ceremony 2018
The ceremony was filled with admiring words about the Honorary Fellow and Graduands.

The admiring speeches could not have created a clearer picture of how these extraordinary women overcame obstacles that many may encounter, rose above them to achieve great things, and then consciously used these achievements to raise awareness and encourage women around them. 

After the Chancellor’s Procession made its way out to beautiful melodies, the guests moved into the reception, bubbling with the highlights of the lives of the extraordinary women. Encountering live music, the awaiting, carefully laid refreshments, and a variety of foods, including the much-loved fish and chips bites and the ever-tempting desserts, the general cheer elevated to an excited atmosphere.

A number of members of staff had the privilege both to support and observe the special occasion and found it very memorable. A couple of volunteers shared a few words on the experience:

Reetu described the event as:

vibrant, elegant and beautifully executed. Our Honorary Fellow and Graduands are exceptional women, each with remarkable achievements in her respective field. The guests all seemed to have had a great time and left Senate House inspired.

Bobby summarised the evening by saying that:

learning about the emotional and poignant story of Professor Sue Black was a great privilege. What she and the other Honorary Graduands achieved, overcoming personal and professional struggles, motivated me to strive for more in my present, and future. This year's Foundation Day was the culmination of an exciting and inspirational year of Leading Women.

Staff volunteered to support the event and left inspired.
Staff volunteered to support the event and left inspired.