‘Newnham to Westminster’ exhibition introduces 10 remarkable alumnae MPs

Rupa Huq MP and two students standing in front of a display board

Which Newnham alumna MP went to prison for her beliefs? Which alumna MP brought in the smoking ban? Who brought a 2-week old baby into the Houses of Parliament?

‘Newnham to Westminster’ is a celebration of ten College alumnae who have taken the path ‘from Newnham to Westminster’ to become elected Members of Parliament. The exhibition was created by the Newnham Politics and Debating Society, a group which works to facilitate debate about current affairs, and to promote non-competitive political discussion.

From the earliest days of women in Parliament, Newnham alumnae have played a role: Susan Lawrence MP was one of the first Labour women MPs, elected in 1923. This came about only after she had spent 5 weeks in prison as part of the Poplar Rates Rebellion. Rather more recently, Anne Campbell, MP for Cambridge for many years, was the first MP to have a website, and championed the importance of the Internet, particularly in connecting women. Meanwhile, alumna Diane Abbott MP is one of the UK’s best-known MPs, as much for her forceful speeches as for her work for education and racial equality.

At a lively launch event, Rupa Huq MP and Anne Campbell were our speakers, while Daniel Zeichner MP for Cambridge attended and chatted to students about his life in politics. The next day, Lucy Frazer, MP for South East Cambridgeshire, visited the exhibition for a personal tour.

Rupa Huq MP opened the exhibition, with a funny and moving speech about how much she owed to those who had gone before her. She revealed that, as a student, she had helped Anne Campbell to campaign successfully for the Cambridge seat, and said what an honour it was to be featured alongside so many distinguished women today. “There is a special Newnham way of doing things. … Newnham made us all who we are today.”

Anne Campbell encouraged everyone to think of a career in Parliament, telling us that although “politics can be tough,” it had “helped me grow as a person: politics opened my eyes to the world,” she concluded. Speaking of the projects she had led during her time in office, she concluded “there are revolutions you can do which don’t need national effort, but which can lead the way.”

Messages were sent in from several alumnae unable to attend in person. Diane Abbott MP sent a characteristically energetic message to be read aloud, including that “Newnham was probably the most formative experience of my life. I learnt many things at University, but the most important was that girls can do ABSOLUTELY anything.” Angela Smith sent a moving message, in which she described engagement in politics as a vocation, while letters from both Helene Hayman and Patricia Hewitt emphasised the need for people with integrity and intelligence to participate in politics at all levels.

The Newnham Politics and Debating Society in its current form is a relatively new organisation, set up by Charlotte Armstrong and Mia Sawjani shortly before the first lockdowns. However, it comes with a long heritage: the original Debating Society was the first society established at Newnham, in the early 1870s. In 1884 the Political Debating Society was established. This took the form of a mock House of Commons, with each member assigned a party and a constituency, and thrived for many years. Blanche Athena Clough noted that ‘The Political was a very good training ground and five of the candidates at the last [1923] election began their political life there’.

The exhibition explores the stories of the following MPs: Susan Lawrence (NC 1895), Mary Agnes Hamilton (NC 1901), Grace Colman (NC 1914), Anne Campbell (NC 1959), Helene Hayman (NC 1966), Patricia Hewitt (NC 1967), Diane Abbott (NC 1973), Angela Smith, Rupa Huq (NC 1990) and Lucy Frazer (NC 1991). Many thanks to all those students and staff who contributed so much to its success.

This exhibition was funded as part of the 150th Anniversary Open Programme, in which members of Newnham College can create their own projects to celebrate the 150th Anniversary.

The event is free and open to all. It is open in Sidgwick Hall, until Monday February 14th, 2022 Weekdays 11am-2pm & 5pm-7pm, Weekends 12pm-6pm