Each year, Newnham students create an exclusive t-shirt design for that year’s students. This year’s t-shirt features three remarkable Newnham women, Aida Desta, Margaret Anstee and Jadwiga Piłsudska. Find out more about them here.
Margaret Anstee came to Newnham from rural Essex in 1944, to read Modern and Mediaeval Languages. Her school was dubious that someone with her background could apply to Cambridge, but her parents, who hadn’t been able to attend secondary school themselves, were intensely supportive of their daughter’s talents and ambitions.
She joined the Foreign Office, but was forced to resign when she got married. As a result, she joined the UN, where she would have a long and distinguished career.
She was the first woman to be Under-Secretary General of the UN, in 1987. She served all over the world during her career including in South America, Ethiopia (where she met up with fellow alumna Aida Desta) and Morocco. She coordinated the response to disasters from the Bangladesh cyclone to Chernobyl, and led the UN team which attempted to secure a peace settlement in Angola. She also advised successive UN secretaries-general on post-conflict peace building.
The Margaret Anstee Centre for Global Studies, based here in Newnham, marks her legacy.
Princess Aida Desta was a woman of remarkable courage, the eldest granddaughter of Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia. After the occupation of Ethiopia by fascist Italy in 1936, she accompanied her mother, siblings and grandparents into exile in the UK.
Princess Aida studied history at Newnham, matriculating in 1945. After her graduation she served as a UN Commissioner, representing migrants. She returned to Ethiopia, married, and with her husband began work to raise the living standards of the region. She focused on hospitals and orphanages: Margaret Anstee, who had known Aida at Newnham, visited with the UN and was struck by the enormity of the challenge and Aida’s dedication.
In 1974, Aida was seized in her palace by revolutionaries of the Military Government of Socialist Ethiopia: her husband had already escaped. Facing down the soldiers, she told them, “The lion has gone out of his cage. He has escaped you and you are looking at the lioness.”
With the other women of the imperial family, she was incarcerated for 14 years, under appalling conditions. Outside, Ethiopia suffered first the Civil War and then the famine of the 80s. Their mental and physical health suffered terribly. Newnham alumnae sent food parcels and necessities. Years of campaigning by friends and human rights organisations had little effect on the Military Government.
Finally, in 1988, the women were unexpectedly released into exile in the USA, and later were able to return to Ethiopia.
Jadwiga Piłsudska was born in Poland in 1920, the younger daughter of Marshal Józef Piłsudski, Poland’s Chief of State and then dictator.
As a teenager, she trained as a glider pilot, and decided to study aeronautical engineering. When Poland was invaded by Germany, Jadwiga fled to the UK, and began to study architecture at Newnham.
With the Second World War at its height, she left Newnham to join the Air Transport Auxiliary. The ‘ATA-girls’ flew the RAF’s aircraft from factories and workshops to front-line squadrons. 168 women flew for the ATA in total, 17 of them Polish. They flew without radio, at the mercy of the weather conditions, and were frequently expected to fly plane-type they’d never seen before, without instruction. Nonetheless, Jadwiga loved flying, and Spitfires were apparently her favourite.
Following her war work, she completed her studies at the Polish University Abroad, and worked as an architect for London City Council, rebuilding the devastated city. She married, and with her husband, set up their own furniture design business.
In 1990, after the fall of the Communist government, she returned to Warsaw, to live out the rest of her days.