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My Univ: Dr Laura Varnam

Laura Varnham talking at the 40 Years of Women Garden PartyI’ve been teaching Medieval English Literature at Univ for fourteen years now and one of my proudest moments in my “Univ life” so far was working with archivist Robin Darwall-Smith and librarian Elizabeth Adams on our exhibition to celebrate “40 years of Women at Univ”, back in 2019.

Given Univ’s illustrious history, dating back to the Middle Ages, it was extraordinary to me that there had only been women in academic roles and as students here for just forty years- roughly my lifetime! As a first-gen, state school educated Northern lass, it makes me very proud to be a part of the college teaching staff and to be a member of Team English! It’s a privilege to be able to learn, research, and tutor here and to hopefully contribute to Univ’s reputation for being a friendly, diverse, and forward-looking institution.

L to R: Catherine Holmes, Tutorial Fellow in Medieval History, Laura Varnham, Robin Darwall-Smith, Archivist

To look forward, we often first have to look back. And when the idea first arose for an exhibition as part of our celebrations of “40 years of Women”, I contacted Robin and Elizabeth with some questions that were puzzling me. I knew that there was a history of women’s academic excellence at Univ, going back to the arrival of our first female fellow, Helen Cooper, the Chaucerian and medievalist, in the late 70s. But surely women must have played important roles in Univ life before they arrived as students in 1979?

And they did! What Robin and Elizabeth shared with me enabled us to produce an exhibition that told the story of Univ’s history from a female perspective, foregrounding an inspiring group of women, going all the way back to the Middle Ages. Women who gave their intellectual, financial, social and physical support to the college, and who were also a part of the Univ family – just like the many female staff, wives and partners, friends and relations, who are a part of Univ today.

Visitors at the 40 Years of Women Garden Party looking at the exhibition

Visitors to the exhibition at the Garden Party, Sept, 2019

I was especially proud to see the exhibition on display at our Women at Univ garden party in September 2019 and to see so many Old Member women and their families in attendance, alongside our now Master, Baroness Amos, the first female head of Univ. I also invited my Mum to attend the garden party – she’s definitely a part of the Univ family too!

I’m excited to see what the next forty years has in store for us. I’m sure that College life will continue to be driven by those values that are so crucial for our work here: collaboration, academic innovation and creativity, and compassion for one another.

Visitors at the 40 Years of Women Garden Party looking at an information board

Information board celebrating Univ Sportswomen at the Garden Party, Sept, 2019

Team work has never been more important than now, during the COVID-19 pandemic, and I know that I have been sustained and strengthened by the way in which my students have pulled together and continued to produce bright and brilliant work in the midst of these challenging times. (I am, nevertheless, looking forward to when we can be back together in person, crammed into my office with tea and biscuits, rather than on Teams calls!)

The Women at Univ exhibition will be featured on the Univ website later this summer.

Dr Laura Varnam, Lecturer in Old and Middle English Literature

Our news report on the Women at Univ garden party in September 2019, including a full image gallery, can be read here.

Published: 13 May 2021

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