125 years of women on campus

08 August 2011

In this National Women's Month it's worth noting that UCT marks a major milestone in its history this year: 125 years of women on campus.

Women first registered as students in 1886/7. They were four students of the Good Hope Seminary who signed up for Professor PD Hahn's chemistry class at the South African College, in which UCT has its roots.

On 29 August 1887 a special meeting of the South African College Council was held "–to consider an application from the professors to admit lady students–" to the general course in all departments. With Council's approval of this motion, the South African College became a fully co-educational institution for higher education.

Some nine women (the record is not clear on the number) registered in 1887, among them two married women, Jessie Rose-Innes (married to James Rose-Innes, later Sir James) and Mary Sauer (married to JW Sauer and mother of Paul Sauer, former Minister of Lands and leader of the Assembly).

The South African College song, first sung in 1887, had an additional verse written in celebration of the women students. The South African College Debating Society encouraged women to join, and in December 1894 reported that "Miss Ayers opposed in debate, carrying the evening by 45 votes to 27".

Miss AW Tucker was elected to the first Students' Representative Council in 1906 and in 1913 became the first student to win the Croll Scholarship for 'advanced research'.

Since those early days, women have made huge strides at UCT. Pioneers include Dr Mamphela Ramphele, who in 1996 became the first black and the first woman vice-chancellor of UCT. Former South Africa First Lady Graça Machel was the first woman to be appointed chancellor, this in 1999 when she became the fifth chancellor since the South African College became the University of Cape Town in 1918. She was elected to a second term in 2010.

Honorary graduates have included the late Queen Mother, who was awarded an honorary degree, Doctor of Laws, in 1947. Jane Elizabeth Waterston was awarded a Doctor of Laws in 1929; Lady Lilian Michaelis a Doctor of Laws in 1948; Maria Emmeline Fuller a Doctor of Laws in 1950; Dulcie Howes a Doctor of Music in 1976; Nadine Gordimer a Doctor of Literature in 1986; Helen Suzman a Doctor of Laws in 1986; and Dr Golda Selzer a Doctor of Medicine in 1987.

In 2010, over half of the just under 25 000 students registered at UCT were women.

The Take-a-Girl-Child-to-Work Day on 8 August initiative by the Communications and Marketing Department forms part of UCT's celebration of 125 Years of Women at UCT. A total of 30 girls in Grades 9 and 10 attended, all from the Centre of Science and Technology, a maths-and-science oriented high school based in Khayelitsha. They not only met UCT women role models, but also engaged with women researchers, scientists and administrators, and toured the campus. The 125 years of women on campus theme is also being celebrated via other vehicles: the annual VC's Concert for staff on 10 and 11 August, and in the UCT Alumni News magazine.

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