I’ve just discovered that 1972 was a significant year for two reasons. Firstly, it was the year I was born (okay, so I knew that bit before). But, secondly, it was the year that women undergraduates were first admitted to the Cambridge colleges of King’s, Churchill and Clare: the first male colleges to allow women.
Little did I know then that these steps taken in the year of my birth would allow me, some years down the line, to be able to study at Cambridge too (albeit at Gonville and Caius, which took another seven years before it allowed women into its hallowed courts).
Issues of female education are very much in my mind at the moment, having just heard a few days ago that I am now officially Dr Ruth Valerio. It has taken me seven long years. There were times when I sat and cried, so utterly despondent at the mountain of work I saw piling up in front of me (not to mention the mountain of housework that needed to be done too…).
And yet 1972 reminds me also to be profoundly grateful for my privileged position that has given me the opportunity to study. Had I been born in 1872 rather than 1972 it is extremely unlikely I would now be celebrating being Dr Valerio. And the same is true had I been born – yes – in 1972, but not in the UK but in Chad, which has a female literacy rate of just 13%.
Huge steps forward have been taken since 1972 and yet it is sobering to learn that still today, only 26.8% of academic staff and 15.6% of professors at Cambridge are women. Globally, of the 800 or so million illiterate adults, two out of every three is a woman, and around 35 million girls are currently not in education.
We all know how crucial female education is. So here’s what we can do: sign the petition to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, asking him to take a lead in making girls’ education a priority, and do all you can to make sure your daughters, granddaughters, mothers and nieces know that no social barriers should ever stop them achieving what they want to achieve.