International Women’s Day 2024: Remembering the First Woman Member of Catz

HM The Queen with Alan Bullock, the first Master of St Catherine's, at the laying of the foundation stone.

HM The Queen with Alan Bullock, the first Master of St Catherine’s, at the laying of the foundation stone.

While Michaelmas 2024 will mark the 50th anniversary of the admission of women to Catz, women had been a part of the fabric of the College since its inception: from Scouts, to the partners of founding Fellows, to Queen Elizabeth II, who laid the foundation stone of the new college’s buildings during construction in 1960.

Professor Gilliane Sills

This current academic year marks the 50th anniversary of the first election of women as members of the College. Professor Gilliane Sills, our first female Teaching Fellow, was elected to join the College as Fellow in Engineering, taking up the post in October 1974; an interview with her from International Women’s Day 2022 can be read here.

Ann Rork Light. Photo held by University of California, Los Angeles. Library. Department of Special Collections. Shared under CC BY 4.0 DEED

Earlier that same year saw the election of the very first female member of the College: Ann Rork Light, the philanthropist and silent film star who, along with her husband Dr Rudolph Light (1932, Physiology), gave the largest gift to the College’s original endowment (a ‘princely gift…[that] was decisive in enabling us to go ahead with our plans,’ according to Lord Alan Bullock), as well as a further gift establishing the Light Fund, whose scholarships are still offered today. (Coincidentally, applications the Light Senior Scholarships close today, 08/03/2024, at midnight — see more details here.)

Ann Rork Light (1908 – 1988) starred in the early Hollywood pictures ‘The Blonde Saint’, ‘A Texas Steer’ and ‘The Prince of Headwaiters’, before eventually marrying Dr Rudolph Light, Professor of Neurosurgery at Vanderbilt University.

Although Dr Light was made an Honorary Fellow in the 1960s after their initial donation, this honour was extended to Ann in 1973, right before the admission of women. Writing on the proposal to admit her as an Honorary Fellow, Lord Bullock said:

‘We have now changed the Statutes of the College to allow the admission of women and we would like Mrs. Light to accept the Honorary Fellowship, in exactly the same way as Rudi before her, and become the first woman member of St. Catherine’s College.’

Ann accepted the honour, becoming the first female member of the College. Unfortunately, she was not able to attend The Feast after her election, declining, in the lost glamour known only to telegram correspondence, to join the ‘gala’.

Ann stayed in lively conversation with Lord Bullock and subsequent Masters until her death, updating them on her life, visiting the UK when her schedule allowed and inviting them to visit her in America. She oversaw the establishment of the Light Fund, discussing its winners and subject matters (initially limited to Physiology, the Science of Medicine, American History and Graduate Scholars) with Lord Bullock. Her generosity and lifelong support of the College are a testament that, although not officially admitted until 1974, women have a long presence within Catz’s history.

Michaelmas 2024 will mark the 50th anniversary of the admission of women to Catz. During our ’50 Years of Women’ celebration series, we look forward to welcoming members of the Catz community to join us in commemorating this important moment in the College’s history with termly events and other celebrations. Please stay tuned for further details!