Discussions around International Women’s Day #3 – Edna Murphy, Bursar


What does International Women’s Day mean to you?

It is a great opportunity to reflect on women’s contributions in art, culture, politics, medicine, literature, civil society and more. There are different models of leadership and ways to make the world a better place and they all need to be celebrated.

The role of Bursar is still stereotyped as male. How have you found settling into the post, and how has your being a woman featured in this?

When I started this role I was lucky to have a great support network already, but the wonderful companionship both within College and outside has taken this to a whole new level. It seems that women in general in Cambridge have had more of an uphill struggle to be taken seriously than in other universities, but there have been a number of trailblazers too who have had a major impact. I’d like to cite my old tutor from New Hall Joanna Womack who had a number of bursarial roles and was the first woman Treasurer of the University. Thanks to people like her there is a growing number of female bursars and overall the notion of a ‘typical’ bursar (male, background in finance or military) is changing.

Who is the most inspiring woman to you and why?

The woman who most inspired me when I was growing up was Helen Keller. My early years were spent in Virginia, USA, my parents liberal New Yorkers who moved near Washington DC for my father’s job. Helen Keller’s courage and determination, first to develop communication skills, then to go on to campaign for others – founding the ACLU, campaigning for worker’s rights and against militarism – was amazing to me, then as now. But later I met Dame Rosemary Murray, founder of New Hall, who had a big effect on me. She made New Hall into a full College in Cambridge, and was across all details from the beginning. The early days were the stuff of legend – Dame Rosie Murray was Principal, but also gardener, boatkeeper, handyperson, etc. But it worked. She was also first the first female Vice Chancellor of the University and only the second woman to head a university in the UK. While Vice Chancellor she introduced student committee participation and launched the clinical and music schools (including West Road). She was calm and quietly spoken, kind but also a possibly a bit fierce, and hugely effective in an otherwise very male dominated world.

If you could give one piece of advice to young women at the start of their careers, what would it be?

Don’t assume that the Equal Pay Act has solved anything!!

How will you mark International Women’s Day tomorrow?

I will be celebrating with family.


This short piece is one in a series running through the week culminating on Friday 8 March with International Women’s Day. Keep your eyes open for the next piece!