Murray Edwards President Dorothy Byrne Dorothy Byrne with permission for Varsity

Channel 4 editor. Murray Edwards president. Author, journalist and producer. When I met Dorothy Byrne, I was prepared to be intimidated. Indomitable she may be, the warmth of her humour and the soothing cadence of her Scottish accent put you instantly at ease. This was to be no stiff interview conducted behind an impenetrable oak desk.

Rather reclined in the Medwards porters’ lodge, Byrne proudly informs me that 2024 marks 70 years since Medwards’ founding, being one of three Cambridge colleges to admit women at its conception. But in an age of gender-equal access, is a women’s college still necessary? When offered the role Byrne was similarly hesitant: “I went to a convent and one all-female institution is enough for any woman in one life.” Thankfully, her nunnish perceptions were swiftly de-wimpled – open to the public and accepting of male fellows, Byrne realised the necessity of this inclusive yet female-centred space: “While there is inequality, we do need a women’s college.” One such inequality is the under-representation of women in STEM. Reeling off horrific statistic after statistic, she explains: “As you move up the hideous pyramid, you get fewer women at each point.” Much of her work since becoming president has been organising conferences, planning workshops and building networks to help women climb the ranks of these traditionally masculine industries.

Byrne is also particularly passionate about wellbeing. While some colleges may think of their art as superfluous, Medwards’ works are integral: “The College doesn’t have an art gallery. It is an art gallery.” and living in a gallery “just makes you feel much better”. Strong-arming me around the Women’s Art Collection she points to works by African-American artist Faith Ringgold, as well as Charlotte Hodes’ feminine take on the classical vase. “It’s pink,” she tells me with an excited grin. Rather than the normal iconography of “spears and shields, here you’ve got coffee pots, casserole dishes and spatulas” – a somewhat redundant symbol of what it is to be a woman. And instead of men with “perfect muscley bodies, here you see women with all their wobbly bits.” For Byrne, the aesthetics of the building, and the opportunities these create, are crucial: “We encourage people to walk on the grass. Lie on the grass. We grow vegetables; we grow herbs; we have proper kitchens. I’ve introduced freezers.” There are even dahlias you can pick with your parents. While I usually maintain that Medwards looks like an abandoned sci-fi film set, in the bright blue February sun with daffodils bobbing their yellow heads, I begin to appreciate its charm. At the time of the College’s erection, a maybe unfittingly phallic description, “two architectural critics condemned it as being feminine brutalism. Of course to them just the word feminine, was derogatory, but I now wear that with pride.”

“Of course to them just the word feminine, was derogatory, but I now wear that with pride”

As she utters these words her voice is drowned by the raucous sounds of men in business suits. Byrne was right: maybe not a convent, but sadly not the feminine-utopia I’d begun to imagine. Part of the College’s goal is to ensure women can speak in supervisions without their voices being overshadowed by men such as these: “If a man interrupts you, just interrupt him back.” But why are women so much more susceptible to this self-doubting anxiety? Byrne tells me that “by university in England, young women are three times more likely than young men to say that they’re stressed and anxious.” Although the College has been granted £150,000 by Christina Dawson to research this, Byrne has her own stunningly simple hypothesis: “I feel there’s too much work in some of the courses. If it was up to me, I would reduce the levels” so “that people can be more relaxed and enjoy themselves.” Enjoyment was Byrne’s own approach to university. After experiencing an unhappy childhood, she “went to university to have a nice time”. She tells me: “I looked up what subject it was easiest to get a First in” and thus did her BA in Philosophy. She reflects: “When I was young, nobody expected anything of me. That’s terrible, but it wasn’t quite so stressful.”

After university, she studied for a Business master’s at Sheffield University, which in uncharacteristically bad feminist form was because of her then boyfriend. He was interviewing, told her to come along, and the next thing she knew she was the first person with an arts degree to ever be accepted. With alarming casualness she informs me: “I left the diploma bit because somebody tried to kill me,” explaining that the police failed to do anything because she’d had sex with her attacker in the last six months. She relayed this same instance years later to the vice-chancellor of Sheffield, much to the shock-horror of his press officer. Byrne was offered an honorary doctorate soon after: “I’m not saying that’s why they gave it. But I wanted to write to the man who tried to strangle me to death and say you contributed to me becoming an honorary doctor. Thank you.”

But this was not to be the last of her near-death experiences. While teaching in Nigeria an accident left her immobilised for the next year: “I didn’t know if I would ever walk again.” Then 24, she began applying to journalism schemes only to discover she was above the cut-off age. One editor told her: “Not only will I not give you a job, nobody ever will.” At the time Reader’s Digest sent out unsolicited mail addressed: “Dear lucky reader, you have won, you have won, you won.” And so, she wrote to 50 editors: “Dear lucky editor, you have won, you have won, you have won, the trainee journalist of a lifetime competition.” Of the 50, only one was amused and she landed her first job at the Waltham Forest Guardian. Still struggling to walk, she would go to the phone box at the end of the road to get the scoop “then sit in a cafe for the length of time it should have taken me to go and do the story”. Although employed, she remained convinced “I’ll never live in a house.” Now ironically talking to her from inside her house – I got invited round for tea – she might not literally own the building (it’s rented from St John’s), she does get the rare privilege of living in a president’s lodge. From newspapers, to Granada TV, Byrne eventually worked her way up the ranks to Channel 4. Post the media attention surrounding her condemnation of Boris Johnson and the book that followed, she garnered the attention of head-hunters, and long story short here we are. In the president’s lodge.

“The odd biscuit is absolutely key for wellbeing”

She tells me how when the lodge’s sofas were delivered she asked the “bloke”, or rather the woman (she had ironically misspoken), if she could deliver them Monday, to which she responded: “How do I know the president will be in?” And so Byrne uttered the “golden words” for the very first time: “I am the president!” Even now she repeats the phrase with fittingly dramatic gusto – “I can see why it went to Donald Trump’s head.” She recalls: “I’ve been in several situations where people have looked around to see if there’s anyone there, but there is no one there. There’s just a middle-aged woman, having a cup of tea and reading her book, nobody at all.” And so they have “divulged all their secrets to each other with me sitting next to them”. Despite these rare benefits, sexism of this sort is something that Byrne has fought against throughout her career. She is particularly vocal on the horrors of the female body. After making a film about menopause with Davina McCall for Channel 4, the number of women taking HRT in the country tripled and Britain ran out. “I was annoyed that I couldn’t get my HRT and I thought who is responsible for this, and I realised, oh that would be me.”


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More recently, Byrne came under fire for discussing fertility, accused of infantilising women’s decision-making abilities and implying that we must have children in our 20s to be happy. “I actually had a baby using IVF at 45, so why would I say that and why would I say you can’t be successful? I don’t want to show off about it, but I am actually a president.” Having spent a year of her life making a series that uncovered this need for fertility education, she tells me: “I believe that a woman cannot be truly empowered if she doesn’t as much as possible control her own body at every phase of her life.” Criticism has also been raised against her for the fact that so much of Byrne’s discussions – of menopause, contraception, and fertility – largely affect straight cis women. Despite frequently referring to Medwards as a “women’s college” throughout the interview, in these final moments she makes clear that “you enter this college if you define yourself as a woman when you enter.” Be that a cis woman, a trans woman, or somebody who will later discover they are trans. When I pose this criticism, she says: “One of the things that did annoy me about that is that for the past 25 years I have helped the Donor Conception Network, and as a charity a major thing it does is help lesbians and people of all genders to have babies.” She expresses frustration that “I was accused of being against” the “very thing I spent 25 years doing”.

Moving from college, to gardens, to her home throughout our chat, we conclude the interview munching chocolate from the comically large biscuit jar she keeps around for students – “the odd biscuit is absolutely key for wellbeing.” Her house is a feminist haven: images of Diana dancing on the back of Acteon, Judith beheading Holofernes, an empowered rewriting of the Song of Songs. As strange as it may be sipping tea in Dorothy Byrne’s living room with her pink toes on display, it also feels particularly fitting. Imposing offices and impenetrable desks are simply not the Medwards way.