Leading ladies: Cambridge’s best female alumnae

In honour of international Women’s Day


Though Cambridge did not grant degrees to women until April 1948, their female alumnae have certainly left their mark on their world. To celebrate their contributions, here’s a list of ten Cambridge alumnae, who have been a force to be reckoned with, in honour of International Women’s Day.

Rachel Weisz

Rachel Weisz read English at Trinity Hall. During her time at Cambridge, she appeared in various student shows and co-founded “Cambridge Talking Tongues”. Since leaving, the British actress has appeared in “Black Widow”, “The Favourite”, “The Mummy” and “About a Boy”. She has also acted in many theatre productions, such as “A Streetcar Named Desire”. She has won an Academy Award, a Golden Globe, an Olivier award, which makes her an inspiring Cambridge alumna.

Dame Emma Thompson

Dame Emma Thompson, best known for being an actress and screenwriter, attended Newnham College and read English. Whilst here, she was invited into Cambridge Footlights and was the first female member. She also co-directed the troupe’s first all-female revue, “Woman’s Hour”. She starred in “Sense and Sensibility”, “The Remains of the Day”, “Nanny McPhee” and “Love Actually”. Having grown up watching Dame Thompson’s movies, she deserves to be on this list.

Image credit: Creative Commons license- Elena Ternovaja

Margrethe II of Denmark

Margrethe II of Denmark studied prehistoric archaeology at Girton College during 1960-1. After abdicating earlier this year, she became the longest reigning female monarch in Danish history. She also became an honorary fellow of Girton.

Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell

As a Medwardian, I am hugely aware of our alumna, Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell, who gained her PhD at New Hall (now Murray Edwards). She is an astrophysicist who discovered pulsars, and was also the first female president of the Institute of Physics. She’s won countless science awards, helping to open the doors for many other women in STEM.

Image credits: Creative Commons BBC

Claudia Winkleman

Claudia Winkleman, before hosting hit show “The Traitors” studied Art History at New Hall. She has received four BAFTA nominations, including a win for “The Traitors”. She’s notable for her appearances on “Strictly Come Dancing”, a famous Head and Shoulders advertisement, “The Great British Sewing Bee”, and various radio shows.

Rosalind Franklin

Rosalind Franklin studied chemistry as part of Natural Sciences Tripos at Newnham College, before Cambridge allowed women to be awarded degrees (she was retroactively given her earned degree). She was awarded a research fellowship at her alma mater. Her contributions to the discovery on the structure of DNA went massively unrecognised during her life, which makes it even more important to acknowledge these achievements now.

Rina Sawayama

The Japanese-British singer, actress and model attended Magdalene College, where she read politics, psychology and sociology. She featured on the cover of British Vogue in June 2023, acted in “John Wick: Chapter 4, as well as releasing two studio albums in 2020 and 2022. She has collaborated with Charli XCX and been nominated and won a plethora of awards. Her success even made her a speaker at the Cambridge Union last year!

Naomie Harris

Naomie Harris graduated from Pembroke in 1998, with a degree in social and political sciences. Since leaving, the actress has starred in several “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies, “Skyfall”, “Southpaw”, and “Moonlight”. She was awarded an OBE in 2017 for services to drama.

Image credit: Gordon Correll via Creative Commons license

Arianna Huffington

The co-founder of “The Huffington Post” read economics at Girton College and became the third female president of the Cambridge Union. She also founded “Thrive Global”, wrote fifteen books, and has been named on Time Magazine’s list of the world’s 100 most influential people. After making it onto Forbes’ Most Powerful Women list, it is clear she is an amazing alumna.

Sylvia Plath

Sylvia Plath attended Newnham College, after obtaining a Fulbright Scholarship. While here, she continued to write poetry and published her work in Varsity. She is most known as a poet, novelist and writer, particular the semi-autobiographical work “The Bell Jar”. She was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in Poetry posthumously for “The Collected Poems”.