🕑 6 min read

OK now ladies, let’s get in-formation about the women who shaped our city

We’re well aware that there are many hidden histories of the people of Oxford, often excluded from conventional narratives. Here are a few (from a very long list) of notable women in Oxford’s history who are worth reading up on:

Fierce leaders

Let’s start with Oxford’s patron saint – St Frideswide. Most of the stories about Frideswide were written long after her death, and any reports of daily life in the nunnery she founded were lost when it burned down in 1002 AD. While there are differing accounts of Frideswide’s life, most versions agree that after escaping an unwanted suitor Princess Frideswide built a monastery for monks and nuns in Oxford. It may well have been that she was a devout Christian, either brought up in the faith or converted, but there’s also the option (which could’ve existed alongside her devoutness too) that she wanted to live a life which offered her a measure of independence and opportunities for learning. This would’ve been the only route to that. Not just that but through founding a nunnery, she created those for other women, too.

Growing up in St Thomas’, a working class parish in the centre of the city, Olive Gibbs was an unlikely candidate to become prominent in local and national politics. In the early 1950s, she campaigned to keep public nurseries open to help working mothers, and soon afterwards was elected as Labour councillor for the West Ward, a position she held for thirty years. She and her husband Edmund successfully fought for the demolition of the controversial Cutteslowe Walls, and fought against the proposed slum clearance of Jericho and the creation of a road right through Christ Church Meadow. Olive served twice as Lord Mayor, and was chair for the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. A highly-respected campaigner for many community causes, she is fondly remembered as ‘“Our Olive”. Read more about Olive in Liz Woolley’s excellent article. 

Bosses, not bossy

By her title, Licoricia of Winchester might not sound like she belongs up there with other Oxford women but she was a shrewd business woman. Her marriage to fellow financier David of Oxford, made them one of the richest and most powerful couples in 13th century. When David died in 1244, only two years after their marriage, much of his money went to the king to finance the building of Westminster Abbey. However Licoricia continued to run her own business for several years afterwards.

Sarah Jane Cooper was the mastermind behind the original Frank Coopers’ marmalade but you wouldn’t know it from the marketing. Sarah Cooper made marmalade from a secret family recipe using just Seville oranges and sugar. She and her husband Frank began selling it from their shop on the High Street (where the Grand Café is now) in 1874. Frank branded it ‘Oxford’ marmalade and put his own name on the jar, taking the credit. By 1902 the marmalade was so popular that the Coopers moved production to a new purpose-built factory (now the ‘Jam Factory’ on Frideswide Square). Production ceased in Oxford in 1967, but the marmalade, holder of a Royal Warrant, is still made today elsewhere.

From the heart

Local legend Icolyn Smith MBE, known locally as Ma Smith, has been running the Oxford Community Soup Kitchen which provides food, clean clothes and companionship for the homeless and vulnerable of Oxford for 30 years. Born in rural Jamaica and after spending time in Kingston, in 1965 Icolyn joined her husband in Oxford together with their first four children. Britain in the 1960s was not a welcoming place but the family was determined to establish their home here and soon became a familiar presence on Cowley Road, Oxford.  Icolyn’s drive, faith and compassion for others inspired the Oxford Community Soup Kitchen for which she has become so well known. In 2013 the soup kitchen became a charity, The Icolyn Smith Foundation. In 2020, Ma Smith celebrated her 90th birthday and won an award at the Pride of Britain awards.

Felicia Skene was one of Oxford’s social reformers, at a time when Oxford’s population was expanding. She was driven by her Christian faith to help others, often those excluded by society, such as homeless people, sex workers and prisoners. She was the first woman in England to be officially appointed as a prison visitor, and continued to support former female inmates once they had be released from prison, meeting them at the gates of the prison, where she would walk them back to her home on St Michael’s Street where she would give them breakfast and some money to start them off. She wrote fictional exposure of sex work in Oxford named Hidden Depths (1866). She was also active in caring for the sick during the cholera and small pox epidemics of 1854; some of the nurses she trained were later sent to the Crimea to work with Florence Nightingale. Listen to the Women in Oxford’s History Podcast on Felicia to find out more about her.

Not just a pretty face

Having inspired the children’s books Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass., Alice Liddell went on to lead an interesting life. As young women, she and her sisters toured Europe. Alice married Reginald Hargreaves and had three sons, two of whom died in the First World War. Despite her loss, Alice did a great deal of voluntary work during the war and received a Red Cross medal for her efforts. She supported many charitable causes, and was the first president of Emery Down and Bank Women’s Institute in Hampshire and of the local Red Cross.

Glass ceiling smashers

Due to societal barriers, many female students became known as pioneers – the first to do something previously unachievable for someone like them. For example, Kofoworola Moore was the first Black African woman to study at Oxford University, while Dr Merze Tate was the first female African-American to do so. Annie Rogers, born and raised in Oxford, became the first to matriculate and graduate at Oxford, having been one of the leaders of the campaign for admitting women to the University.

There are also women who are notorious for their influence: Mary Augusta Ward led the Women’s National Anti-Suffrage League, writing and speaking against giving women the right to vote.

We have only scratched the surface when it comes to exploring the stories of the women of Oxford. We’d love to hear who you’d like to read about next – send us a tweet/email if you have an idea. A special thanks to Liz Woolley, TORCH, Women in Oxford’s History podcast and Daily Info for their informative articles on women’s contribution to Oxford.