Women have only officially participated in the Summer Eights since 1976. Now there are 6 women’s divisions – only one fewer than the men’s 7 – and racing in the top divisions can be just as competitive as the men’s. However, when women were first given their own division in this previously all-male competition, only 12 colleges competed – and Somerville, as an all women’s college, was one of them, and within four years, our W1 were Head of the River. But the journey to get there wasn’t easy.
In the early 20th century the pursuit of rowing was denied to female students due to a fear it might “impair their reproductive facilities”. Gradually, however, rowing gained acceptance within the women’s colleges, and in 1921 permission to start a rowing club at Somerville was granted – and SCBC was formed. This landmark event for women at the college was soon followed by another in 1927, with the entrance of a Somervillian, Miss Gibbs (effectively our first blues rower!), alongside St. Hilda’s and Society of Home students, into a race against female rowers from Cambridge – although the competition was to be judged by the more seemly “style” criteria, rather than speed. Rowing in bumps races was, however, at the time still denied to women by the University Council: at Somerville, the students’ response was the inclusion of the poem to the right in their “going down play” of 1922.
Despite this set-back, in the decades that followed women at the university continued to push the boundaries of the Council’s decision, competing in graduate college boats, and even successfully “Rowing on” in an all-women crew for Summer Eights in 1969. It was, however, not until the late 1970s when 5 men’s colleges began admitting female undergraduates that a separate bumps race for women was brought back to the forefront of debate. In 1976, the decision made by the 1922 Univeristy Council was finally reversed, and 12 women’s boats competed in the first ever division dedicated to women at Summer Eights. Opening a division to women in Torpids had to wait until 1978, after the event was cancelled in 1977 due to flooding.
Thus, Somerville began their Summer Eights history on Wednesday 28th May 1976 as the 8th boat on the river, with LMH holding the Headship. By the Saturday, however, The Times reported that Somerville were now 6th, having bumped St.Hilda’s on the first and Jesus on the fourth day of racing. The next year the college entered 2 boats into the division, with their W1 unlucky to be bumped back down to 6th place by the end of the competition by Wolfson, whom they had bumped two days before. Although the mixed fortunes of 1977 were repeated a year later when, in competition now boasting 2 women’s divisions including 3 Somerville boats, Somerville W1 managed to bump their competitors from last year – Wolfson – only to be bumped down once again by an excellent Hertford crew, the club’s fortunes took an exciting turn following the purchase, from Eton College, of SCBC’s first ever boat of its own. Armed with their new boat, 1979 saw the beginnings of the crew that went on to win the competition a year later. Starting the competition on the 6th bungline, the Women’s 1st VIII bumped on every day of the competition, leaving the starting order for the next year with Somerville in 2nd place. So pleased was the college with their Blades achievement, that Somerville’s first “bumps supper” was held for the whole college in SCBC’s honour.
It was, however, the women’s 1st VIII of 1980 that bumped St. Hugh’s to gain headship of the river for the first time – a title they retained until the 2nd day of Summer Eights 1982. In the years that have passed, Somerville have held the title 8 times, most recently in 1993, losing the Headship only after sitting undefeated at the Head of the River for 3 years.