The Steamboat Ladies

The pioneering women who graduated from Trinity when other universities wouldn’t accept them

It wasn’t very long ago that women were first given the opportunity to study at Trinity College Dublin, just 117 years ago. This may seem shocking for a school that now has an even ratio of male to female students, but it seems like a very short time ago when one learns that Oxford and Cambridge only let women graduate with a degree from the year 1920. 

The famous alleged promise from former Provost George Salmon that he would not let women into Trinity College over his “dead body” sprung back to the fore last year when the College elected its first female provost in conjunction with the election of TCDSU president Leah Keogh. While this quote remains popular today due to these new signs of progress that contradict it, many do not realise that this assertion was proven false within a year of Salmon’s death in 1904.

At Trinity College Dublin, it was decided that since the admission of women into the university, starting in 1904, there would be no viable reason to restrict women from gaining their degrees just as their male counterparts did. If they could take the classes, sit the exams and pass them, the opportunity to see the final step of graduation and a diploma would just make sense. Coincidentally, the first woman to successfully register in the College, Isabel Marion Weir Johnston, did so on the 22 January 1904, the same day former Provost Salmon died. Her entrance examinations even had to be put off because of his funeral.

Trinity College’s policy on the admission of women was a progressive view at a time where women did not yet typically receive degrees whatsoever. While women could technically sit their degree examinations at both Cambridge and Oxford, they would not be given the opportunity of wearing a cap and gown and receiving their degrees. The lack of physical degrees, as well as the inability to earn their graduation robes, meant that women did not earn the same qualification and would not be afforded the same opportunities as men even if they took the same steps in university and worked just as hard. 

Trinity College Dublin gave all of their students those opportunities, regardless of gender, and this boosted the credentials of many deserving women. This policy proved to not only benefit women in Trinity, but also those restricted by Oxbridge policy.

“While women could not receive their diplomas in Oxford or Cambridge, they could receive them in Trinity.”

Trinity’s differing policy on women led to a group called the Steamboat Ladies, hundreds of women who decided to travel to Ireland to study at and receive degrees from Trinity between the years 1904 and 1907. These women were given the nickname “Steamboat Ladies” due to their annual arrival on steamboats from the United Kingdom. They went to women’s colleges associated with the universities of Oxford and Cambridge, women who studied alongside their male colleagues, but had not been allowed the same degree at the end to commemorate and reward them. Most of them went to the women’s colleges Newnham and Girton, and Somerville. 

The three universities had an ad eundem arrangement in which any student could graduate from one of the other universities. This meant that, while women could not receive their diplomas in Oxford or Cambridge, they could receive them in Trinity. The College expected a small number of Oxbridge women to travel to Ireland for their degrees. However, between 1904 and 1907, 720 women from Oxford and Cambridge traveled to Trinity in order to graduate. The ability to gain their degrees and wear their robes was invaluable for the women’s professional status, especially if their aspirations lead to teaching.

Although some of the women stayed a bit longer at Trinity College Dublin, many of them came over for just one night to participate in the graduation ceremonies. In a quote by Emeritus Fellow and historian Susan Parkes, she states that: “they took one day off, they came on the overnight Steamboat, stayed one night in Dublin, got their degrees the next day, and went back the following night.”

The College also benefited from the Steamboat Ladies beyond increasing gender equality and good will. Shortly after women were admitted to Trinity College Dublin, the accommodation Trinity Hall was opened up as a women’s accommodation for students. While some of the money used to pay for the accommodation came from donations, a very significant portion came from the graduation fees of the Steamboat Ladies. Trinity Hall stayed a womens-only accommodation until the 1970’s, when it became mixed and eventually became one of the main accommodations for Trinity students. Trinity Hall is now a hub of activity and a cornerstone of the College, particularly for first year students.

“The Steamboat Ladies may not have been recognized in their respective fields without their degrees.”

The Steamboat Ladies may not have been recognized in their respective fields without their degrees, as just because women could be educated at the time it did not mean that they had equal opportunity to their male counterparts yet. There are many notable women who graduated using this exchange. 

One of these women is Lillian Knowles, who graduated from Cambridge via Trinity College Dublin, gaining her Doctor of Letters. She went on to become the first Dean of the Economic History Faculty at the University of London as well as a professor of economic history at the London School of Economics. 

Another woman of note is Eleanor Rathbone, a British Member of Parliament and a women’s rights and family allowance campaigner. Rathbone went to Somerville College and graduated from Trinity College Dublin, after which she began her social campaigning before taking her place as an Independent MP in 1929.

These women, along with the many others, were some of the first women to graduate from Trinity College, gaining their degrees and being able to find a sense of equality with men in academia. Their legacy is one that many of us do not even think about, but it is one that reflects our current experiences as many of us look forward to our own graduations. 

Julia Bochenek

Julia Bochenek is a Staff Writer for Trinity News, and a Junior Sophister English Studies student.