Trinity Hall’s Steamboat Ladies

In celebration of International Women’s Week, Kate Palmer recounts the lives of some of Trinity’s most celebrated alumnae – the ‘Steamboat Ladies’ of Trinity Hall.

Suffragette, politician, scientist and war hero – all women who have been awarded with degrees by Trinity College, Dublin. The contribution of women to this college, and beyond its walls, is undeniable.

Dublin University has a strong history of recognising women for their academic capabilities. In the 1900s, the college awarded B.A. and M.A. degrees to female students of Oxford and Cambridge at a time when the women’s colleges refused to do so.

These women, affectionately known as “steamboat ladies” after the mode of transport they took to Dublin, were conferred with ad eundem University of Dublin degrees. Many went on to have careers that began to shape the newly emerging role of women in politics and society.

Dame Frances Dove, a women’s rights campaigner who received her M.A. from Trinity in 1905, is an exceptional example. The daughter of a clergyman, with some difficulty she gained an education at Girton College, Cambridge and Trinity College, Dublin. Just two years after her graduation, Dove was elected a local councillor in High Wycombe, and became headmistress to several girls’ schools.

Dame Frances Dove, in a 1928 portrait by Lafayette.

Dove devoted her life to promote education for girls and women’s political involvement. She was a suffragette, and several of her pupils became prominent in the movement for women’s civil rights – including Mary Pickford, who became one of the first female MPs in 1931 (as a Conservative for Hammersmith North). Dove was made a Dame in 1928.

Another staunch campaigner for women’s rights was Eleanor Rathbone. After graduation, she worked alongside her father, also a social reformer, to investigate industrial conditions in Liverpool. An opponent of the Second Boer War and of violent repression of rebellion in Ireland, Rathbone campaigned for female causes.

She was an Independent MP, and used her prominence to found a women’s forum and an organisation to help widows of the Great War. Rathbone was instrumental in negotiating women’s inclusion into the 1918 Representation of the People Act, and exposed regulations that reduced married women’s access to benefits and insurance.

Rathbone was one of the first politicians to recognise the threat of Nazi Germany in the 1930s, and joined the Anti-Nazi Council to support human rights. She was an outspoken critic of appeasement, earning her the enmity of Neville Chamberlain.

A plaque commemorating the London home of celebrated reformer Eleanor Rathbone.

The geologist Gertrude Elles, also a steamboat lady, paved the way for women’s role in scientific research. She receive the prestigious Lyell Fund from the Geological Society of London for her contribution to Grapholite research at the age of 28, but was unable to receive it in person as women were barred from meetings.

Among Elles’ other accolades, she received the Medal of Member of the Order of the British Empire for her work with the Red Cross during the First World War.

Oldham House, Trinity Hall, the primary residence for ladies of the college until the early 1970s.

There were over 700 steamboat ladies during this period. They stayed at Trinity Hall, a residence for female students until the 1970s – it was only from then that female students of the college were allowed to remain on campus after 6pm.

They lived in Oldham House, the Victorian building in Hall named after Elizabeth Oldham, one of the main campaigners for women’s admission to the college. Her portrait hangs in the front lounge.

Today, female members of the college community would never expect to face the adversity of their counterparts a century ago – but inequality still remains. While Trinity employees and students are predominantly female, 18% hold Head of School positions and 20% of Fellows of the College are women.

Therefore institutions like the TCD Equality Office and International Women’s Week remain vital, not only to recognising the contributions of Trinity’s exceptional alumnae and female members, but also to ensuring the campaign for rights and equality continues.

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Catherine Healy
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