Trinity is not doing enough to commemorate its female students and academics
Eleanor Jones-McAuley recounts the history of Trinity’s women, and how it has been erased over time
To the left of the Campanile in Front Square sits a statue of a man whose reputation is founded almost entirely upon one sexist comment that he may or may not have actually made. George Salmon, who was provost at the turn of the 20th century and a distinguished geometrician, theologian and patron of the University Chess Club, will now forever be remembered for his apocryphal statement that Trinity would take in women as students “over [his] dead body”. As fate would have it, Salmon died in 1904, and shortly afterwards women were admitted to the College for the first time.
Whether or not Salmon ever said this – and while his general opposition to female students was known, no specific evidence suggests that he did – it does make a good story, one which allows us modern listeners to have a knowing chuckle at the expense of an old establishment patriarch. This is probably why it is a particular favourite of the tour guides from the various companies that ply their trade round Front Square; I have overheard it more times than I can count. Yet it was only recently, on hearing the story for perhaps the thousandth time, that the supreme irony of this struck me: the best-known figure in the history of women in Trinity is, in fact, a man.
The steamboat ladies
“[…] despite having passed their exams, [they] were not permitted to take their degrees, and so travelled to Dublin to receive them ad eundem between 1904 and 1907.”
I have been a Trinity student for years, and like to think of myself as a feminist and a historian. Yet until just a few weeks ago, I had never heard of the “Steamboat Ladies”, women students at Oxford and Cambridge who, despite having passed their exams, were not permitted to take their degrees, and so travelled to Dublin to receive them ad eundem between 1904 and 1907. Many of these women went on to be highly respected academics and educators. Until this year, the words “Oldham” and “Cunningham” meant nothing to me except a few crumbling buildings in Trinity Hall. I wasn’t even aware that these buildings were named after women, let alone two highly significant figures in the College’s history: Alice Oldham, who campaigned tirelessly for the admission of women in the early twentieth century, and Elizabeth Margaret Cunningham, the first warden of Halls – which, of course, was originally created as an off-site residence for female students, funded by the commencement fees paid by the Steamboat Ladies.
At least some of the blame for this ignorance rests at our own feet. This information is out there, after all, and can be found with a bit of googling or a few hours in the library. But it is striking, and more than a little bit ironic, that even after years of Trinity education we tend to be far more familiar with the George Salmon story than with the names of any of these women. The fact is that Trinity does very little to publicise the history of its female students and academics, and because of this, the remarkable achievements of those generations of women have largely passed into obscurity.
“[…] the women of the Eliz are already almost forgotten, their stories relegated to the footnotes of those of the societies that locked them out for so long”.
Take the Elizabethan Society, for example – a vital part of the story of women in Trinity that has disappeared almost completely from the public consciousness. Founded by the College’s first female undergraduate, Isabel Marion Weir Johnston, and serving as the de-facto “women’s society” for more than fifty years, the “Eliz” was unceremoniously absorbed into the Philosophical Society in the 1980s, commemorated now only in a courtesy title granted to the highest-ranking woman on the Phil Council each year. Although it is unarguably a good thing that all College societies now allow women among their ranks, there is still something that makes me faintly uneasy about the Eliz’s disappearance. Perhaps it is the fact that, as knowledge of the Eliz and its role in College disappears, it becomes much easier to forget why it ever existed in the first place. The Phil and the Hist’s eventual acceptance of women starts to appears more like a case of spontaneous male enlightenment rather than a late response to pressure from female students. Or perhaps it is simply that Weir Johnston and the women of the Eliz are already almost forgotten, their stories relegated to the footnotes of those of the societies that locked them out for so long.
Throughout College, significant parts of Trinity’s own women’s history receive only lacklustre commemoration. Apart from a small, dilapidated wooden plaque, and the name on the door of the “Elizabethan Room”, there is nothing in House Six that recalls the building’s important function as a meeting place and social centre for women students and staff for decades. On Trinity Monday, the distinction between Foundation and Non-Foundation Scholars is dismissed as meaningless, with no acknowledgement that Non-Foundation Scholarships were created specifically to allow women to be elected. Until recently, the Warden’s handbook at Trinity Hall mistakenly gave Alice Oldham’s name as “Elizabeth Oldham”. Even the fact that the University was founded by a woman, and quite a significant and remarkable woman at that, has been swept under the rug, a casualty of the College’s apparent awkwardness about acknowledging its colonial roots. The current History section on the TCD website does not even mention her by name. For an institution that goes to such lengths to commemorate other groups, from the war dead remembered in the Hall of Honour to those who gave College what it currently needs most (money) and whose names are incongruously inscribed inside the Dining Hall, the lack of organised and widespread recognition of Trinity’s women is a startling omission.
“The story of the women of Trinity is one of hard work, academic excellence, bravery, struggle and success against difficult odds. Their legacy is one that every student should be proud of, and yet for the most part their stories go untold and their names are forgotten.”
Dr Edward McParland, speaking at a memorial service in the Chapel for the late Professor Anne Crookshank, described mid-twentieth century Trinity College as a place that now seems “unimaginable to the young”. It is certainly very difficult for most students to comprehend just how many obstacles Trinity’s women have had to overcome. Yet without an awareness of that historical context, the extent of their achievements goes unappreciated. It is one thing, for example, to read that the first female scholar, Olive Purser, was elected in 1906, but this takes on far more significance once you realise that this appointment was made just two years after women were first admitted to the University, when they were still forbidden from crossing Front Square without a chaperone, dining with the male students and staff, or staying in College after 6 p.m.
The story of the women of Trinity is one of hard work, academic excellence, bravery, struggle and success against difficult odds. Their legacy is one that every student should be proud of, and yet for the most part their stories go untold and their names are forgotten. There is not a single statue to a woman in College, nor are there any buildings named after women save the two that are slowly falling apart out in Dartry. The institutions that were intimately connected with women – the Eliz, House 6, Trinity Hall – either no longer exist or have shed those associations in the twenty-first century. It is because of this that the periodic articles and reports that appear on the history of women in Trinity are able to repeat the same historical facts in the supreme confidence that they will still come as a surprise, or even a shock, to the majority of readers. Oh, and they usually begin with the same old anecdote about a provost who has achieved more renown than any of his female contemporaries – and for something he probably didn’t even say.