Trinity women through the years

Niamh Keating discusses the powerful women in College history and how they’ve shaped Trinity today

Illustration by Sinaoife Andrews

In 1892, a petition was made demanding the abolition of the ban on female students here at Trinity, which had stood since its founding in 1592. Ten thousand Irish women signed it. They were met with a refusal: “If a female had once passed the gate, it would be practically impossible to watch what buildings or what chambers she might enter, or how long she might remain there”.

We are all aware of George Salmon’s now mocked retort that women would walk into Trinity “over my dead body”. It’s now time to shift our focus from Salmon to the first woman who came to Trinity after his death, when the ban was lifted. Isabel Marion Weir Johnston was the first women to come to Trinity in 1904. Although women were given access to the gates, they were unable to join societies, ostracised from Trinity life.

In 1905, Johnston founded the Dublin University Elizabethan Society, showing that women in Trinity had stunning initiative from the start. Susan Parkes, former Head of Education at Trinity and attended as a student during the 1950s, said the society was “the women’s centre; our haven”.

Olive Constance Purser is another example of women in Trinity rising above the limitations imposed upon them. Purser was the first woman awarded the Non-Foundation Scholarship, as well as a double moderatorship. Not only this, but she won the studentship in Classics, the highest honour awarded in the School of Classics. What is particularly uplifting is the contemporary view of the women waiting for the news and the glee “that the battle has been decided in favour of our sex”. This illuminates that the support of women by women is intrinsic on the grounds we walk every day.

Looking back at the women of Trinity, it is clear to see that we aren’t all that different in our pursuit of women’s rights. In 1964, student magazine T.C.D. was suspended for two issues after writing an article on student pregnancy and marriage. This didn’t stop Helen Given and Kate Whitman writing an article in Trinity News titled “Do student marriages work?”, highlighting a key issue at the time whereby once married, women had little choice but to leave education behind to bear children. The newspaper later reported that there were at least 20 unmarried mothers and cried out that childcare was needed. Anne Denard, Dean of Women Students from 1959 to 1972, respond to this with: “If there’s a need, it will be met”. A day nursery was placed on Pearse Street. later moved to the building we have today in 1991.

Barriers for women began to lessen as the century went on. The creation of the Trinity Access Programme in 1993 saw an influx of mature students and those who from less privileged areas come to Trinity. One of those was Gaye Kelly, the founding member of the Trinity Mature Students’ Group. She also founded the feminist Women’s Group which organised the first Trinity Women’s Week. Lectures and debates on topics such as violence against women would likely not have occurred otherwise in times where women had to leave campus before 6pm.

Looking at campus as it is today, it is astonishing that just over 100 years ago, you wouldn’t see any women present. On International Women’s day this year, 300 Trinity students joined the crowd of 3,000 people on O’Connell Bridge for Strike for Repeal. To see such momentum behind a movement critical to the improvement of women’s rights in Ireland is all the more impressive with the knowledge of a woman’s history in this country and on campus.

Aine Palmer, TCDSU Gender Equality Officer, said “Women deserve representation in leadership and decision making capacities in all walks of life”. Palmer also commented that as students, we are constantly told we are “sheltered, [living] in a bubble”. However, she countered this saying that “ensuring Trinity is a space where women are welcomed and respected as leaders means that students and graduates feel empowered to run for these positions in the wider world”.