The leading ladies of Trinity’s Elizabethan Society

The inside story of the women who rocked Parliament Square

When I hit the stalls for Freshers’ Week, like most students, I joined as many societies as possible – most of which I have yet to turn up to. Every year, almost like a ritual, students waste money in a bid to become as active in student life as possible. Today, we take this for granted. In 1904, Trinity’s first female students graced these hallowed halls but unfortunately, even though they had won the right to study here they did not have the capacity to fully participate in student life in the way we do today, as they were banned from major societies such as the Phil and the Hist. 

The fight for women’s rights in this period of history was a long one, a fight which would take a back seat in Ireland against a backdrop of deep political unrest of the early twentieth century. However, after overcoming such an obstacle as attending university, they refused to be knocked at the final hurdle and robbed of their chance to participate and socialise. As a result, the Dublin University Elizabethan Society was formed just a year later in 1905 in opposition to the Phil and the Hist not allowing women to participate in activities.

As the women of the time were relegated to House Six, where they had separate dining rooms and cloakrooms, The Eliz, as it became known following its formation, had full use of all facilities. Here, members were not held to the stifling standards of dress, poise, and behaviour inflicted upon them by both Trinity and the strict social norms of the time. Despite the obvious social aspect and its annual Garden Party during Trinity term, the Eliz was first and foremost a female-only debating society. Like their male counterparts, the Phil and The Hist, the Eliz entertained prominent guest speakers to speak freely about the issues that affected them. One such speaker, on the 60th Anniversary of its foundation in 1964, was Ninette de Valois. De Valois was truly an apt choice of guest to mark this occasion as she was a highly prominent and successful woman within her field. A renowned dancer and founder of the Royal Ballet, she embodied the feminist drive that had characterised the Eliz since its foundation over half a century before.

It wasn’t until 1953 that the Phil first contemplated opening its doors to women. However only in 1963 was a further vote taken on the admission of women, which lost by three points. In 1967 they began to entertain the idea of merging with the Eliz, as is the case today, yet at that time the Eliz wasn’t interested in losing their own rights as a society in order to join the Phil. This left the Phil in a predicament because the halfway house of allowing women to read papers wasn’t enough. It was because of this, that in 1968, the Phil passed a vote allowing full female membership.

You may be wondering why you haven’t heard of the Eliz or been accosted by one of its over-eager members on Freshers’ Week. The answer is simple. While they refused to merge with the Phil in 1967, in 1981 the two societies finally merged. As such the Eliz is no longer in session but it does still have a president. In a symbolic show of good faith and in remembrance of the great women who came before us, today the highest-ranking female member of the Phil gets the honour of being named the President of the Elizabethan Society.

So the memory of the Eliz lives on both in this and in the Eliz Inaugural, where female guests are invited to speak on issues concerning women. Today the president of the Eliz is a purely honorary title, but it goes a long way in honouring the memory of the first women to walk through Front Gate and claim House Six for their own. They could never have foreseen that only a little over a century later, almost 60% of Trinity students would be female.