As I completed my routine swipe through Instagram’s never-ending stories the other night, it came to my attention that DU Gender Equality Society (DUGES) have recently launched a petition to rename the Berkeley Library the Wilde Library as a tribute to the renowned Trinity graduate, scholar, and poet Oscar Wilde. In doing so, the society has made a bold statement, adding their alternative suggestion to an ever-growing list in the wake of an ongoing campaign to cut College’s colonial ties with the philosopher George Berkeley. This moment was truly the icing on the cake for me.
The persistent male-centred approach to this issue is nothing short of exasperating. The fact that Trinity’s gender equality society has now introduced Wilde as their sole contribution to the discussion is disappointing and frankly shocking. Whilst there is no doubt that Wilde is an admirable alumnus, and DUGES raises many valid points surrounding his advocacy and contribution to LGBTQ+ history in their argument, this seemingly well-intentioned proposal strikes me as symptomatic of a much larger problem.
If you truly want to champion inclusivity and promote a shift away from the status quo, I am sceptical that Wilde is the way to go.
Cast your eye on the statues as you walk through campus, or the next time you stroll through the marvellous Long Room. Take a quick mental note of the names of the libraries, buildings and lecture halls you enter every single day. I assure you that most, in fact nearly all of them, are named after men, and exclusively white men at that. If you truly want to champion inclusivity and promote a shift away from the status quo, I am sceptical that Wilde is the way to go.
Similarly, a widely-circulated petition campaigning for the library to be named after Wolfe Tone has added to the androcentric discourse that currently underpins this movement. Like Wilde, Wolfe Tone has much to recommend him as a figure worthy of commemoration – not least for his efforts towards anti-sectarianism, anti-imperialism, and anti-colonialism – but it disregards the very unique opportunity to expand the scope of who Trinity celebrates, commemorates, and immortalises. Wolfe Tone’s questionable elopement with 16-year-old Matilda Witherington when he was 22 also calls into question how thoroughly we have really examined the alternatives that have been proposed.
Although College boasts plenty of celebrated female alumni who have advocated for similar causes and achieved great things in their lifetimes, there continues to be a lack of representation on our campus which does not attest to our vibrant alumni and the diversity of our student community. Take fellow poet Eavan Boland for instance, former Irish presidents Mary Robinson and Mary McAleese, or suffragette Alice Oldham, who advocated for complete gender equality in education and tirelessly led the (long overdue) campaign for the admission of women into Trinity. These ideas were all suggested by TCDSU in May during a demonstration outside of the Berkeley library. I will admit that the “Wilde library” has a nice ring to it – so why not Lady Wilde, a lifelong activist and acclaimed writer who, like Oldham, campaigned for women to be allowed to attend Trinity in the first place?
If we only commemorate men’s contributions, allowing them to enjoy long-lasting legacies, we remain complicit in prominent female figures fading into history.
Trinity gained its first female Provost last year, a significant step forward in the grand scheme of things, and one that garnered national recognition. However, College should not just stop there and consider that box ticked; there is still very far to go in terms of gender equality. If we only commemorate men’s contributions, allowing them to enjoy long-lasting legacies, we remain complicit in prominent female figures fading into history. This is an age-old problem that stretches far beyond Trinity, but we perpetuate it here.
The campaign to rename the Berkeley Library offers a likely once in a lifetime opportunity to make a change to this College and leave a mark on its history. Planning permission in Dublin city centre is hard to come by; when again will the chance arise to name such a central and prominent building on Trinity’s historic campus? As students we need to think more critically and look at the bigger picture when putting forward potentially influential proposals. We owe it to ourselves to make what little effort we can to help close the existing (and painfully obvious) gender gap within College.