Founded in 1592, Trinity College Dublin’s status as Ireland’s oldest university undoubtedly makes it an object ripe for historical analysis. As we approach the seventieth anniversary of the founding of Trinity News (TN) – which also boasts the title of the nation’s oldest student newspaper – one’s interest is piqued by the shifting issues which the publication’s past staff chose for its pages of black and white print.
While many issues covered in these archival volumes, such as complaints about poor conditions of student housing, have ironically stayed the same, the attitudes surrounding the position of women in College – as reported primarily by male contributors – is one topic that stands out to the modern eye. Rooted in the historical context of the mid-twentieth century, and with an appreciation for journalistic flair, these writings are subjects of analysis in themselves.
While starkly prejudiced against women, many of these pieces can be appreciated for their shocking absurdity. For example, in one 1954 article editorial column, the Editor points out that women are as “mentally and morally” different to men “as they are physically,” asserting that “women should stick to fencing and more elegant sports, leaving the tougher men to their hockey and cricket.” Other ‘mental’ limitations identified by this student journalist include women’s “assiduity”– or persistent attentiveness – which he states has “got them nowhere, except perhaps in the Mod. Lang School. We have only to look at Mod results to see their mediocrity in other faculties.” He re-affirmed that “if women remembered that they are potential mothers and that that instinct is very strong in nearly all of them, then perhaps they would choose a career such as infant teaching or nursing.” As a result, he concluded that women are “less likely to benefit from a university education than a man” and therefore, college would be a “waste of time and money for any woman…The finest career for a woman is that of wife and mother. If women could understand this, then perhaps they would leave the academic field to men who can fill it much better.”
While seeking a “career” as a “wife and mother” is completely valid for those who choose to do so, the dated idea that this is the only option for women due to their limited academic capabilities is farcical, condescending, and reflective of the dominant attitudes of the time.
“A contributor laments that he ‘cannot believe women belong as much as men in the University world’”
A similar view of fixed societal gender roles is echoed a year later, where a contributor laments that he “cannot believe women belong as much as men in the University world. Certainly, this is a view shared by many.” His opinion seems to have been prompted by debates concerning the admission of women as members of the University Philosophical Society (‘the Phil’) and the College Historical Society (‘the Hist’) – a topic that is discussed at length throughout these archival volumes. He argues: “it is my view that their presence either as spectators or members of the ‘Hist’ or ‘Phil’ would be inappropriate in the extreme and damaging both to the existing standard of oratory… and the whole atmosphere that exists at these meetings.”
Formed in 1683, the Phil only allowed women to attend debates as spectators in 1953. Even then, however, women continued to be excluded from full membership. Resistance to their inclusion was only overcome in 1967, when a vote was passed (after several failed attempts) to admit women as members. It would take the Hist two more years to follow in the Phil’s footsteps in the face of mounting criticism; the motion only passed by a single vote. Support for the righting of such a profound wrong is voiced as far back as 1953 by a female writer. She argues: “The bar to admission of women to the major societies is not just another good sex joke; it is a deprivation to everyone… we suggest that it is time that the societies revive this most ancient of their traditions.”
“‘If women ‘are needed to improve the standard of debating, the standard must be pretty low.’”
A primary reason for maintaining this “ancient” system was the view that debating was “primarily a male-occupation,” as the 1961 Hist Auditor put it to Trinity News: “Women in debate would brittle the speaker’s tongue” he reasons, continuing that if women “are needed to improve the standard of debating, the standard must be pretty low.” The journalist then cites the opinion of Trinity’s teaching staff, noting that one Dr Stanford asserted that women’s admission would “dilute the intellectual atmosphere to a more social and personal level.”
The debate on female inclusion was the subject of another editorial in 1965. With a similarly patronising tone to that of his 1955 counterpart, the Editor labels the student activists seeking to enfranchise female students as “agitators… [who] need to be put in their places.” He marvels at the mere thought of women being allowed to debate in the Hist, rhetorically postulating “What next? Women in the Rugby Club? Can you really see a woman with a billiard cue? Why shouldn’t there be one place in Trinity that excludes women? Not every male conversation is enhanced by female intervention. Many are the times when men wish to relax after yet another conquest (or failure) alone, uninterrupted by feminine triteness.” His conclusion is that the Hist has “continued to provide a male sanctuary in a petticoat-dominated world. Long may matters remain this way.”
“‘A splendid student prank. Now, stop it. This latter-day Suffragettism is a bore… ’”
Yet, despite these disdainful rebukes, acts of female defiance persisted. In a comedic article published in 1966, a small band of women was reported to have invaded a Hist debate: “crouching behind the Hist members,” these eight gowned “conspirators” – recruited from a “group of sympathisers” at an Eliz tea party – were met with shouts of “Out!” on their discovery. Their leader, June Rodgers, stated that the act was not about “asking to be members. It was just a plea to be allowed into important meetings.” The next weekly TN issue presents a Hist debater’s response to the invasion, which had interrupted him mid-speech, stating that it “was great fun, I enjoyed it immensely, a splendid student prank. Now, stop it. This latter-day Suffragettism is a bore… Go home girls and shut up.”
Speaking to Trinity News about this invasion, June Rodgers emphasised that for her, it was only a bit of fun. “It started as a practical joke,” she stated, and that once they were found “absolute mayhem broke out.” She explained that at the time, “there were other, more pressing things that were engaging people, and these questions concerning women’s rights didn’t enter our minds.” Those students who did advocate for these issues were in the minority during the years that Rodgers attended Trinity, whose views “just irritated people and didn’t resonate.” Rodger emphasised the need to understand the historical context, and the different socio-economic background of Ireland at the time. She pointed out that Trinity was arguably more of a liberal and intellectual hub than the rest of the country and other academic institutions; this social context placed women’s issues on the backburner.
Deep diving into the archives of TN, the attitudes that surrounded female students are both fascinating and painfully backwards. While we women often take for granted our right to be fully integrated into college life, it is clear that these articles, and the attitudes of its male contributors mirror the dominant and dated prejudices of their time. Such papers are invaluable artefacts of Trinity’s historic past, allowing us to reflect upon the obstacles women faced in their path to gender parity, the advancements we have made in the span of seventy years, and the progress we have yet to embark upon.