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How Trinity College Dublin opened its doors to women: in a new exhibition

It’s a bright April morning, the sun and clouds dancing around each other like figures in an animated clock. Puddles of rain between the cobblestones in Trinity College Dublin’s Front Square. Tourists line up for the Long Room and the Book of Kells. Scattered about are small, dizzying groups of formally dressed men and women, ready for graduation. Two women struggle to take selfies while keeping intricate arrangements of dresses and mortarboards at bay. “Can I have one for you?” I ask, peering into the large open pocket at her feet. “Is that a crown?” It is. A large. She tries it on. “You’re like Glinda the good witch,” I tell her as I hand the phone back to her. “Congratulations. You look wonderful.”

he sight of a graduate in such a glittering headgear would have brought full credit to George Salmon, Provost from 1888 until his death in 1904. He famously proclaimed, “Women will enter college over my corpse.”

In 1895 a petition signed by more than 10,000 Irish women (including Lady Jane Francesca Wilde and Constance Wilde – Oscar Wilde’s mother and wife respectively) called for the 300-year-old ban on female students to be abolished. In response, the college board identified one of the dangers as follows: “Once a woman passed through the gate, it would be virtually impossible to see what buildings or chambers she would have entered, or how long she would remain there.”

There were also concerns that education would endanger her femininity, social grace, and possibly even her health. Women’s academic ambitions were considered futile if their social duty was to marry.

Salmon’s successor, Dr. Anthony Traill, acted with reasonable haste, and Trinity took in its first three students not long after Salmon’s death: Isabel Marion Weir Johnston and two others in January 1904, followed by another 47 in September.

But the fight wasn’t over yet. A new exhibit entitled “If a Female Had Once Passed the Gate” marks the centenary of the Trinity Women Graduates, established in 1922 to connect graduates with the university and each other keep.

It traces the campaign for admission and the quiet revolution that followed, including the achievements of early graduates and the long fight for equality between students and staff (the first lecturer was appointed in 1909, the first professor in 1925).

The official women’s code (1908) is one of the exhibition highlights. Female students were subject to strict regulations that required them to wear their formal college attire in college plazas and parks unless accompanied by a chaperone. Women were not allowed to live on campus, so Trinity Hall was founded in 1908. Even in the 1960s, women were still denied housing on campus and required to leave Trinity by 6 p.m., severely limiting their ability to study or join societies.

The exhibit features a photograph of former Tánaiste Mary Harney, taken when she became the first female auditor of the College Historical Society (Hist) in 1976. Another interesting find is a photograph of the Steamboat Ladies’ graduation ceremony in July 1906; Students from Oxford and Cambridge universities (who then refused to award degrees to women) who went to Dublin instead. Between 1904 and 1907, hundreds of women made their way to Dublin to get their degrees.

Conclude

Professor Linda Doyle, Trinity’s first female Provost, in front of the statue of George Salmon, a predecessor notoriously anti-students. Photo by Paul Sharp

By following the admissions campaign and the battles won in the years that followed, this is an exhibition of firsts as well as a fascinating social history record, featuring interesting characters such as Olive Purser, who became the college’s first female scholar in 1906 of her life. Trinity Project Archivist Ciara Daly, Curator, recognizes the “achievements and hard-fought victories of these women who are recognized as equal citizens, students, academics and graduates.”

In contrast to the surrounding cultural riches in the Long Hall, the showcases appear modest, consisting mainly of photographs, letters, personal memoirs and official publications. But the images and stories stick, like the photo of the first female graduates in 1906, serious and dressed, with a newly changed future ahead of them.

Trinity was the first of the historic universities of Ireland and Britain to admit women. Not long ago, Professor Linda Doyle was the first female chancellor to be elected since the university was founded (ironically by Elizabeth I) in 1592. In a cute nod to the story, Doyle posed for her first post-election photos in front of the statue of George Salmon in the front plaza.

Suffragette Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington once advised women to “be patient in banging the doors of male privilege that are still stubbornly shut. Never quiet while women are still unfree.”

However, as Doyle notes, “Just because a door opens once doesn’t mean it stays open. We have a lot to do to make sure the doors are open. For example, during the early wave of the pandemic, we saw fewer women submitting articles for publication in scientific journals as more stereotyped gender roles prevailed. When it comes to Trinity, we need to make sure we don’t feel, “Well, we’ve got the Probsterin done for now.” Instead, we need to get to a point where there’s nothing interesting about there being a female provost, or indeed any leadership role in Trinity being filled by a woman — it’s just an intrinsic part of who we are.”

Back in Front Square, the sun is shining and I wonder where the young woman I met earlier – now with a master’s degree from the Faculty of Health Sciences under her arm – is now. I hope she wears her crown. She deserves it.

If a Female Had Once Passed the Gate is free with tickets to the Book of Kells from April 28th to May 31st. The permanent online exhibition, part of the Virtual Trinity Library, opens in partnership with Google Arts & Culture on 27 April at tcd.ie/library

https://www.independent.ie/irish-news/education/how-trinity-college-dublin-opened-its-gate-to-women-inside-a-new-exhibition-41574863.html How Trinity College Dublin opened its doors to women: in a new exhibition

Fry Electronics Team

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