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Barbara Wright

Photo of Barbara Wright

Elected to Fellowship in 1968

Professor Barbara Wright studied Modern Languages and Literature (French and Irish), and Law, in Trinity College Dublin, before taking a PhD in French at Cambridge. She joined the staff of Trinity’s French department in 1965 and specialised throughout her career in the relationship between nineteenth-century French literature and painting.

Professor Wright was one of the first five women elected to Fellowship on Trinity Monday, 1968; admission of women to Fellowship having been approved by the university’s Board in October 1967. She continues her research and engagement with university life as a Fellow Emerita.

What led to the decision to allow women to become Fellows?

Henry Fawcett was a blind Professor of Economics in Cambridge – he may have been physically blind but he was very far-seeing – and Fawcett’s Act of 1873 abolished religious tests for all positions in Trinity except the Divinity School. This opened up Fellowship to all faiths and none.

However, Fellowship wasn’t available to women until 1967/68. There were debates about it throughout the ‘60s, which wasn’t the first time the idea was talked about, but the conversations became more real.

Professors David Webb and Brendan McDowell found an obscure act of 1919 about Civil Service appointments which legitimised the substitution of “she” for “he”. They took this as an extension of Fawcett’s Act, i.e. there should not be a gender test either.

What was it like for you to study and work in Trinity at that time?

I was able to combine two degrees [a Moderatorship in Modern Languages and Literature, and the professional LLB in Law] because in those days the Moderatorship exams were at the beginning of the term, and the professional exams were at the end of the term. At that time, there were no jobs for anybody, so you just studied the whole year round…or had fun, or whatever it was you were there to do!

The French Department was a very good place to work. I retired in 2005 and saw many changes in that time. The principal change is that people have focussed earlier and earlier on specialisation. When I took the undergraduate degree, it was a very broad foundation from medieval French right up to contemporary times.

Do you remember the conversation about female Fellows going on?

It was a big topic of debate but women weren’t party to it, because they were the focus of it! I remember hearing talk about what was being said; and that it was a lively subject of debate; but we were the pawns in the game.

I always say I was born under a lucky star. Because if I’d been born earlier, I wouldn’t have even got to that position, as it was only in 1904 that women were admitted at all. Shamefully, not until 1947/48 did women get degrees in Cambridge.

What were the different cultures in Cambridge and Trinity like, as regards women?

I found a big difference in Cambridge, because I was in a women's College - I was fully in a College. I had no sense of deprivation when I was an undergraduate here in Trinity; I was extremely happy; but I didn’t know what I didn’t have, and therefore I didn’t miss it.

The thing I regretted most was that women were not allowed to be members of the Hist or the Phil; were not even allowed to attend!

Of course there were ever so many other societies you could be a member of. I was a member of the Modern Languages Society and of the Gaelic Society, of which I became the Reachtaire [Auditor]. My inaugural address was on the position of women in Ireland.

My grandmother was a suffragette – she smashed some windows in Dublin Castle – so there was something in the genes. But I was never a campaigner; and I would like to be remembered as a good scholar and a good teacher. I don’t want to go down in history as the first woman to do this, that or the other.

How did you feel about being one of the first women elected to Fellowship?

Everything is relative. I wasn’t aware of being a trailblazer; that’s something that only dawned on me in retrospect. Because I wasn’t a campaigner, I just saw these as challenges to be met, and I took them one-by-one. It didn’t feel as though I was the Pankhurst of Trinity!

Fellowship is a huge thing; it’s much more than an academic honour, because it means you are part and parcel of the establishment of the College. Therefore it’s a major landmark in a person’s career.

Have you any advice for female students and academics in Trinity today?

Keep your eyes on the prize. Don’t allow yourself to be deflected by all the extraneous things that come in. If you choose a career that has some element of sequence in it, then you’ve got to be very rigorous about what are the top priorities for maintaining that sequence; and let everything else become ancillary.

Any final thoughts?

The cause of women isn’t being helped by political correctness; concerns for language are distracting from the real issues. It can be dangerous if some men feel inhibited from speaking up for the voice of reason. However, I have great hope in the rising generation.