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A brief history of women in Trinity College Dublin: Trinity Women Graduates Archive Project Blog

To mark International Women’s Day and Women’s History month we have another project blog from the Trinity Women Graduates collection (TCD MUN SOC WGA).   In Trinity College Dublin women were not always “equally admissible to men students.” This blog will chronicle the achievements and hard-fought victories of women in Trinity to be acknowledged as equal citizens, students, academics, and graduates.

After twelve years of campaigning with several petitions and proposals supporting university education for women in Ireland women were finally admitted to Degrees in Trinity College Dublin in 1904. The initiative and determination of these women brought about a wave of developments in education for women in Ireland. 

In 1870, Trinity College established its ‘Examinations for Women’, to offer junior and senior level examinations for girls due to a rise in demand for further education. The number of candidates increased over the next few years and in 1879 the Royal University of Ireland was founded in accordance with the University Education (Ireland) Act 1879 as an examining and degree-awarding university. Examinations were opened to candidates regardless of attendance at college lectures. The university became the first university in Ireland that could grant degrees to women on a par with those granted to men; Isabella Mulvany, Headmistress of Alexandra College was one of the first to be awarded a degree in 1884.    

The campaign for the admission of women to Trinity College began in earnest in 1892, coinciding with the tercentenary celebrations of Trinity College. The Central Association of Irish Schoolmistresses presented a memorial of 10,560 signatures of Irish women asking the Board of Trinity College to open its degrees to women. Signatories include Jane Francesca Agnes, Lady Wilde, and Constance Mary Wilde (the mother and sister respectively of Oscar Wilde). The memorial tried to win the support of those who did not have an interest in university for themselves and highlighted the cultural benefit of university education beyond pursuing a career in teaching. However, the Board refused to acknowledge the petition until the following year. 

After a period of three years, during which time the Board had received a deputation of men to speak on the women’s behalf and had sought legal advice, in 1895 the request was refused. John Mahaffy proposed to the Board in January 1902 “that the time had come to take action in the matter of giving degrees in Arts to Women”. The proposal carried with Provost George Salmon and two others opposing the motion. Mahaffy proposed again in March 1902 that a letter from the King should be sought to give women degrees in Arts and Medicine. The lord lieutenant then petitioned to ask the king to issue Letters Patent for the admission of women. However, the king was reluctant to promote this legislation as Provost of Trinity College Dublin, George Salmon was so violently opposed to it. In July 1903, the health of Provost Salmon declined, and he wrote to the king to withdraw his opposition and Letters Patent were issued in January 1904. Provost Salmon died eight days later, on the 22nd of January 1904. The Board adopted on June 4, 1904, the following resolution regarding women students: 

 “Women Students or Graduates of other Universities in which women are given full academic status, are entitled to every privilege granted to men of the same standing.” 

The first three women students to enter Trinity College in January 1904 were Marion Weir Johnston, Averina Shegog and Ellen Tuckey. They were followed by forty-seven more in September 1904, including the first female Scholar, Olive Purser, and Constantia Maxwell, the first female lecturer. Rooms were allocated to them in Number 5 Parliament Square and rules and regulations were established. In December 1904, the admission of women to degrees was formally recognised and honorary degrees were awarded to Isabella Mulvany, principal of Alexandra School who was also one of the first graduates of the Royal University, Sophie Bryant, and Jane Barlow. Then, in 1906 the first cohort of women students graduated at the Michaelmas commencements; Muriel Lora Bennett graduated with a gold medal for first place in Modern Literature; Eileen Frances McCutchan graduated in Ethics and Logic; Edith Marion O’Shaughnessy, Eliza Beck Douglas, Brighid Stafford, and Lisabeth Burkitt Craig graduated in Modern Literature; Annie Jane Saunderson graduated in Modern History and Political Science, and Madeline Stuart Baker graduated in pass Arts. In 1906, Olive Purser was awarded a non-Foundation Scholarship and in 1918 went on to be Lady Registrar. She was given an honorary L.L.D in 1954, in recognition of her service and contribution to the welfare of women students.  

Following the admittance of women to degrees in Trinity in 1904 a request came from women in Oxford and Cambridge to have Trinity degrees awarded to them ad eundem gradum (this is the process by where an academic degree awarded by one university or college to an alumnus of another) at a time when their own universities refused to confer degrees upon them. Between 1904 and 1907, hundreds of women from Oxbridge women’s colleges travelled to Dublin on steamboats to receive their degrees. They became known as the ‘Steamboat Ladies’. The commencement fees collected from the Steamboat Ladies went on to fund Trinity Hall.  

In 1908, the establishment of Trinity Hall (in the Dublin suburb of Dartry) as an official university residence for women gave them the privilege of having a residential, social, and academic community of their own. Margery Cunningham was the first warden and established its customs, routines, and reputation over her thirty-two year reign. Trinity Hall was a cultural and social centre of student life that provided a safe environment for female students to flourish. In 1909, another significant event in the history of women was the appointment of Constantina Maxwell as an assistant to the Professor of Modern History, making her the first female member of the university’s teaching staff.  

As mentioned in our last blog, there were some regulations that women had to adhere to. The aim of these rules was to have women students fit into college life without making a difference to the current routine. However, these regulations emphasized the separation of the male and female student populations in everything except lectures and exams. They did not allow for the integration and assimilation of women into the mainstream college routine. Although ‘women students are now equally admissible with men students to lectures and examinations, and to the privilege of reading in the library’ they were subject to college rules and statutes. The rules were strictly enforced in the early years but as women steadily assimilated into college life, they began to gain traction and recognition as both students and staff.  

A significant milestone in increasing the status of women within Trinity College was the founding and establishment of the Dublin University Women Graduates Association, now known as Trinity Women Graduates. In March 1922, a preliminary meeting with Lucy Gwynn as the chair, decided that an association of women graduates was needed for the rising number of female graduates. The association was established so that women graduates could stay connected with the university and with each other. The Dublin University Women Graduates Association was founded on the 25th of April 1922 and held its inaugural meeting in Trinity Week that year. Lucy Gwynn, first lady Registrar of Trinity College was the founding president with Oliver Purser, first female scholar as vice-president. The Association had rooms in Number 6 Front Square and organised lectures, visits, weekly gatherings, alumni dinners and an ‘At Home’ during Trinity Week.  In 1904, there were 47 women admitted to Trinity, in 1914 that number grew to 198 and then in 1924 there were 245. By 1922, there were now significant women graduates and the Dublin University Women Graduates was established with 108 members. The first secretary was Averil Deverell, one of the first women lawyers in Ireland and the other members were encompassed by Olive Armstrong, Fridzweeda Berry, Geraldine Fitzgerald, Frances Moran, Lillian Luce and Muriel Thompson.  

On the 26th of February 1926, a Dinner was held in the Renommé Restaurant in London for DUWGA members living in London. The dinner was the first official gathering of DUWGA members in London and due to many graduates emigrating to London, it was a way for former graduates to stay connected while living abroad and as a support network for new graduates moving to Britain. Some of the earliest women graduates attended this dinner, with Eileen McCutchan as the chair of the London Branch and M.F Greeves as the honorary secretary. Several functions were held for DUWGA members in London and after the war the DUWGA went on to set up an official London Branch. Events included an annual dinner, theatre outings and talks with speakers invited from Ireland and Trinity College to keep members up to date.   

It was in the 1950s when things really began to change for women. In 1954, the Dublin University Women Graduates Association celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of the admission of women to Trinity College in the College Dining Hall. This was the first time that women were allowed to host a Dinner in the Dining Hall. The late 50’s and early 60s was a momentous time for female academic staff, Ita O’Boyle was appointed as junior lecturer in German in 1959; Catherine McNamara was appointed as junior lecturer in Economics in 1961; Barbara Wright was appointed as lecturer in French in 1965, was one of the first fellows in 1968 and became a Senior Fellow in 1990. Professor Jocelyn Otway-Ruthven was appointed as staff in 1938 and was one of the first senior female staff member elected to Fellowship 1968. Professor Frances Moran was the first woman appointed as Reid Professor of Criminal Law at Trinity College Dublin in 1925; she was elected to the Board in 1958. Subsequent holders of this position are current University Chancellor, Mary McAleese, and Ivana Bacik T.D. 

In 1965, women were allowed to dine at Commons in the Dining Hall, and in 1968 women were finally admitted as members of the student debating society, the College Historical Society (the Hist).  Then, in 1976 Mary Harney was elected as the first female auditor of the 207th Session of the Hist. 1968 was an important year for women as the first women fellows and foundation scholars Ita Kirwan, Catherine McNamara, Barbara Wright and Professor Jocelyn Otway-Ruthven were elected to Fellowship on Trinity Monday June 1968. In 1981, Professor Eda Sagarra was appointed first female registrar of TCD. And finally, in 1982 the Elizabethan Society and the Philosophical Society merged as there was now no need for a female-only debating society. In 2000, Dr Frances Ruane was the first woman to stand for provostship and in 2001 Professor Jane Grimson was appointed first woman Vice Provost. 

 Women in Trinity have come a long way since the first women were admitted in 1904 and the Trinity Women Graduates continue to inspire future generations of Women Graduates of Trinity College. A writer in 1954 edition of ‘Trinity: an annual record’ mused that “time has done its work and it is not beyond the imaginative powers of the junior freshwomen of 1954 to picture a woman Provost of Trinity”. Professor Linda Doyle was appointed as Provost after an all-female election in 2021, one hundred and seventeen years after women were admitted to Trinity College. Now when a woman passes through the Front Gate, there is no limit to what she can accomplish. 

Ciara Daly, Project Archivist. 

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