In 1892 Alice Oldham on behalf of the Central Association of Irish Schoolmistresses (CAISM) spearheaded a campaign to persuade Trinity College Dublin to open its degrees to women. Her campaign began with a memorial to the Board of Trinity College signed by 10,500 'Irish women of the educated classes' together with three other memorials, including two from Trinity lecturers. Trinity College had played a major role in the reform of women's education in the 1860s and 1870s, but a new Provost, Dr Salmon, appointed in 1888, was totally opposed to the idea of admitting women to the lectures and degrees of the college alongside men. He believed in one central university for women and dismissed the views of the reformers with the remark, 'they go on the idea that the best thing for men must also be best for women'.
Exasperated at the failure of her efforts, Alice Oldham decided to publish in pamphlet form details of her correspondence with the board of the college. It was now apparent that their objections were social and moral rather than educational: young men under their care would be in great danger of forming undesirable relationships and their parents or guardians would not wish them to be placed in such a position. Events now began to move in favour of the reformers as attempts were made to solve the university question in Ireland.
Two commissions were set up: the Robertson Commission (1901-3) to examine the Royal University and the Fry Commission (1906-7) to conduct a similar investigation into Trinity College.
There were two views on the issue of women and university education:
The Robertson Commission came out in favour of Alice Oldham's views while the Fry Commission favoured Henrietta White's solution.
The findings of these Commissions were ultimately superseded by events when Dr Salmon, while still Provost, lost his complete control over the Board of Trinity College. A resolution was passed in 1903 that 'the time had come to admit women to teaching and degrees of Trinity College'.
At last in 1904 Trinity College accepted women's rights to full university degrees. This did not include many of the freedoms taken for granted today. The first women undergraduates were confined to Rooms 5 and 6 and had to be off the college grounds by 6 p.m. every evening. They were not allowed to study in the library until their junior sophister year. Female medical students had to carry out their dissections separately from men.
|There stood an ancient College, beside the Liffey's shores,
Full thirty Fellows spent their days within its massive doors.
Though thrice six weeks of all the years as College terms they kept,
Through term-time and vacation both they unmolested slept.
Sometimes the students bothered them with troublesome affairs,
As when they took the Junior Dean and threw him down the stairs,
But nothing serious occurred their placid souls to vex,
Until the College opened to admit the gentler sex.
Anonymous, 'The Tribulations of Trinity' in Alexandra College Magazine, Dec. 1904.