In 1968, Barbara Wright (née Robinson) became one of the first four women to be elected into the Fellowship of Trinity College Dublin. To mark the occasion, Dame Ruth Cowen (the Principal of Newnham College Cambridge, where Wright had completed her Ph.D. degree in 1962) gave Professor Wright a remarkable gift. It was one of the original graduation gowns that was worn by more than 700 women students from Cambridge and Oxford who, by special arrangement between 1904 and 1907, travelled to Dublin to be awarded the degrees they had earned. They were nicknamed ‘Steamboat Ladies’ for the cheap method of transport they used to travel to Dublin.
This offer to invite Oxford and Cambridge women to put on an academic gown and attend a degree ceremony on the same terms as male students was a remarkable act of generosity on the part of Dublin University. Seeing so many women graduating was an inspiration to Trinity’s first generation of female students who were admitted to study there in 1904. As Susan M. Parkes writes in her book A Danger to the Men? A History of Women in Trinity College Dublin 1904-2004 (Lilliput Press 2004):
These distinguished women of varying ages were the leaders of women’s secondary and higher education in Britain. Trinity was honoured by their presence, and though the majority of the “Steamboat Ladies” prob never returned to Dublin, they remained proud holders of Univ of Dublin degrees.
Sadly, Professor Barbara Wright died last year, so it’s very moving that she loaned her historic gown to be displayed in the excellent exhibition ‘The Rising Tide: Women at Cambridge’ at the Cambridge University Library (my review in the Times Literary Supplement is available here) As a Trinity College Dublin student in the early 1980s I was fortunate enough to be taught by Professor Wright and it was partly thanks to her inspiring teaching and encouragement that I came to Queens’ College Cambridge to study for a PhD in French Literature in 1985.
‘The Rising Tide: Women at Cambridge’ closes on 21 March – so do go and see this academic gown, as well as a beautifully restored green Victorian tennis dress and many other fascinating objects, letters and photographs on display for the first time. It’s lovely to have this historic, tangible link between the first women at Trinity College Dublin and at Cambridge University.
©Ann Kennedy Smith, re-edited August 2021
The gown and green tennis dress are held in Newnham College library archives.