Busting Down the Patriarchy or a Bronze Distraction?

CW: sexual abuse.

The opinions expressed in this piece are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of The Hysteria Collective as a whole.

At the end of November 2020, Trinity College Dublin announced that they would be commissioning four new sculptures of womxn for the Old Library’s Long Room. Currently, this room in Ireland’s oldest surviving University, contains 40 busts, all of whom are male.

At the end of 2019, staff, students and alumni were encouraged to submit nominations of who these busts should be of. The criteria was simple – they had to be womxn, scholars and dead. A panel then decided who would be selected from over 500 suggestions.

And the winners are….

Rosalind Franklin (1920 – 1858).

A British scientist whose research and scientific experiments led to the discovery of the molecular structure of DNA. Franklin also extensively researched into the structure of viruses and her work laid the foundation of structural virology in modern science.

Ada Lovelace (1815 – 1852).

The first computer programmer ever, who wrote an algorithm for a computer machine in the mid-1800s. A skilled mathematician from an early age, Lovelace outlined how codes could be created for a device that could handle letters, symbols and numbers. Her contribution to computer programming was only published in the 1950s.

Augusta Gregory (1852 – 1932).

An Irish writer and playwright, who was a leading figure in the 19th century Irish literary renaissance due to her translation of Irish legends, and her comedies and fantasies based on Irish folklore that were written for the working class. She also was a founder of the Irish Literary Theatre and was the Director of the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, which was successful largely due to her management, and is culturally significant in Irish history and within the arts globally.

Mary Wollstonecraft (1759 – 1797).

An English writer advocate for social and educational equality for womxn. She wrote A Vindictation of the Rights of Woman (1792) which is considered one of the most important feminist texts produced at this time, as she argued that radical reform of national education systems was necessary to achieve gender equality. 

Trinity College Dublin wrote ‘The first [busts] for this space were commissioned in the 1740s, soon after the Library was finished, and the collection was gradually extended in the following years. No new sculptures have been commissioned since the 1880s and no additional sculptures have been installed since the 1920s’. 

Given that womxn were not allowed to attend TCD until 1904, it isn’t surprising that there were no womxn included when the busts were first introduced. But it is disappointing that it has taken 116 years since the first female student entered TCD (and 280 years since the busts were introduced) to have some representation in tangible items, such as these busts.

The Long Room will now contain 44 busts – meaning that womxn will still only make up 9.09%. Obviously this is a small step forward and the womxn selected to be celebrated in marble format are great scholars and aspirations for TCD students of all genders to look at whilst studying. But whilst the womxn chosen by the panel are groundbreaking in their own ways and deserving of celebration, they do not represent every womxn in Ireland or at TCD as all four of these womxn are white, heterosexual and from privileged middle class backgrounds. 

It leads me to question how much TCD is doing to support the womxn and non-binary students and staff in it’s community. Is this a tangible reflection of the work going on behind the scenes or a tokenistic marble distraction? Looking at the Library itself, the current Librarian and college archivist is Helen Shelton. However, Shelton is the only womxn librarian in the college’s 428 year history. Moving beyond the Library itself, a Gender Equality review of TCD in 2018 found that (as of December 2017) 52% of staff were female. However, when broken down, 53% of the Governing Authority Body, 64% of the Academic Council and 62% of the Executive Management were male. In the Academic Core-Funded staff the disparity between men and womxn was even bigger.

70% of Professors are male.

63% of Associate Professors were male.

61% of Senior Lecturers were male.

54% of Lecturers were male.

Although slightly improved against the stats of 2016, it was largely unchanged. 

Furthermore in a survey undertaken in 2015, one in four female TCD students said they had had a non-consensual sexual experience. The survey found that “just over 25% of female students and 5% of male students had had an unwanted sexual experience”. As a result of this survey and consent campaigns, TCD introduced consent workshops in 2016 for all new undergraduates living in fresher accommodation at Trinity Hall in Rathmines. In the workshops, the FRIES acronym is taught. This stands for: ‘Freely given, retractable, informed, enthusiastic and specific’. In 2019, 585 students attended which was a 14% increase on the number of students who had attended the year before. 

These workshops were also expanded in 2018 and made available to clubs and societies. Whilst the mandated workshops in halls had seen a high attendance rate, clubs and societies will have to request the workshops – it is not mandatory. Obviously, mandatory sexual consent workshops for all staff and students would be a benefit to all genders within the TCD community. Dublin Rape Crisis Centre also stated, “ensuring that available and accessible mental health services are integrated into sexual violence response programmes is central to achieving this [a reduction in non-consensual sexual experiences for TCD students]”.

I am excited to see the busts of the four womxn who have been chosen. But if this commitment to championing and uplifting womxn doesn’t translate to the community alive and not carved out of marble in the halls of TCD over the coming years, it’ll turn these busts into tokenistic gestures from another patriarchal institution – which would be a disservice to them and all womxn who have walked through TCD.

Image courtesy of Graham Ruttan.

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