Forty years ago, Trinity College – that ‘bastion of masculinity’ as The Age described it in 1973 – welcomed women to share its buildings and bathrooms in an official capacity. Nothing has been quite the same since.
Women weren’t new to the College in 1974. The first woman to become a member of any Australian university college was Lilian Alexander, who was enrolled by the first Warden, Dr Leeper, on 4 April 1883. Three years later the Trinity Women’s Hostel opened with four students in residence. That it opened at all was largely due to the munificence of Janet, Lady Clarke, who provided ongoing financial and practical backing for Leeper’s dream of an independent women’s hostel in the face of a less than enthusiastic College Council.
Janet Clarke Hall’s move to independent affiliation in 1961 meant that Trinity lost the leavening influence of its JCH ladies and became almost exclusively male, with women admitted only on a non-resident basis. There was no desire at this time to change the status quo. Trinity in the 1960s was typical of other such colleges in Australia and England: a conservatively macho environment with, what Professor Robin Sharwood described as, ‘absurdly restrictive rules on women visitors’. Gradually, though, the foment of challenge and change of accepted mores began to impact the College community. This change was greatly encouraged and supported by Professor Sharwood, whose resolution to transform Trinity into ‘a society where men and women lived and worked and socialised together with mutual delight and respect’ laid the foundation stones for the revolution that followed.
By the early 1970s, the first tentative steps were taken towards co-residency. Despite the formidable obstacles, not least the suitability of the College’s buildings to house both sexes, on 2 August 1972, the College Council unanimously agreed that ‘this Council sees no objection in principle to the introduction of women residents’. A little over twelve months later, Romayne Holmes became the first woman offered a residential place at Trinity College.
It’s incredibly tempting to think of the first women enrollees as pioneering groundbreakers, but to a woman they decry this description and view their experiences as just one of those things. At the recent reunion for the entry years of 1972 to 1974, I was lucky enough to meet six of the 1974 intake of women and was struck by their matter-of-fact attitude to life in this former ‘bastion of masculinity’.
While ten women signed the College register in 1974, their initial experiences were quite different. Because of the ongoing renovations to Bishops’ bathrooms, four of them were housed with the Burge family in the Warden’s Lodge. Some newcomers, such as Moonee Ponds resident Sarah Deasey, boarded at home for their first term, only moving in once the Bishops’ improvements were completed.
As the year progressed, so did the impact on Trinity life of the new order. The College fielded teams in as many women’s sporting events as numbers allowed, with Trinity women having a particularly strong impact on the Inter-collegiate Athletics competition, prompting Athletics’ Captain, Digby Crisp, to lament in his report for the Fleur-de-Lys, ‘Maybe
if some of he apathetic sportsmen in the College took a lesson from the females, Trinity could end up winning the Athletics Cup’.
On the night of the recent reunion, it was fascinating to listen as the 1974 intake reminisced about their early experiences at the College. There were many laughs about sporting achievements and about their participation in that year’s College play. Amanda Bednall (now Maddy McMaster) the former doyenne of the Drama Club, spoke of the thrill that was felt when receiving a prized invitation to the gentlemen’s Behan Building wine and cheese parties. She also remembered parties in Jeopardy, which always seemed to end with the playing of Monty Python records.
While the prevailing view of the presence of women in College appears to have been a positive one that was accepted as an inevitability by most, there do appear to have been some dissenters amongst the senior gentlemen of Trinity. Records show that the vote in favour of co-residency was at worst consensual and at best unanimous. There were those who were less than happy, including one male staff member who told a fresher woman when she’d had the temerity to ask for assistance to fix a broken desk that, ‘as far as I’m concerned, women should never have been allowed in College’.
The majority view prevailed, however, and Trinity gradually adapted to the presence of women as residents. There is no sense of ‘revolution’ or of having done anything extraordinary when discussing the early years with women of the time.
By the time I became a Fresher here at College in 1979, the population was split about 60/40 male/female, and things seemed to go along very nicely. Buildings were gradually opening up, with women residents in some areas of Behan; although Jeopardy remained a largely female-free zone for that first year at least.
As the population mix altered, women became an increasing presence in the fabric of the student committee. As early as 1975, Libby Rowan (TC 1975, now Elizabeth Bywater) was appointed editor of the Fleur-de-Lys and still recalls her pride in delivering her first magazine. Similarly, she recalls her chagrin in missing out on being elected to
the TCAC committee after her then boyfriend, and future husband, forgot to vote in the elections, thereby robbing her of her place in history as the first female committee member. That distinction went to the current President of the Fleur- de-Lys Committee, Margot Foster (TC 1976) who became the General Representative in 1977.
Looking back on her time at Trinity in the first decade of co-residency, Lisa Stewart (TC 1981), who in 1983 became the first woman to be elected Senior Student, described the state of play this way: ‘you’d definitely say it was still a men’s College predominantly (and) that women were building and they were adapting’. Apart from the obvious and practical adaptations, such as the ongoing renovations of bathrooms, there were other less obvious changes, such as changes to the make-up of the TCAC when the position of Outdoor Representative was ceased and was replaced by Men’s and Women’s Sports Representatives, thereby serving, as noted by Tim Brookes in his 1981 Senior Student’s speech ‘to break down one of the last remaining bastions of male chauvinism in the College and cuts a very demanding job down into manageable proportions’.
Much has been said over the years about what life was like back in the early days of co-residency, and a perception has developed of a testosterone-fuelled environment with all of the negative connotations that this implies. This impression is as simplistic as it is misleading. In addition, it judges the experiences of the 70s and 80s with a lens that differs greatly from the time. I started to wonder whether my recollections were somewhat clouded in a rose-coloured haze when the Warden, Andrew McGowan, exhorted me to write a true account of the early days regardless of the truths uncovered. I wracked my brains and canvassed the question with other women of my era and the result was the same as my initial memory: things were okay. Lisa Stewart perhaps said it best when she observed that ‘it’s very hard to look at that time with today’s eyes. I think that it was more that it was reflective of university and of society in general. And, it wasn’t anything particularly bad, and you had to sort of have your wits about you to cope with what was going on, but I think that’s kind of a good life-skill to have anyway.’
There’s no doubt that there have been unhappy experiences over the last four decades. We recently invited the women of Trinity from the past 40 years to share their memories and impressions of their time here, and not all of the responses were positive. Gini Skinner (TC 1978) has mentioned the ‘male dominated and misogynistic culture of the College’ while another, anonymous, respondent from the 1980s talked about an ‘environment (that) was highly unpleasant in terms of attitudes to women.’
Negative opinions about gender experiences don’t end with the 1980s though, with another respondent from the 1990s talking about the blokey and insular culture at the College; and recent alumna Héléne Duchamp (TC 2012) describing ‘girls feeling pressured into doing things they’re not comfortable with (including drinking) and feeling excluded from a rather machismo community at College’.
As we look back on the 40 years from that first enrolment, much of the Trinity landscape has changed. Women now make up more than 50% of the total residential population, and all buildings at the College are fully co-residential. There have now been five women senior students, including the breakthrough election of Lisa Stewart in 1983.
Trinity itself is a place of great diversity now, with a significantly reduced dependence on the output of Melbourne and Geelong Grammar for its applicants. Some inspirational men and women have passed and continue to pass through its gates, and doors are continually being opened and boundaries pushed. My sense is that it’s less of the ‘boys’ club’ that it could be at times, but that this is not just about there being more women at Trinity, but also about the changes in the broader university community and to the ongoing changes to the College as a whole.
Pictured: Six of the original ten women residents. L–R: Miranda Milne, Barbara Buckley née Szaday, Sigrid MacLeod née Kraemers, Liz Kelly née Henham, Louanne Lyle-Holmes, Maddy McMaster formerly Amanda Bednall.
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