As we celebrate International Women’s Week in Trinity College, it is worth reflecting on how much has changed for women on campus since I first entered Trinity as a timid fresher, studying law, in the late 1980s. The Law School then was a very exciting place to be. Political activism was not confined to the student body – although we were very actively engaged! Among our lecturers in law were Mary Robinson and Mary McAleese, both of whom were prominently involved in national politics at the time, and were subsequently elected Presidents of Ireland. Kader Asmal, another inspirational figure for me, taught human rights law. At the time, he was a leading light of the Irish anti-apartheid movement. After the ending of apartheid, he became Minister for Education in the ANC government in South Africa. He died in 2013, but I had the privilege of visiting him in Cape Town while he was in government, and asked him did he miss his old academic life in Ireland. He said he missed the people and the work, but that he found political life in the new South Africa hugely exciting and rewarding. His words have stayed with me since. So, as students, my colleagues and I were provided with a wide range of role models, both women and men, and a healthy diversity of political viewpoints represented among the staff in the Law School. It was a wonderful place to be an undergraduate.
The four Trinity sabbatical officers were taken to court by the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child (SPUC) and threatened with prison for distributing information on abortion to students in our union guidebooks.
In my final year I was elected Trinity College Dublin Students’ Union President, and took on that role in 1989-90. This was a busy year – the four Trinity sabbatical officers were taken to court by the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child (SPUC) and threatened with prison for distributing information on abortion to students in our union guidebooks. SPUC argued that our actions were in breach of the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution, which gives “the unborn” equal right to life with the pregnant woman. Mary Robinson, our law lecturer at the time, agreed to defend us in court against SPUC’s claims, and told us to pack our toothbrushes as we would all be going to jail – although when we heard about the appalling conditions in Mountjoy women’s prison at the time, I think clean teeth would not have been high on our list of priorities.
Against public expectation, Mary’s fine legal arguments – based on European law principles – kept us out of prison. I got to continue in office as only the second woman president of the students’ union since Áine Lawlor, now a well-known RTE presenter. A career path in journalism seemed obvious – following other former presidents like Joe Duffy and Mark Little – but I chose instead to go into teaching and practising law – and later, like Kader Asmal, into politics as well.
We finally won our students’ legal case several years later, and information on abortion is now available legally to anyone who needs it. But as we know women still have to travel to England to obtain legal abortion. Indeed, the debate about abortion and the need to repeal the eighth amendment remains a hugely topical issue now, and was a real election issue in the recent general election – particularly because of the public outcry following the tragic death of Savita Halappanavar. I firmly believe that our principled campaign as students all those years ago to keep providing information to women with crisis pregnancies, in the face of threatened imprisonment and a vicious campaign by the anti-abortion movement, played an important part in liberalising the laws on information and changing public attitudes on abortion. I am confident that we will achieve repeal of the eighth amendment within the next few years, and I will continue to campaign on this as a matter of priority. I do not want my young daughters growing up under the current legal regime.
Serious action needs to be taken to ensure that Trinity enters the 30 per cent club – the group of academic institutions where women hold at least 30 per cent of senior positions.
Following my time as President of the union, I emigrated, like many of my contemporaries, and spent some years studying and working in London. In 1995, back in Dublin, I took up a lecturing post at Trinity Law School, and practised as a criminal barrister for many years. In 2007, I was proud and honoured to be elected as a senator to represent the graduates of this university, and was delighted to be re-elected in 2011. I love my work in Trinity as a lecturer – I am currently teaching on a reduced hours contract alongside doing my work as a senator – but it is clear that, since my time as a student and despite the progress that has been made for women in College over recent decades, there are still obvious problems. At senior levels, men continue to dominate disproportionately. Serious action needs to be taken to ensure that Trinity enters the 30 per cent club – the group of academic institutions where women hold at least 30 per cent of senior positions. At the launch of International Women’s Week 2016 on campus, it was very welcome to hear Vice-Provost Prof Linda Hogan speaking of the university’s commitment to this goal. Again, the campaign for greater equality in education is something that I have always championed, both in equality of access for students from disadvantaged backgrounds and gender equality in academic promotions and positions.
I think that, for women students and academics on the Trinity campus now in 2016, political engagement in feminist campaigns remains as relevant and necessary as it was when I entered college. The women’s movement has made many important gains, but gender equality at the highest levels in public life is not yet a reality. Childcare remains unaffordable for many and reproductive rights have still not been realised. It is vitally important that the rising generation of young women students continue the fight for equality that motivated my generation all those years ago – and that continues to motivate so many of us.
Ivana Back is the Reid Professor of Criminal Law, Criminology and Penology at Trinity College Dublin and a Labour party Senator on the TCD panel. She is currently a 2016 Seanad candidate.