Anonymous Was A Woman

Published in Issue 3 (May/June 2019), News, News, Volume 27

Exhibition, Linen Hall Library, Belfast, until 31 May 2019,

For most of history, Anonymous was a woman’, wrote Virginia Woolf in an essay titled A room of one’s own. A new women’s history exhibition curated by the Linen Hall Library, Belfast, and supported by the EU’s PEACE IV Programme, charts a fascinating and decisive sequence of events that have contributed to female equality and citizenship in Ireland and Northern Ireland. In turn, this exhibition attempts to redress the anonymity of women in history.

A historical time-line forms the spine of the exhibition, which flows seamlessly through five floors of the Library’s modern Fountain Street extension. It charts a period of 226 years, from the moment that Miss Catherine Clarke became the first female member of the Belfast Library and Society for Promoting Knowledge (later the Linen Hall Library) in September 1792 up to the recent (and historic) referendum held in 2018 when the Republic of Ireland voted overwhelmingly to repeal the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution, thus allowing the government to legislate for abortion rights. During this time there has been a radical shift in women’s role in society and, in the main, this has been achieved by the gradual acquisition of rights through legislative changes and by the remarkable achievements of female pioneers. For some, the struggle continues to this day.

As well as the time-line, zones on each floor explore in more detail some of the themes that have emerged from the Library’s collection during the exhibition research. One zone focuses on Belfast social reformer Mary Ann McCracken and her affiliation to the Library. The Library’s records show that on 1 November 1798 Mary Ann assumed the membership of her brother and sometime committee member of the Library, Henry Joy McCracken, who was executed for his part in the 1798 United Irish rebellion. Women’s experiences in education, work and politics are also dealt with in subsequent zones, and this is where the Library’s strengths are able to come to the fore in terms of its extensive collections and archives. The Library’s Northern Ireland Political Collection, for example, consists of over 350,000 items, including books, pamphlets, leaflets, posters, manifestos, press releases, newspapers, objects and many thousands of periodicals dating from the late 1960s. It is a unique collection that is unrivalled throughout the world. Within this vast collection it has been possible to unearth some historical gems that can help us to tell women’s stories. The role of the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition (NIWC), for example, is a narrative that is often obscured by the male-dominated versions of the Peace Process, yet the NIWC posters provide a fascinating insight into the role of women during this tempestuous period.

Women’s status in education and the workplace has changed significantly since the creation in 1831 of a national school system, which provided free elementary education for girls as well as boys. Significant advances for women’s education were achieved in the nineteenth century by pioneering women such as Margaret Byers and Isabella Tod, who were determined to find a solution to the inadequacy of education for girls and women. As a consequence of educational advancement, women’s role in the workplace underwent a steep transition during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Dr Elizabeth Gould Bell from Newry, for example, was a beneficiary of such change when she became the first female medical graduate in Ulster and went on to practise medicine, including the treatment of wounded servicemen in Malta during the First World War. Technological advancements were also an important ingredient in women’s changing role in the workplace. The invention of the typewriter, for instance, meant that by the time of the First World War an increasingly large section of the young and unmarried female population was employed as clerks, typists, bookkeepers and secretaries. The items on display through each of the zones seek to chart women’s experiences as seen through the collections of the Linen Hall Library.

Above: Belfast women leaving work, c. 1961. Women’s role in the workplace underwent a steep transition during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. (PRONI)

Many of these issues are still topics of debate today. The political system in Northern Ireland reflects an obvious gender imbalance despite incremental improvements. Furthermore, a recent story in the Belfast Telegraph reported that women continue to be overlooked for the top jobs in Northern Ireland. With this in mind, the Anonymous Was A Woman exhibition has one eye firmly on the future, and our hope is that visitors will engage with the women’s history that is on display and assess for themselves what the next steps might be on the journey of female advancement.

The exhibition is delivered in partnership with the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland (PRONI), where a second installation, In Her Words, looks at writing and diary-keeping through the years by a range of extraordinary women. Both exhibitions are being delivered as part of Making the Future, a project supported by the European Union’s PEACE IV Programme managed by the Special EU Programmes Body exploring the legacy of the past and creating a vision for future change.


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