Female activists: Irish women and change 1900–1960

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Book Reviews, Issue 2 (Summer 2003), Reviews, Volume 11

Mary Cullen and Maria Luddy (eds)
(Woodfield Press, €18.50)
ISBN 095342930X

Since the 1980s, historians of women in Ireland have focused largely on the early years of the twentieth century and the apparent bitter split between first-wave feminists who fought for the vote and nationalists who concentrated their efforts on the fight for Irish independence. To a large extent, the first generation of historians of women not only wanted to show that their feminist fore-sisters had been just as active and as successful in gaining the right to vote in 1918 as the better-known British suffragettes in the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), but also wanted to show how these brave Irish suffragettes were ‘hoodwinked’ by a more radical and popular nationalist movement. Feminist historians were sometimes accused of refusing to come to terms with the National Question—an accusation that became more acrimonious during the early 1980s, as the Troubles in Northern Ireland continued unabated and a growing backlash against feminism gathered pace in the media.
Times have clearly changed, and the political agendas of both feminists and nationalists have mellowed. The biographies of a number of women activists in this volume edited by Mary Cullen and Maria Luddy, who have themselves been pioneers of the history of women in Ireland, provide us with ample evidence that ideological positions in the past were never so rigid. Instead, these women were far more comfortable in their embrace of both feminism and nationalism. They moved within political circles that were more inclusive and tolerant of a variety of ideological positions than we have hitherto acknowledged. And even though many of these women disagreed with each other at various times, they remained friends and comrades, especially as the Free State further marginalised and restricted women’s activities. The women who are included in this volume—Mary Galway, Louie Bennett, Kathleen Lynn, Hanna Sheehy Skeffington, Margaret Cousins, Helena Molony and Rosamund Jacob—were active in a number of campaigns to try and ensure that women’s voices would not be silenced in the new Ireland of the twentieth century.
What is striking about the women whose biographies appear here is how closely interlinked they were and how often they worked together in varied political campaigns. Margaret Cousins, Helena Molony, Hanna Sheehy Skeffington, Louie Bennett, Kathleen Lynn and Rosamund Jacob remained friends and political allies throughout the first half of the twentieth century. Of these, most attention has been paid to Hanna Sheehy Skeffington, and here Margaret Ward amplifies her previous work by re-emphasising the link between Sheehy Skeffington’s feminism and anti-imperialism throughout her long career. By using the extensive Sheehy Skeffington papers now housed in the National Library, Ward shows how she emerged as the linchpin for most of the women activists who appear in this volume. She quotes from extensive correspondence between Sheehy Skeffington and Margaret Cousins, Louie Bennett and Rosamund Jacob. And she once again stresses that Sheehy Skeffington remained both a feminist and a committed nationalist even as she became more and more disillusioned with the Irish Free State. Ward quotes Sheehy Skeffington’s bitter feelings towards both Fianna Fáil and Cumann na nGaedheal in an undated letter to Esther Roper, Eva Gore-Booth’s companion (pp 110–11):

Here we are rapidly becoming a catholic statelet under Rome’s grip—censorship and the like, with a very narrow provincial outlook, plus a self-satisfied smugness. I have no belief in de Valera. Well meaning, of course, better than Cosgrave, but really essentially conservative and church-bound, anti-feminist, bourgeois and the rest.

Rosemary Cullen Owens’s biography of Louie Bennett also draws extensively on her previously published work. She, too, highlights the close connections between Bennett and many of the other women, especially Helena Molony and Hanna Sheehy Skeffington, with both of whom she clashed over her deeply held views on pacifism. Of all the women represented in this volume, Bennett was, perhaps, the most uncomfortable with the nationalist agenda. She remained committed to the plight of the poorest of women workers, even though her rather patrician class position was often a source of some resentment within the Irish Women’s Workers Union.
Medb Ruane’s biography of Kathleen Lynn is of particular interest since little has appeared previously about her. Lynn’s personal papers and diaries are housed in the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland and provide Ruane with invaluable material to chart Lynn’s struggles as a doctor to combine her feminism, republicanism and socialism within the institutional framework of a conservative and largely Catholic medical profession. Ruane stresses that Lynn’s politics grew from her commitment to the suffrage movement. ‘I was converted’, she said, ‘to Republicanism through suffrage’ (p. 68). She was equally committed to socialist principles, and they, in turn, informed her decision to open St Ultan’s hospital for poor babies in the wake of the 1918 influenza epidemic. Her clash with the Catholic hierarchy, especially Archbishop McQuaid, over the future of St Ultan’s (which she ultimately lost) is well documented by Ruane in such a short article.
The article by Catherine Candy on Margaret Cousins illustrates how a constellation of interests in vegetarianism, anti-smoking, temperance, pacifism, socialism and spirituality coalesced into her life’s work on behalf of first Irish and then Indian women. Along with her husband James, Cousins was a founding member of the Irish Women’s Franchise League (IWFL) with the Sheehy Skeffingtons, and she remained a close friend and a regular correspondent with Hanna throughout her life. Candy stresses Margaret Cousins’s early radical separatist notions concerning women. When in Liverpool in 1913, where she and James had emigrated to escape bankruptcy, Cousins founded a new women’s church—the Church of the New Ideal—that ‘subverted mainstream churches by having men as associate members only’ (p. 123). This was clearly an echo of the membership conditions of the IWFL, which also stipulated that men were welcome to show their support as associate members. Cousins’s subsequent involvement with Annie Besant and the Theosophical Society continued in India, where she lived for the rest of her life. There she also became involved in a number of anti-colonial campaigns and continued to fight for women’s equality. Candy’s article provides us with new material on Cousins’s work in India while all the time continuing to stress her connections to Ireland through her correspondence with Hanna Sheehy Skeffington.
While many of the other biographies included here are equally interesting and include new information for the historian, I found the one by Damian Doyle on Rosamund Jacob remarkably enlightening, perhaps because it included new material on her anti-clericalism and her less than successful literary career. Jacob’s diaries from 1897 to the time of her death in 1960 are also housed in the National Library and provide Doyle with particularly candid comments about her involvement in the suffrage and nationalist movements. Growing up in a Quaker family, Jacob had strong views concerning the role of the Catholic Church in the emerging new state. She noted in her autobiography that as early as 1910 she recognised the misogynist nature of the Church: ‘I became a bitter anti-cleric and freethinker. And my feelings as a woman helped in this; the male monopoly of the priesthood seemed to me an outrage on justice and made me hate the whole institution for its injustice as well as its tyranny, and I never to this day can see why other women do not feel this as I did’ (p. 172). In addition, Jacob remained, along with Bennett, the least reconciled with the nationalist position. She worried that feminist ideals had been swallowed up by the struggle for independence, and she predicted the anti-woman legislation that would be passed by the Free State in the 1920s and 1930s. In a lengthy article on ‘Individual Liberty’ that she wrote in 1920 for An Gabail Timpal, Jacob warned of the dangers of co-option of colonial values in any new state (p.176):

All nations are subject to this desire to enforce the will of the majority without regard to individual rights. But the less liberty we allow each other now, the more will habits of persecution and mental and moral slavery flourish among us after foreign incubus is removed. In a nation situated like Ireland, which can only avoid national extinction by maintaining a perpetual state of defensive resistance against the efforts to absorb her of the stronger state who claims authority over her, one of the dangers most difficult to guard against is the lowering of the value set upon individual liberty. The network of British prohibitions and permissions which surrounds us seems to breed in us not a dislike to the whole troublesome insulting tyrannous spirit of the thing, but a desire to set up a similar system of prohibitions and permissions of our own. We must have our own permits, our own censors. In spite of—or perhaps because of—our perpetual fight for national freedom, the principle of authority has ten times more weight with us than the principle of liberty. We love authority. We don’t feel comfortable except when we are told by our own native authorities what we may do and what we may not, what cinema pictures we may see, what Sunday papers we may read, what dances we may dance, what men we may speak to.

Many of Jacob’s political views concerning feminism and personal liberty surfaced in her fiction. Doyle indicates the difficulties that Jacob faced in publishing her novel The Troubled House, which was written in the early 1920s but not published until 1938. Doyle suggests that Jacob’s theme of the sacrifice of a woman’s identity to that of the men of her family during the War of Independence, as well as a lesbian sub-plot between two artists, was perhaps the primary reason for the novel’s delayed publication. Jacob was more successful with her non-fiction, and her most important work was The Rise of the United Irishmen 1791–1794, published in 1937.
All the biographies included in this volume stress the interconnections, both political and personal, between the women. What must also be noted is that these activists created a community of women that provided support, both financial and emotional, during a particularly difficult time for women. Most remained single, with the exception of Margaret Cousins, or were widowed, like Hanna Sheehy Skeffington. Many shared their intimate lives with other women: Louie Bennett with Helen Chenevix; Kathleen Lynn with Madeleine ffrench-Mullen; Helena Molony with Dr Evelyn O’Brien; Rosamund Jacob with Dorothy Macardle and later with Lucy Kingston. Although all the biographers in this volume note these relationships, all have chosen to concentrate on the political activities of these women. The fact that so many of these feminist activists chose to live their lives with other women suggests new avenues of research for the next generation of historians of Irish women.

Liz Steiner-Scott, Department of History, University College Cork.


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