Telling it our way. Essays in gender history

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Book Reviews, Issue 5 (September/October 2013), Reviews, Volume 21

Mary Cullen
(Arlen House, €25)
ISBN 9780905223872

14This book is a journey of discovery for both author and reader. Beginning with Maria Luddy’s dutiful summary of Cullen’s articles, we are introduced to Jane Austen’s views regarding history, which apparently consisted of ‘the quarrels of popes and kings . . . and hardly any women at all’. Ironically, Austen’s first work was a witty history of England with lots of kings and quarrels, plus a few queens as well. Not taking an author too literally and reading between the lines of evidence is one of the things that Mary Cullen does superbly in this book, which is a collection of her significant articles. Cullen’s approach is to conceptualise her material and explore official sources with a gendered eye. Beginning with a personal introduction, she admits that as a young woman in mid-twentieth-century Ireland, like many of her generation, she was unaware that there had been a women’s movement, in Ireland or elsewhere, in the early twentieth century. By the 1960s, when she was married with children, Cullen was influenced by ‘second-wave feminism’, in particular the work of British and American historians. Mary Cullen taught for three decades at NUI Maynooth and influenced generations of historians with her original insights as well as her thoughtful advice.
Cullen’s work dates from the 1980s and she has been generous enough to mention new and important work, such as the biography of Thomas and Anna Haslam, pioneering suffragists, by Carmel Quinlan, when adding to her own chapter on Anna Haslam. This was originally published in the significant collection of essays, Women, power and consciousness in nineteenth-century Ireland. Eight biographical studies, which Cullen co-edited with Maria Luddy. She also alerts the reader to new sources, such as the papers of the Irish Housewives Association, which have been given to the National Archives by Hilda Tweedy. These valuable papers were not available to Cullen when she was writing her chapter on Anna Haslam. She is also honest enough to correct any mistakes that appeared in the original publications of her work.
Cullen is not an archival-driven historian but she uses printed primary and secondary sources to excellent effect, particularly in her ‘Women of 1798’ essay, which draws on the excellent collection of essays published by Four Courts Press in 1998. When she uses primary sources comprehensively, a whole new world opens up, for example in her discussion of pre-famine poverty. Here she trawls the Poor Inquiry of 1835 for evidence of women’s economic contributions. She notes that their earnings, from poultry and pigs, ‘are accepted as the pattern, and not as occasional or exceptional’. For the family, a woman’s earnings ‘bridged the gap between relative comfort and distress’, and were ‘an important factor in the family’s standard of living and in the difference between surviving and failing to survive by independent labour’. This argument was also relevant in the twentieth century. Cullen’s article on widows, published in the Field Day Volumes, notes that widows were compelled to enter the workplace but earned far less than their male counterparts.

The most comprehensive chapter in this book is taken from the New History of Ireland Volume VII, and edited by Cullen’s NUI Maynooth colleague Jackie Hill. ‘Women, emancipation and suffrage: a long dialogue’ is the perfect introduction to women’s history for undergraduates. It includes much material from the 1970s, when Cullen herself was part of the women’s movement. Her all-Ireland approach, with due recognition of changes elsewhere in Europe, makes for an original chapter. Cullen’s last chapter, ‘The potential of gender history’, is also wide-ranging. She begins with something intangible that tends to be ignored—ideologies. In examining political ideas and modern feminisms, she notes that these ideas are not static. For example, the republicanism of the eighteenth century changed greatly over time. Cullen returns to the civic republican model in the twentieth century, as she sees its potential for women’s political development. It was a key part of the Irish Citizen newspaper, published between 1912 and 1920, and the demise of the gender equality it espoused was a theme of Irish feminism in the mid-twentieth century, which was subsumed into organisations such as the Joint Committee of Women’s Societies and Social Workers. This organisation had 35,000 members and gave revealing evidence to the Commission of Vocational Organisation in the early 1940s. The papers of the chairman of the commission, Bishop Michael Browne of Galway, have recently been made available to historians; hence even more insights into the ideologies (and their critics) that dominated Ireland have become accessible. Cullen is not trapped by ideas, however: historians ‘have to consider to what extent political, social and economic relationships between the sexes resulted from agency’. This emphasis on human agency will provide much new research on Irish women’s history.

Arlen Press has done a beautiful job in producing this book, with the cover painting of ‘Three women fishing for the Salmon of Knowledge’ by Barry Castle, the daughter of writer Maura Laverty. Cullen’s book can be placed alongside Margaret MacCurtain’s Ariadne’s thread, also published by Arlen Press, in putting the publications of the pioneers of women’s history into the hands of a new public thirsty for historical explanations. As Cullen notes in her introduction, ‘gender history is as important for men’s historical identity as it is for women’s, and its absence is as detrimental to men’s self-knowledge as it is to women’s’. This book is a tribute to the energy and conceptual rigour of Mary Cullen; her insights will continue to influence generations of historians. HI

Margaret Ó hÓgartaigh works at Harvard University and is the author of Kathleen Lynn. Irishwoman, patriot, doctor (2006, 2011) and Quiet revolutionaries. Irish women in education, medicine and sport, 1861–1964 (2011).


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