Women and Philanthropy in Nineteenth-Century Ireland, Maria Luddy (Cambridge University Press, hbk £40, pbk £17.95)

Published in 18th-19th Century Social Perspectives, 18th–19th - Century History, Issue 4 (Winter 1995), Reviews, Volume 3

Women’s contribution to philanthropy in the nineteenth century has been well recognised by religious and social historians of the last decade, and in this scholarly work Maria Luddy provides a comprehensive survey of the Irish experience. Her study is informed by the contributions of other scholars—the pioneering work of Frank Prochaska (Women and Philanthropy in Nineteenth-Century England) is particularly acknowledged—but the strongest point of this development of her 1989 Ph.D. thesis is the author’s treatment of a diverse range of archival material. Luddy suggests that by asserting their moral and spiritual right to engage in charitable work, women’s social activism was to have a profound influence on Irish life in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and this suggestion is clearly borne out by the multiplicity of examples which she uncovers.
The work is clearly presented and carefully organised, beginning with a general survey of ‘Women in Irish Society’, then dealing with the relationship between religion and philanthropy before moving on to focus on more specific areas of women’s work—with children, prostitutes and female prisoners—and ending with an overview of the  ‘Varieties of Charity’. While thematically logical this structure occasionally results in repetition of points of analysis. Religion, both institutionally and in terms of its powerful cultural ethos, provided the critical backdrop to women’s philanthropic activity in this period. While new opportunities for female activism arose, women’s role continued to be defined and confined by traditional assumptions about their proper sphere of influence. Nonetheless, while middle and upper class women themselves accepted and reaffirmed the conventional image, Luddy demonstrates that their religious activities frequently developed wider social roles, with the work of missions and voluntary societies having an influence on secular life. Catholic and Protestant participation did, however, develop along different lines. The work of nuns in the area of charity and education was obviously significant, but in her positive assessment of the role of the female religious in the provision of services to the needy in Irish society, Luddy demonstrates that the rapid growth of convents in the nineteenth  century inhibited the involvement of lay Catholic women in charity work, with nonconformists much more to the fore in those reformist organisations which brought social and political change.
The exploration of women’s involvement in the care of children raises many points of interest. Regarded as a particularly appropriate aspect of women’s work, ‘saving the child’ was in fact a deeply controversial issue. This discussion perhaps needs to be placed more firmly in the context of the struggle between Protestant evangelicals and Catholicism which dominated educational, social and political debates during this period, but clearly, nineteenth-century Irishwomen, like their male counterparts eagerly engaged in the battle to win the souls of the young and vulnerable for their own particular religious tradition. Although the wide economic and cultural gap between philanthropists and the children of the poor also determined and limited the nature of their intervention, there were more positive aspects to this work, particularly towards the end of the century when women began to initiate calls for legislative reform.
Religious motivation and a strong sense of moral righteousness also motivated women involved in work with prostitutes, and they played their part in the rigid categorisation of sexual identity and behaviour which marked this period. Despite well-known difficulties in uncovering the experiences of prostitutes themselves, information gleaned from a wide variety of sources does permit some observations on the motivation, pattern of life and family circumstances of these women, and Luddy also points to interesting parallels in the lives of prostitutes and the nuns involved in rescue work.
This book clearly demonstrates that in their work with children, prostitutes and prisoners, female philanthropists may well have promoted a degree of solidarity amongst middle and upper class women, but their attempt to impose their own standards of morality on the poor undoubtedly helped perpetuate class divisions. Similarly, religious motivation ensured that those who wished to bring about real changes of policy were more likely to adopt a strategy of compromise rather than confrontation with patriarchal authority.
Involvement in and management of charitable enterprise provided middle-class women of the mid to late nineteenth century with a wide range of opportunities: the exercise of female piety through such work could be personally empowering, offering women a sense of identity and community as well as more practical organisational skills. Their activities in the philanthropic sphere introduced women into the public arena while simultaneously stressing their maternal and nurturing role, suggesting once again that the validity of the theory of ‘separate spheres’ has indeed been overstated. Luddy suggests that the real politicising effect of such work, for a minority of women, was to turn them into passionate and articulate reformers of a political and social system which they successfully challenged and altered over the century. By the late nineteenth century, they were well placed to make an impact on newly emerging state structures.
Maria Luddy has compiled a mass of information on an important area of women’s activity, assessing the limitations and opportunities for both philanthropists and those amongst whom they worked. One does occasionally feel that if the work were less all-embracing some of the more tantalising aspects of experience could be analysed in greater depth, for there are particular interpretative difficulties with some of the source material. The rhetoric and imagery of religious discourse, for example, tends to obscure the reality of individual experience, making it difficult to get at the evidence behind the evidence. This problem is to some extent overcome by the range of complementary sources used, and Luddy’s work will undoubtedly prove not only a valuable addition to a growing body of writing in Irish women’s history, but an important resource for future researchers.

Myrtle Hill


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