Women, Power and Consciousness in Nineteenth Century Ireland, Mary Cullen and Maria Luddy (eds.) (Attic Press, £15.99 pb), Women in Ireland, 1800-1918: A Documentary History, Maria Luddy (Cork University Press, £40 hb, £17.50 pb) In Their Own Voice:

Published in 18th-19th Century Social Perspectives, 18th–19th - Century History, Issue 1 (Spring 1996), Reviews, Reviews, Volume 4

To be asked to review three new publications on Irish women’s history is in itself a heart-warming and encouraging experience, and a clear indication of the progress currently being made by researchers and writers in this field. At a time when we are particularly concerned to recognise and celebrate the multi-faceted nature of female experience—to see our diversity as positive and enriching while yet retaining awareness of what we hold in common—the whole complex process of discovering ‘what the world was like for women and why it was that way’ has important implications, both for our understanding of the past and for devising ways of negotiating an unpredictable future.

For any reviewer, a collection of essays is particularly difficult to assess, and the eight biographical essays which constitute Women, Power and Consciousness is no exception. The editors themselves seem to have had difficulty in determining what the subjects of the book have in common. Their eventual definition—’each, by her life and work, challenged and contributed to change in accepted nineteenth-century gender roles’—is determined by the limitations of current research, and allows for the inclusion of women whose influence has been indirect and peripheral, as well as more prominent activists. While at first apprehensive that some lesser-known individuals were being included simply because they had left records for future perusal, I found this book both interesting and informative, though a bit repetitive if read in one sitting. All of the women portrayed belonged to the middle or upper-classes, enjoyed considerable freedom of action, and with only one exception, had a degree of financial independence. It was these private circumstances which determined their ability to actively pursue their particular public interests.

What is most striking is the range of debates to which they contributed, and the diversity of their responses to the restrictions and opportunities of nineteenth-century Ireland. Charlotte Grace O’Brien’s campaign, to improve conditions for the thousands of Irishwomen who flocked to the United States, influenced the policy of major shipping lines, and thus significantly altered at least one aspect of the emigrant experience. Margaret Alyward’s pioneering charitable work amongst the Dublin poor involved her in public controversy with evangelical Protestant missionaries—she was imprisoned for six months on a kidnapping charge. Setting up a network of city schools and eventually founding a religious community, her strong opinions and assertive stance show how an individual can both challenge the system and adapt to its restraints. Anna Doyle Wheeler, Frances Power Cobbe ad Anne Jellicoe also contributed to the major debates of their day, with particular concern for those who were disadvantaged by their gender.

The volume also contains accounts of better-known female activists. The essay on Anna Parnell is particularly interesting for its reflections on the relationship between feminism and nationalism, and its discussion on the exercise of power by a woman in the male world of land and politics. The lives of Anna Haslem and Isabella Tod reflect the multi-faceted nature of women’ s engagement during this period in campaigns around suffrage, education and Home Rule. As Mary Cullen suggests, the work of these women reveals a complex picture ‘within which feminism actively influenced other movements and ways of seeing the world as well as being in turn influenced by them’.

The involvement of these women varied from the dissemination of ideas to initiating legislative changes, and some personalities are undoubtedly more interesting than others. The well-known difficulties in researching women’s lives does create some problems; gaps in the recorded life of Anne Doyle Wheeler, for example, result in some speculation rather than certainty. But, as the editors point out, socialism, unionism and the land war (I would add public religious controversy) are generally seen as the preserves of men, and it is particularly important to bring to light the ways in which women influenced and contributed to the debates.

While this little book adds to our sum of knowledge of nineteenth-century female experience, the other two volumes take us a stage further—to the sources themselves, allowing women to speak directly. Those who are familiar with Ward’s work will not be disappointed in this slim and unpretentious volume. From the cultural revival of the 1880s, to the establishment of the Irish Free State, nationalist women recorded their aspirations, disappointments and activities. This range of documents includes extracts from letters, speeches, reports, biographies and journal articles. They chart the progress and setbacks of these years: the new opportunities for involvement which seemed to be emerging in the late nineteenth century Celtic revival and with the formation of Inghinidhe na h-Éireann and Cumann na mBan; through the turbulence of the Easter Rising and its aftermath; activism and debate during the War of Independence, the Civil War and the establishment of the Free State. Women’s involvement was continuous, contentious and often acrimonious; the clash between the Irish Women’s Franchise League and Cumann na mBan in 1914, for example, reveals the diversity of opinion between feminists and nationalists.

The documents provide us with an alternative perspective on well-known aspects of Irish history, and suggest the possibilities of a more complex interpretative process. As Ward noted in a recent lecture, a close study of the sources indicates that tensions between feminists and male political figures and the practicalities of the elective process combined to prevent the election of more women in 1918. De Valera’s 1937 constitution was a significant set-back, but as Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington noted, the ‘seed beneath the snow’ would be ready to germinate when the opportunity arose. ‘Listening’ to these voices brings us closer to understanding both the strength of the ‘masculine monopoly’, and the persistence of female challenge.

Maria Luddy’s latest publication is beautifully presented and thoughtfully written. Author and publisher are to be congratulated on an accessible and readable work, which will prove indispensable to future researchers and teachers. The collection of over a hundred documents deals with four central themes: public and private, education, work, and politics, and these are further divided into sub-sections on different aspects of the theme. In the first section, for example, the sub-titles reinforce the interaction between public and private—charity, welfare and religion are included alongside motherhood, single women and ways to marriage. Luddy tells us that the work was seven years in production, and the succinct analyses in the short introductory essays reflect the experience and maturity gained by her extensive research and writings over the last decade.

The array of materials—extracts from diaries, letters, newspaper articles and advertisements, annual reports, petitions, biographies and autobiographies, pamphlets and official parliamentary reports—reveals a wide range of expectations and experiences, from society’s ‘idealised vision’ to the experiences of ‘marginal’ women. Differences of class, age, geographical location, political loyalties and personal circumstances are all taken into account. The picture which emerges is one of gradual and patchy progress, but it is one in which women themselves are the central focus, active agents of their personal and collective destiny. As a reader, a teacher and a research-active historian, I feel this is a particularly illuminating contribution.

Myrtle Hill

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