Meeting a generation of radical women on their own terms
A new account skips hagiography in favour of complexity and honesty, resulting in an intriguing portrait
Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington, Kathleen Shannon and Kate Sheedy, in their graduation robes and mortar-boards, carry a banner saying “Votes” [for women]
Irish Nationalist Women 1900-1918
Cambridge University Press
After the Easter Rising Brigid Lyons was captured and imprisoned. Faced with the prospect of sharing a cell with a prostitute, or, as she put it, an “undesirable person”, she flatly refused. Lyons saw herself as an altogether different kind of prisoner from the unfortunate woman already in the cell.
Lyons may have just taken on an empire in rebellion, but she was not going to rebel against class and respectability or whatever else stopped her crossing the threshold of that cell. Indeed, her jailers conceded the point. They moved her to another cell, where nothing “undesirable” might taint her stay at his majesty’s pleasure.
The Proclamation may have guaranteed “equal rights and equal opportunities” to all citizens, rights many feminists drew on in the decades that followed, but for Lyons and her jailers some women were always going to be more equal than others.
In the request and in the jailers’ capitulation we have a brief example of why Irish Nationalist Women is an important book. It brings to life a generation of women that has been written about many times but does it on their terms, without the need to champion a cause or mock up any more plaster saints. This book is not afraid to look them squarely in the face.
This was something many may have been
reluctant to do, partly in case it undermined the wider prospects of women’s history in Ireland but in larger part because so much had to be done to reverse the perception of republican women as “hysterical camp followers” in the wake of the Treaty split, when all female TDs took the anti-Treaty side. Senia Pašeta’s work acknowledges the many scholars who have worked to elucidate the complex lives these women led, but in some respects she is asking more of these nationalist women themselves and more of us as readers of their lives.
The book explains why the time for hagiography has passed: another glimpse at this generation of women through the lens of a Countess Markievicz or a Maud Gonne undermines the complexity of the organisations they were in, and reinforces the idea that this was a world of exceptional women. Although the same names muster on membership registers in 1900 through to the Women’s Social and Political League, founded in the wake of the 1937 Constitution, and in protests long beyond, Pašeta questions the ease with which we might accept exceptionalism as an easy way to explain away women’s activism.
Although the book asks us to remember that most male radicals were exceptional, too, it also questions what we default to as our definition of exceptional itself. Re-created here is a world of women on the margins of the working and lower-middle classes, far beyond the privileged few with the familiar names. It also shows how professional women, such as Dr Kathleen Lynn, paid a high price for their beliefs.
There is a world of leafleting and fundraising, the constant activism that occupied evenings and nights, all on top of the demands of earning a living, and living often precariously from hand to mouth because of their views. What is clear is that this was far easier to do for urban than for rural women, that spending one’s evenings in lively debate or in mixed company was simpler in the more anonymous and forgiving cities than in the smaller places where one’s business was more easily frowned upon. This survived even the wider radicalisation after 1916, with Cumann na mBan in rural Ireland often more accepting of an auxiliary rather than an independent existence of the Irish Volunteers.
That said, traditional social mores persisted among the more radical cohort – as Brigid Lyons clearly showed. Helena Moloney also found, on her arrest for throwing stones during the royal visit in 1911, that some of her fellow protesters felt the indignity of the dock and the cells brought unwanted shame and disrepute. These were very much women of their time, and one of the key achievements of this book is that it allows them to be just that.
Pašeta acknowledges the divide between feminism and nationalism that many have highlighted in female activism in this period – the dilemma of whether the national question should come before all other concerns. The book traces the public and private expressions of these differences; more importantly, it questions the extent to which we have accepted that radical women were polarised along nationalist or feminist lines.
Maria Perolz admitted that she “took part in everything”, and the sense of movement and constant activity that defied the boundaries of organisation and sometimes ideology is clear. Pašeta underlines the continued co-operations, and what emerges are far more complex definitions of feminist and nationalist, with no acceptance that any one definition of either would somehow fit all, not least any presentist definition we might wish to impose.
Indeed, the diversity of contemporary understandings of feminism are far more interesting and revealing than any narrow or doctrinaire understanding we might try to bludgeon them into.
Irish Nationalist Women also places the relatively familiar radical women back into the wider world of nationalism – indeed, back into a wider female mobilisation that saw up to 200,000 women in the Ulster Women’s Unionist Council and always dwarfing Irish nationalist numbers. Hampered by a lack of sources and by the Irish Parliamentary Party’s failure to grasp the potential of women activists, the book nonetheless reveals the broader nationalist milieu radical women operated in and often against. The book makes some striking points about what might have been in the 1918 election had the party made itself a more accommodating place for women, who now counted for more than a third of those newly empowered to vote. Nonetheless it concedes that many party members clearly supported women’s suffrage; William Field, the party MP whom Markievicz defeated in 1918, was a committed suffragist, one of the few party candidates with his own “Ladies’ Election Committee”.
Again and again Pašeta presents us with people who defy easy definition, who challenge our sense of what nationalism and feminism meant. She is clear that this is “emphatically a work of women’s history”, but it is women’s history as some of its pioneers intended: a history that deepens our understanding of the entire period.