Telling It Our Way, by Mary Cullen
Reviewed by Catriona Crowe
Telling It Our Way: Essays in Gender History
Some years ago I had the privilege of meeting the distinguished left-wing historian Eric Hobsbawm, who died last year. I asked him which of the 20th-century revolutions he thought the most important, and he answered unhesitatingly “the women’s revolution, undoubtedly”, much to my delight. Considering how women’s history, including the history of first- and second-wave feminism, has been neglected until relatively recently, this endorsement from someone with many other social transformations, for good and ill, on his mind was both welcome and encouraging.
Ireland played its part in this momentous series of changes to the societal status, personal autonomy and civic power of women, but each wave of change had to learn afresh what had gone before, as no substantial body of accessible history of Irish feminism existed until the end of the last century.
The fact that we now have a multitude of books on the history of Irish feminism, broader women’s history and gender history is due to a number of pioneers who made it their business to begin the process of excavating sources, establishing academic courses, creating a relevant popular discourse and writing the early books, all of which have provided the foundations on which later work has been built.
Mary Cullen is one such pioneer. In 2008 Arlen House, a press that deserves great credit for its unswerving devotion to Irish women’s writing, published Ariadne’s Thread, the collected essays of Cullen’s fellow pioneer Margaret MacCurtain, and now it has done the same for Cullen, with a very welcome collection of pieces spanning her career.
Cullen could be characterised as the philosopher of Irish women’s and gender history. She is concerned to get at the roots of the long neglect of the subject, the centuries when a dominant-submissive relationship between men and women, codified by law and endorsed by the major religions, was assumed to be natural, biologically determined and, therefore, eternal and unchangeable.
In a series of long essays in the book, she tracks the development of the campaigns for women’s full citizenship (a key term and concept for her), beginning more or less with the Enlightenment and taking us up to the 1980s.
The most informative of these essays in terms of a compact but complete account of this process is the chapter she wrote for the seventh volumne of A New History of Ireland, published in 2003. This has long been the go-to essay for anyone wanting to inform themselves about the facts and key personalities of Ireland’s often unique struggle to overcome centuries of prejudice – legal, governmental, social and, most deeply rooted of all, personal.
Cullen has always been keen to broaden the definition of feminist activism out from the suffrage campaigns to include other areas, like education, sexuality, trade unionism, property rights and religion, and to identify ideologies like republicanism, nationalism, unionism and socialism as interacting with feminism right through the period of its existence.
Her essays reflect her diverse interests in these matters, making her thinking multifaceted and constantly refreshing. Her take on feminism and the Northern Ireland peace process, for example, acknowledges the difficulties created by bitterly opposite political positions, as well as by class and religion, alongside notable successes like the Women’s Coalition.
This inclusiveness has led her to a position where, while still a staunch supporter of women’s history (and a distinguished practitioner, as evidenced by three excellent pure history essays in this volume), she identifies gender history, the study of relationships between and within the sexes, as the methodology best suited to the needs of women and men, boys and girls. The final essay in the book is a paper on gender history she gave to a Women’s History Association of Ireland conference in 2006, when there was a very lively debate on the subject. Because the concept of gender history causes such confusion, it’s worth quoting Cullen’s crystal clear definition of and advocacy for it:
“Gender relationships have always been a fundamental factor in human history. Until they are incorporated into ‘mainstream’ histories of Irish and other societies, history and group memory will continue to disseminate a distorted view of that history. Succeeding generations will have no understanding of where contemporary gender relationships came from, and no basis from which to assess their value, defects and possibilities. It is as important for boys as for girls, for men as for women, to realise that the male role in society is not a priori the human norm, but, like the female role, a social construct open to change over time, and equally problematic.”
“One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman,” Simone de Beauvoir’s clarion call from The Second Sex, could just as easily read, “One is not born, but rather becomes, a man.” Gender history holds out exciting prospects for all of us, precisely because it questions ingrained cultural conditioning of every kind, including feminist cultural conditioning. One of the reasons Cullen is such an important voice in the world of history and beyond is that she is not afraid to confront the uncomfortable but exciting challenge of changing our fundamental approaches to the past, and thereby to the present.
Cullen quotes Mary Wollstonecraft, who, writing in 1792 against Rousseau’s grotesque consignment of women to the domestic sphere only, referred to such ideology as condemning women to be “gentle domestic brutes”. It took two centuries for the western world to successfully fight that characterisation, and the job isn’t over yet. Books like this do us a great service by providing a rigorous intellectual underpinning to our understanding of women’s past, and serious proposals for methodologies that will open up future research for the benefit of both sexes.
The book has a fine introduction by Maria Luddy, another pioneer of Irish women’s history, and concise introductions to the pieces by the author.
Catriona Crowe is head of special projects at the National Archives of Ireland and a former president of the Women’s History Association