Feminism is a belief in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes. It is also known as the Women’s Rights or Women’s Liberation Movement. The first wave of the Women’s Liberation Movement in Ireland originated in the second half of the nineteenth century and lasted until 1921. It was dominated by the question of suffrage and links with the national independence movement.Throughout the ages, women were frequently characterised and treated as inferior and of secondary importance to men. State institutions and practices legitimised this belief by excluding women from many of society’s roles. For instance, women were barred by law from voting in elections or serving on juries. Most institutions of higher education and most professional careers were also closed to women.
These social barriers prompted the growth of the feminist movement in the 19th and 20th centuries. Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797), has been called the “first feminist” or “mother of feminism.” Her publication, A Vindication of the Rights of Women, is generally regarded as the starting point of modern feminism. In this book, the British author drew attention to the state of ignorance in which society kept women. Another core objective of Wollstonecraft’s critique was the call for better educational opportunities. Similar efforts were underway on the other side of the Atlantic. Sarah M. Grimke, an American anti-slavery leader, wrote a pamphlet entitled Letters on the Equality of the Sexes and the Condition of Woman in 1838. Grimke’s work focused particularly on men who used the Bible as an authoritative source for subjugating women. Attacking this stand, Grimke provided a powerful argument that undermined the position adopted by religious leaders.
Initially, the Women’s Movement strove towards obtaining legal equality. The quest for the right to vote or suffrage remained the primary cause. Success eventually arrived when New Zealand became the first country to grant women the vote in 1893. Other countries, like the United States and Australia, soon followed, so that by the mid 20th century, a significant proportion of the global female population were actively engaged and participating in democratic elections.
Ironically, the feminist movement faltered once it succeeded in gaining the vote for women. It seemed that the movement no longer had a raison d’etre. However, as the 20th century progressed, the feminist movement turned its attention to exploitation and discrimination issues in the workplace. Equal pay and status became a catch cry of the feminist movement. Similarly, feminism became increasingly politicised, prompting more women to run for national assemblies and taking a stance on the political issues of the day. In Russia, women were prominent in the October Revolution that catapulted the Bolsheviks to power in 1917. In the West, feminists engaged in widespread debate, ranging from the right of participation in the Vietnam War to the availability of contraception and nuclear disarmament.
In Ireland, as in the United Kingdom, women were barred from many roles in society in the 19th century. Women were not allowed to stand for parliament. Only single women were permitted to hold property in their name. Once married, anything a woman owned was transferred to her husband. As with property, a woman was also obliged to hand over any wages she earned to her husband. Irish society in the 19th century remained patriarchal and the traditional view of women as housekeeper and mother continued to persist. The classification of women in various censuses reflected the prevailing attitude. In the 1861 Census, women working in the family business were classified as doing the same work as their husbands. By 1881, this position had changed dramatically when all women were redefined under the heading ‘indefinite and non-productive’. Thus, the state ceased to acknowledge women as workers.
Historically, William Thompson is credited as the instigator of Feminism in Ireland. Writing in 1825, Thomson’s Appeal, as it became known, argued for women’s emancipation on the grounds of reason. Significantly, Thompson’s writings were aimed more at women in Britain then Ireland. The fact that the appeal was addressed to the ‘Women of England’, demonstrated the absence of a distinctive Irish feminist campaign.
Gradually, Irish feminism became more rooted in Ireland. Participation of Irish women increased as the feminist movement gathered pace. The fight against the Contagious Diseases Act and campaign for greater educational reform increased the membership of the movement. Figures such as Isabella Tod and Anna Haslam headed the campaign for Women’s rights in the latter half of the 19th century. Based in Belfast and Dublin respectively, these women led the initial movement in the 1860’s to change the law on women’s property rights. Success in this domain followed as consecutive parliamentary acts in 1870, 1874 and 1882 gradually awarded married women control over their property and wages following marriage. Thomas Haslam, husband of Hanna, also became deeply involved in the early stages of Irish Feminism. Together, this husband and wife duo established the Irish Women’s Suffrage and Local Government Association (IWSLGA) to demand votes for women. As with the Haslam’s, many of the early pioneers of Irish feminism came from a middle class and Quaker/Protestant background. Close ties to the British feminist movement seem to account for the preponderance of protestant leadership within Irish feminism at this time.
Even though the IWSLGA continued to campaign for suffrage, progress remained slow. Instead, it was in the field of education that feminism started to achieve success. Anne Jellico, a Quaker and native of Co. Laois, formed a Dublin branch of the British-based Society for Promoting the Employment of Women. This body, fought for the right of working and middle class women to receive a decent secondary school education. Educational reform continued to remain the main focus of the feminist movement in the 1870’s. Notable successes included the accession of women in the government’s 1878 Intermediate Education Bill. This piece of legislation ensured girls could now sit examinations as well as boys. As a result, many convents sprang up all over the country with the sole purpose of educating girls. Because girls achieved success, often surpassing their male counterparts, the state rewarded these newly established schools with additional funding. Further inroads were made with the Royal University Act (1879). This provided the opportunity for women, excluded from attending universities, to nevertheless receive university degrees and qualifications. Throughout the 1880’s women began to overcome this final educational barrier. Most universities started the process of accepting female candidates with Trinity College Dublin opening its doors in 1904.
Irish women also began to contribute in the domestic political arena. Following Parnell and Davitt’s arrests for breaches of the peace during the Land War in 1881, the Land League was largely left in the hands of female relatives. The Ladies Land League, now in charge, demonstrated its effectiveness by successfully managing the day-to-day affairs of the league in a time of crisis. This short but significant contribution of women in the land war cannot be underestimated, with one historian claiming, “it represented an unprecedented initiative in female participation in public life.”
That the membership of the Irish feminist movement belonged almost exclusively to the middle and upper classes of society remained a marked trait throughout the 1800’s. This narrow social composition gave rise to a belief that Irish feminism was the preserve of the few and privileged. Not until James Connolly’s arrival did feminism in Ireland attract women from all backgrounds. Equality and equal participation remained a central principle of Connolly’s socialist rhetoric. Connolly’s acceptance, even desire, that women become involved in the socialist struggle was reflected in the Irish Citizen Army’s insistence on treating women on an equal footing with men.
Biography, studies & writings. Rosemary Cullen Owens and Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington, Votes for women: Irish women’s struggle for the vote (Dublin 1975). Andro Linklater, An Unhusbanded life: Charlott Despard, suffragette, socialist and Sinn Féiner (London 1980). Rosemary Cullen Owens, Smashing times: a history of the Irish women’s suffrage movement, 1889-1922 (Dublin 1984). Rosemary Cullen Owens, Did your granny have a hammer???: a history of the Irish Suffrage Movement, 1876-1922 (Dublin 1985). David Rubinstein, Before the suffragettes: women’s emancipation in the 1890s (Brighton 1986). Cliona Murphy, The women’s suffrage movement and Irish society in the early twentieth century (New York 1989). Marianne Heron, Fighting spirit (Dublin 1993). Alf MacLochlainn and Andrée Sheehy Skeffington, Writers, raconteurs, and notable feminists: two monographs (Dublin 1993). Emmeline Pankhurst, The suffragettes: towards emancipation; Marie Mulvey Roberts and Tamae Mizuta (ed) (London 1993). Louise Ryan, Irish feminism and the vote: an anthology of the Irish Citizen newspaper, 1912-1920 (Dublin 1996). Dolores Dooley and Liz Steiner-Scott (ed) Aspects of Irish feminism (Cork 1997). Margaret Ward, Hanna Sheehy Skeffington: a life (Cork 1997). Mary Cullen and Maria Luddy (ed) Female activists: Irish women and change 1900-1960 (Dublin 2001). Rosemary Cullen Owens, Louie Bennett (Cork 2001). Marie Mulholland, The politics and relationships of Kathleen Lynn (Dublin 2002). Carmel Quinlan, Genteel revolutionaries: Anna and Thomas Haslam, pioneers of Irish feminism (Cork 2002). Louise Ryan and Margaret Ward (ed) Irish women and nationalism (Dublin 2004). Anne De Courcy, Society’s queen: the life of Edith, Marchioness of Londonderry (London 2004).