Shayla Walmsley reviews Women in Ireland: a century of change by Myrtle Hill, The Blackstaff Press, £14.99 pbk
THE DIFFICULTY with writing a history of women is that they have done some of their best work for other (and others’) causes. Nowhere has this been more obviously the case than on the island of Ireland. From the Countess Markiewicz to the Dungannon housewives and their 1963 housing protest, the struggle for women in Ireland has at the same time been a struggle for jobs, housing, justice and nation.
Until relatively recently, especially working class women had a hellish time of it and Hill points up the brutality meted out to those who raised their heads – and voices – above the parapet. Where brutality failed, there was always marginalisation. De Valera’s 1937 constitution coerced women back to the hearth and things got little better thereafter: not a single woman served as a government minister in the south between 1922 and 1979. In the north, Bernadette Devlin became, for contemptuous Englishmen, ‘Castro in a mini-skirt’.
Women in Ireland is a remarkable piece of research: it weaves lives, trends, whole movements. “The life of the individual is inextricably interwoven with the progress of the nation,” Hill tells us and she delivers on it.
More context would have helped, though. Hill vaguely mentions “global movements” but seems to have little idea of any. The Blueshirts, she says, had little to do with European fascism (merely a sartorial statement, then?) There might as well have been no peace movement in the 1970s outside the north of Ireland. International socialism, you could believe from this book, had no truck with its Irish incarnation for the best part of a century.
Admittedly, women in Ireland did, in some ways, tread a different path from their sisters elsewhere. For one thing, debates over reproductive rights came later there than elsewhere. For another, while feminist groups sprang up across Europe, in Ireland it was community organisations. The strength of Irish civil society has been women’s doing.
After all, this is a history not only of victims but of unlikely heroines, women made exceptional by circumstances acting not just as women but as workers, communitarians and citizens.
Perhaps that’s how it should be. Hill quotes Countess Markiewicz as saying that women, workers and nationalists were “all fighting the same fight, for the extension of human liberty.” Would that she had also quoted the Red Countess’s advice to women. A vacuous magazine of the time, soliciting ‘practical tips for women’ from celebrities, asked Markiewicz for hers. She responded: “Dress suitably in short skirts and strong boots, leave your jewels in the bank, and buy a revolver.”
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Copyright © 2004 Shayla Warmsley