Sally Richardson reviews In Their Own Voice: women and Irish nationalism, Margaret Ward (ed.), Attic Press, £8.99 pbk
THIS WELCOME reprint (it was first published in 1995) makes available a range of primary sources -- including women's autobiographies, letters, speeches, journals and political campaign material -- from Maud Gonne in the 1880s up to Hanna Sheehy Skeffington's rearguard action for women's rights in the 1930s and 1940s.
With a compilation of this kind, the editor's choices are crucial to its effectiveness and Margaret Ward's selection does not dodge awkward issues.
There was tension between those who put the issue of women's votes first and those who thought that Irelandís independence had to come first.
Cumann na mBan was uncertain of its role to begin with -- it was seriously suggested that women's patriotic impulses could best be utilised in embroidering badges on uniforms and making flags.
There was evidently a sea change in women's attitudes and expectations after the Easter rising. Women republicans were suffused with a new confidence, and there is a clarity about their aims and their perception of their own roles -- no longer were they content to be the handmaidens in a man's war.
Gone were the nervous assurances that they would not act in an 'unwomanly' way; instead, they were prepared to demand rights and accept responsibilities as equal citizens. It was not always easy; Constance Markievicz was the only woman to secure a winnable seat for the 1918 election and many women were critical of Sinn Fein's party machine for the lack of effort put into her campaign.
Nora Connolly O'Brien's article in An Phoblacht, published in 1932, shows that it is actually to a man -- James Connolly -- that we are indebted for the clearest exposition of the importance of women in the struggle. Connolly explained that the subjection of women made oppressive rule easier, by stripping resistance to it of half its power and strength. He insisted that women must not be content to be the mere ëdrudges of the movementí, and that only when women demand and accept their full share of rights and duties, and participate fully in political life, can revolutionary change be achieved.
What revolutionary can disagree with that?
December 2001/January 2002
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