To mark International Women's Day, Jenny Farrell reviews Pioneers of Women’s Emancipation in Ireland, by Priscilla Metscher
Since times immemorial, people involved in the struggle for a better world have given expression to their aspiration not only in political texts and deeds, but also in artistic ways. These artistic expressions are not mere decoration, but an integral part of understanding and changing the world.
As explored in a previous article, the United Irishmen (and women) made extensive use of literary satire, and published songs in their political publications. Mary Ann McCracken wrote insightful, emancipatory letters to her imprisoned brother, Henry Joy. James Connolly took time out to write two plays and over twenty songs, poems and ballads. The play "Under Which Flag?" was first performed by the Workers' Dramatic Company in Liberty Hall three weeks before the Easter Rising (March 26, 1916). To quote the Irish suffragist Francis Sheehy-Skeffington who reviewed it:
It is a play of country life in Ireland at the time of the Fenian Rising... the dramatic conflict is fought around the person of Frank O'Donnell, a farmer's son, who in the first act announces his attention of joining the English Army, but at the end of the third act, having been shown the right path by his parents and sweetheart, and the old blind patriot Brian McMahon joins the fighting forces of the Irish Republican Brotherhood instead.
In the play, the farmer's wife Ellen replies to her eldest son Pat's intention to emigrate to America.
Far off hills are always green. Always slaving for other people, is it? And do you think you will get out of that by going to America? Faith then, you won't. The poor of the world are always slaving for other people, always going hungry that others may be fed, naked that others may be clothed, badly housed that others may live in palaces. 'Tis the way of the world in America as well as in Ireland.
In a short story discovered recently and attributed to Connolly, "The Agitator's Wife", another powerful woman character features at the heart of the piece. To quote Connolly: "No revolutionary movement is complete without its poetical expression."
Priscilla Metscher’s study, Pioneers of Women’s Emancipation in Ireland (Connolly Books, 2018) focuses on the political thinking, activities and lives of eminent Irish fighters for women’s emancipation, from a Marxist perspective. The author examines in turn Mary Ann McCracken, Anna Doyle Wheeler, William Thompson and James Connolly.
Mary Ann McCracken’s (1770-1866) emancipative ideas concerning the lot of women in her day are revealed in the correspondence with her brother Henry Joy McCracken, a founding member of the Society of United Irishmen, while he was imprisoned in Kilmainham Jail. The goal of the United Irishmen was a separation from England and the setting up of a republic along the French model. Women were sworn into the Society and some actively participated in the ’98 Rising. Mary Ann McCracken is just one example of how mainstream historiography has neglected women’s contribution in shaping the outlook of their society. It is through her we can see that feminist ideas were gaining ground in Ireland in the late 18th century.
Next, Priscilla Metscher turns to two outstanding figures among the early socialists in the first decades of the nineteenth century, Anna Doyle Wheeler (1785-1848) and William Thompson (1775-1833). Both came from the Irish Ascendancy and had connections with leading socialists in Britain and France. Their ideas on the emancipation of women are expressed in their jointly authored Appeal of One Half the Human Race, Women, Against the Pretensions of the Other Half, Men, To Retain Them in Political and Thence in Civil and Domestic Slavery, which was first published in 1825. This publication went further than the writings of the English feminist Mary Wollstonecraft by creating a set of concepts regarding the mutual oppression of the sexes under social inequality. While Wollstonecraft had commented on the degradation endured by women, Wheeler makes practical proposals concerning the equal rights for all citizens.
Anna Doyle Wheeler
Irish socialist James Connolly took a firm stand on the question of equal rights for women. He saw it as one of the prerequisites of a future socialist society in Ireland:
Of what use … can be the re-establishment of any form of Irish state be if it does not embody the emancipation of womanhood.
Where necessary Connolly took direct action. When the Belfast textile manufacturers began to speed up production, Connolly, on request from the women workers, organised them as a textile branch of the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union.
Within the socialist movement in Ireland and Britain, Connolly stands out as one of the few socialist leaders of the time who insisted that the economic and political emancipation of women must be an integral part of any socialist programme. As Francis Sheehy-Skeffington, editor of the suffragist newspaper the Irish Citizen stated:
Mr. James Connolly…is the soundest and most thorough-going feminist among all the Irish labour men.
This study outlines the thinking and actions of each individual considered in it. Implementing their beliefs put them to the forefront of the political movements of their times. Priscilla Metscher considers these pioneers within their times, showing what they achieved, or where their thinking fell short. In this sense, they were both ahead of their times and of their times. By reading about and understanding these pioneers of women’s emancipation, the relevance of their insights and activism becomes clear. Their lives and work are to be recognized, celebrated – and above all built on.
The booklet is published by Connolly Books and available from them for €7, see here.
Jenny Farrell is a lecturer, writer and an Associate Editor of Culture Matters.