Women have literally been airbrushed out of Irish history. Their contributions have been silenced, and they have become invisible in the story of the formation of the Irish state. This was the conclusion of a group discussion on Women in 1916 at the recent Glencree Centre for Peace & Reconciliation conference on 1916 and the Ethics of Memory. The conference was focused on ethical commemoration and the need to include those alternative and silenced voices when remembering events throughout the Decade of Commemorations. One particularly marginalised group is that of women. Women who were leaders in their own right, women who were pacifists, suffragettes, labour activists, and educationalists, women who dedicated their lives to bringing about social and cultural reform, as well as those women involved in the 1916 Rising, have in the main, been forgotten.
In our discussion group we sought to include a diversity of opinions and perspectives of Women from 1916. We weren’t surprised, but we were disheartened to discover that amongst us so few women’s names and contributions were known. In secondary schools today, Leaving Certificate students only learn about two women from the 1916 era: Countess Markievicz and the artist Evie Hone. There are many more who have been forgotten and whose contributions have been minimised, ignored or erased from our history books. Despite the fact that women make up 50% of our population, and that a number of feminist historians have been writing women back into history since the 1970s, the majority of the well-known personalities spoken about and revered as Irish heroes, revolutionaries and history makers are men.
Women have played diverse roles in history, as have men, and have different perspectives of history and the impact of historical events on women and girls lives, because of gendered and social positioning. For example, 1916 Ireland was an extremely patriarchal society where women couldn’t vote or run for election, and where many girls left school early to work in low-skilled low-paid jobs. Dublin was a poor tenement city with many contagious diseases and high infant mortality. Women often had large families due to lack of contraception and the influence of the church; which also pressurised women to leave work and become dependent on husbands once they married. While many women spoke out about these oppressive conditions and voiced their rejection of gender norms by taking a militant stance on issues such as suffrage, they risked public humiliation and ridicule as well as imprisonment. These women were fighting for their right to be equal citizens with men and to be present in places of politics and power where they could have their perspectives, knowledge and ideas included in the creation of a new state and its structures and systems.
Who are these women? They are women such as Hanna Sheehy Skeffington, a nationalist and one of Ireland’s foremost suffragettes, who along with Margaret Cousins, established the Irish Women’s Franchise League in 1908. Louie Bennett, a pacifist who established the Irish Women’s Reform League to improve the social and economic position of women workers and their families and was the first woman President of Irish Trade Union Congress in 1932 and again in 1948. Winifred Carney, a socialist and activist and Secretary of the Irish Textile and General Workers Union in Belfast and personal secretary to James Connolly. Elizabeth Farrell, nurse and member of Cumann na mBan, who waved the 1916 Rising surrender flag and who was subsequently airbrushed out of the official photograph where she stood alongside Padraig Pearse. These are just a few of the many remarkable women, who have not had their contributions to Irish history valued and acknowledged within the education system. This gap of knowledge in our education system about women has worrying consequences for future generations of girls, and as part of our group discussion we asked:
How do we inspire young women today to become leaders and to be politically active if they have no historical role models? We currently have an over-representation of men in political office with only 27 women TDs out of 166. One of the lowest percentages of women parliamentarians in the world!
As women have been written out of Irish history other than as mothers and supporters of men how do we go about writing these women back into our history in their diversity of roles, standpoints and perspectives and learn from them?
How can we commemorate women leaders, pacifists and activists who lived north and south of the island during 1916 in a way that is healing and uniting for women in both jurisdictions today?
How will we share our history, and women’s diverse roles within it, with the rest of the world as part of our high-profile commemorations?
We agreed that reclaiming these women and their stories is a necessary truth recovery process for the healing of the entire island. We propose that schools north and south of the island are invited to develop a cross-border project on ‘Making Women in History Visible’ as part of the 1916 commemorations. This could be incorporated into the curriculum at both primary and secondary school levels. More mature students and transition year students could be encouraged to carry out independent research on individual women by writing narratives that reflect their life stories including the nuances and subtle differences in their arguments and opinions on issues of home rule, partition, and women’s suffrage. These biographies could then be entered into an ‘All Ireland Writing Women’s Histories’ competition or some such high profile event.
In response to President Higgins question: “Do we lack the moral courage to bring into existence the world we need?” the second proposal from our group was for the generation of a public conversation on ‘Imagining Ireland in 100 Years Time’. Drawing on inspiration from a quote by Louie Bennett who campaigned against the reliance on military violence in Ireland: ‘Those women who take up the crusade against militarism must not tolerate the ‘fight for freedom’ and ‘defence of rights’ excuses for militarism. To use barbarous methods for attainment even of such an ideal as freedom is but to impose a different form of bondage upon a nation’ (Rosemary Cullen Owens, 1984: 35). We propose that this ‘Imagining Ireland..’ conversation would, amongst other things, consider how to deepen relations north-south; build sustainable peace on the island; explore how gender discourses need to shift with women becoming more visible in leadership roles to transform Ireland into a truly democratic, peaceful, and just society, north and south.
Which woman would you research and write about and why does she inspire you? I am particularly inspired by Louie Bennett shown in the photo above.