- Religious Women and Their History: Breaking the Silence
Religious Women and Their History is a slim (six essays and a poem)volume of conference proceedings sponsored by the Women's Education, Research and Resource Centre at University College, Dublin. The selections cover a wide variety of topics under the general heading of Irish women's religious experiences from the eighteenth century forward, and serve as an excellent introduction to current directions in the field.
The volume has a number of obvious strengths. First, the essays analyze both Catholic and Protestant women, a welcome trend in Irish historiography. In her introduction, Rosemary Raughter writes, "the evangelicalism of the nineteenth century suffused all branches of Christianity, affecting both Protestantism and Catholicism with its message of spiritual regeneration and moral reform"(p. 5). This is not to deny the differences between Protestant and Catholic women's religious experiences, as Raughter later notes that the operation of the Penal Laws, however fitful, shaped the roles of women in the Catholic Church in ways that were not shared by their Protestant sisters (p. 26). Nevertheless, a volume that asserts the commonality of Christian religious experience, in a country where religious divisions are often replicated in the historiography, should be commended.
The book also strongly emphasizes women's agency. Religious women are too often depicted solely as victims of an obviously patriarchal church structure. [End Page 334] However, Rosemary Raughter's article observes that the structural disorder caused for the Catholic Church by the Penal Laws opened up a space in eighteenth-century Ireland for female religious work, a time that Raughter calls a "matriarchal era"(pp. 26-27). For Catholics, that space may have closed in the later nineteenth century, as the Church began to control female religious organizations more tightly as part of a general consolidation of the hierarchy's power (p. 103). Still, the women documented in this volume have considerable achievements to their names: the founding of religious organizations like the Sisters of Mercy and the Society of the Sacred Heart, public preaching associated with the Salvation Army, and missionary work in India and China, just to name a few.
The richest essays were Maria Luddy's overview of convent archives, Janice Holmes's piece on the Salvation Army in Ulster, and Myrtle Hill's examination of the Zenana Mission. The Salvation Army piece underlines the combination of class and religious tensions that female Salvation Army preachers faced when holding public meetings in nineteenth-century Ulster. Surprisingly, they faced little criticism along gender lines, and were instead often ridiculed for their working-class accents and patterns of speech. It would have been interesting to read more about how these women saw their own gender roles. At one point, the author notes that one female preacher used "sentiment" to "warm the hearts" of her audience (p. 69). One wonders if the choice of this "feminine" rhetoric was unselfconscious, an attempt to appeal to audience expectations, or part of the general rhetorical strategies of evangelicalism. The experiences of the women working overseas for the Zenana Mission nicely illustrates the tension between male missionaries' desire to use women to appeal to colonized women, and their fear of giving women too much power and visibility.
The volume also admirably highlights directions for further research, particularly in Maria Luddy's essay on convent archives, which argues for their usefulness as a window into larger issues in Irish social history, such as medicine or the uses of public space. In fact, Luddy's essay does such a good job illustrating the potential value of convent collections that it should have come earlier in the volume to set up the essays that follow. Another minor quibble is the book's brevity, especially given its price. Nevertheless, Religious Women and Their History successfully encompasses the rich variety of work currently being done on religious women in Ireland.