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Female Suffrage in Ireland: James Joyce’s Realization of Unrealized Potential

From: Criticism
Volume 51, Number 4, Fall 2010
pp. 651-682 | 10.1353/crt.2010.0005

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In his brilliant book, “The Authoress of the Odyssey,” Dr. Butler proves undeniably that the poem was written by a woman, “young, headstrong,” a maiden fancy free . . . jealous for the honour and dignity of her own sex—the very youngest of suffragists.

—Margaret Wynne Nevinson, “Ancient Suffragettes” (1911)1

The following essay testifies to the prolongation of a propitious moment in Irish history, an era when, as historian Roy MacLeod affirms, “discussion is replacing violence” and “many of the polarisations and ambivalences that have marked Ireland’s passage into the modern world are becoming instead the subjects of reflection and hope.”2 The academic part of this debate has largely focused on the science of colonial state formation, a subject that, as Patrick Carroll relates, “has made tremendous advances.”3 There remain, however, as Deirdre Raftery avers in repeating the thoughts of historian Maria Luddy, “many areas of Irish women’s lives that demand research and analysis.”4 The provenance of feminism in Ire-land constitutes one such topic.

Britain in the 1860s witnessed the emergence of a female demand for self-development. First voiced from within the bourgeoisie by the Girl of the Period, this opposition to male strictures not only resisted the clichés of femininity, but also challenged marriages arranged for social or economic standing.5 Quite unexpectedly, an influential but seldom studied counterpart to this socioeconomic desire evolved among the Protestant women of Ireland. Despite their colonial status, Irish Protestants had enjoyed increasing power, or Ascendancy, since the Flight of the Earls from Ulster at the beginning of the seventeenth century. The Act of Union had formally ratified this preeminence in 1801, but continued dependence on British goodwill had also fostered a measure of resentment. Women of the Ascendancy, with both a social standing delineated by imperial ordinance and a home life subject to male decree, experienced a conflated sense of reliance. Most of them suffered in silence, but that rare exception, the Girl of the Ascendancy, did not.

One of these exceptional voices was Charlotte Mathilda Blake Thornley (1818–1901). The spirited Charlotte was ambitious and intellectually keen, but marriage to Abraham Stoker (1799–1876) forestalled her socio-political aspirations by almost twenty years. She bore seven children and the third, Bram (1847–1912), suffered ill health. Charlotte afforded him great care, but her devotion boarded on obsession, the state of Bram’s health becoming a barometer for the accomplishment of her own desires. Hence, as he grew out of his maladies during puberty, Charlotte set herself another target—Bram must eventually attend Trinity College Dublin. Only when his teenage studies showed promise in this regard, did Charlotte relax her maternal vigilance and revive her wider ambitions. She determined, notes Barbara Belford, “to help Ireland overthrow its feudal past,”6 but the formative ideas of her personal mission diverged from the imperial ideology of “improvement.” English politics treated Ireland as a space for social engineering according to experimental statecraft; Charlotte, on the other hand, was inspired by foreign opportunities. She closely studied the demographics of America, Canada, and Australia, countries that had become the most popular destinations for Irish émigrés after the Great Famine (1845–49). Worthwhile lives, she believed, awaited abroad, and training in manual skills, she was certain, could enable disadvantaged Irish women to realize these prospects.

The Statistical and Social Inquiry Society of Ireland (SSISI) heard Charlotte speak on the issue in 1864. “There is a dignity in labour,” she asserted. “A self-supporting woman is alike respected and respectable.”7 The numerical inequality between the sexes in Ireland made the subject pertinent. Single women, often deemed valueless spinsters, experienced social exclusion. This was especially the case among the working class. “Why should the door of hope be closed on those poor women, and why refuse them the means of attaining that independence in other countries which they are debarred from in this?” Government-supported emigration, insisted Charlotte, was the surest means to female independence. This measure would “encourage virtue,” “subdue vice,” and must “be the wisest and best policy of a nation.”8 Certainly, the notion of a universal transplantation of Catholics had once appealed to the British government, but...



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