- Women and Political Change in Ireland since 1960
In his contribution to The Vanishing Irish, a book about Irish emigration Ipublished in 1954, novelist Seán O Faoláin referred to a conversation he had with a young woman who explained why she did not wish to marry, and why so many women emigrated from Ireland in the 1940s and 1950s: "I saw what my mother went through—not for me, thank you."1 Her response should serve as a reminder that the historian cannot look for the birth of female opposition to, or anger with, the status quo in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Many Irish women were questioning the roles prescribed for them in a paternalistic Irish state during earlier decades.
In 2007, when Mary Muldowney published the first book to date on the experiences of Irish women during the Second World War, it included an interview with a woman who volunteered for the armed forces and recalled being proud of her service in a British uniform: "I wasn't anybody's wife or anybody's daughter or sister; I was me and it was really marvellous. It's nice to be yourself once in a while."2
Such individual instances of liberation in the lives of women need to be placed against a background of, for many other women during the 1940s, appalling housing conditions, a struggle with the cost [End Page 179] of living, the adoption of strategies in the kitchen to make food last, and high rates of infant and maternal mortality. Some women were giving birth to more than twenty children, to be reared in tenements. Overall, the individual female experiences of liberation were by no means the story of a feminist revolution, but despite the absence of economic and legislative change, the war did make a difference, often in a positive way, in terms of improved opportunity for personal development, friendship, travel, the satisfaction of securing a job, and a sense of self-worth linked to the capacity to earn.
But most women still saw their domestic responsibilities as of paramount importance. Irish homes were full of strong mothers who shouldered responsibility for their families' welfare during difficult decades, though some of their daughters grasped whatever opportunities the war brought their way, helping to erode some of the social barriers that then existed. Though they themselves did not actively fight for social change, in the words of another one of the women interviewed by Muldowney, many discovered that "there was something missing."3 Twenty years later a lot more women thought there was "something missing." Significantly, some women in the 1940s were planting the seeds for a more questioning 1950s and, ultimately, a more liberating 1960s and 1970s for Irish women.
For those women who remained in Ireland, in the home or employed outside it, there were organizations dedicated to improving their lives and highlighting their concerns. Linda Connolly's sociological survey of the women's movement in Ireland, published in 2002, argues that an undue concentration on women and nationalism has distorted the hybridity of the history of the Irish women's movement, as has the lack of attention given to numerous Protestant middle-class female reformers. It also challenges the simplistic assumption that a backward Irish women's movement suddenly modernized in the 1960s; or as Hilda Tweedy of the Irish House-wives Association (IHA) put it, "So many people believe that the women's movement was born on some mystical date in 1970, like Aphrodite rising from the waves."4 [End Page 180]
The original Housewives Petition, drawn up and sent to Irish politicians in May 194, and which formed the basis of the establishment of the IHA in 1942, dealt with themes that have had an enduring relevance for Irish society and Irish women, such as price control of essential goods, affordable fuel, a demand for school meals, and welfare schemes for mothers and children. The IHA was also the first organization to portray housewives as consumers and not just passive breeders and feeders. In 1957, the IHA unsuccessfully contested four constituencies in the general election, a measure of the difficulties in making a...