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Women γν the Irish Free State, 1922-39: The Interaction Between Economics and Ideology Mary E. Daly The primary focus of scholars writing about modern Irish history has been directed toward the pohtical sphere, most particularly toward the origins of Irish nationalism and the creation of the Irish state. Despite professing an awareness of the need to widen the range of historical scholarship,1 women's history has shown some tendency to faU into a similar trap. In part this reflects the fact that Irish scholars working on women's history foUowed a path similar to other countries, and concentrated on the history of the suffrage movement.2 In Ireland, as in Britain, this movement peaked in the second decade of the twentieth century, coinciding with the major landmarks in the emergence of modern Ireland: the Home Rule crisis of 1912-14, the 1916 Rising, and the Anglo-Irish War of 1919-21. Women were by no means inactive in the campaign for Irish independence, and the interaction between feminism and nationalism and, more specifically, between the suffrage movement and the struggle for independence has been the subject of considerable analysis.3 From the apparently dizzy heights of this revolutionary period the women's movement in Ireland appears to have undergone a major decline in the independent Irish Free State. The small number of women deputies in the DaU (Parhament) owed their election to kinship with dead nationalist heroes rather than to independent pohtical credentials,4 and most descriptions of women's hves in independent Ireland provide a dreary litany of legislative and administrative restrictions on women's rights: legislation banning divorce and access to contraception, restrictions on women's jury service and on the employment of married women—a pattern which is seen as culminating in the 1937 Constitution with its emphasis on the role of women in the home.5 The sense of anticlimax concerning the woman question in the 1920s and 1930s and the need for a major reorientation is not unique to Ireland but was found in many other western countries, particularly those like Ireland, which had successfuUy achieved women's suffrage in the immediate aftermath of World War I.6 The apparent faUure of Irish feminism to reestabhsh itself as a pohtical force after independence reflects the preoccupation of a newly independent state with questions of national identity such as its relations with Britain and the fact that most pohtical leaders until the 1960s were drawn from men active in the movement for national independence. Many of the women who had been prominent in the inde- © 1995 Journal of Women's History, Vol. 6 No. 4/Vol. 7 No. 1 (Winter/Spring) 100 Journal of Women's History Winter/Spring pendence movement continued to support the republican cause, refusing to recognize the legitimacy of the new state and abstaining from any participation in DaU Eireann (the Irish parliament). However given their prioritizing of repubhcanism over aU other issues it is unclear that their inclusion in the democratic process would have brought about a stronger feminist presence in Irish pohtical life during these years.7 Yet there is a danger that concentrating on the pohtical narrative may provide a somewhat distorted picture of the history of Irish women, particularly given the tendency to distinguish between the apparently upbeat experiences of the years prior to 1922 and the correspondingly negative account of women's experience in post-independence Ireland. The women who were active in the suffrage movement were a smaU, elite minority, and the extent to which the suffrage campaign impinged on the wider female population remains unclear. Although the women's republican movement, Cumann na mBan, attracted a much wider membership, it should not be assumed that aU participants were particularly conscious of women's rights. Many were the sisters, wives, and lovers of active republican men; thefr involvement in the struggle for independence was heavüy circumscribed by traditional gender roles with a strong focus on nursing, first-aid, courier services, and washing the socks of male activists.8 There is, consequently, a danger that the freedom and status accorded to Irish women in the early years of the twentieth century have been exagerated and...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1527-2036
Print ISSN
1042-7961
Pages
pp. 99-116
Launched on MUSE
2010-03-25
Open Access
No
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