Women in Nationalist and Unionist Movements in the Early Twentieth Century

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Women in Nationalist and Unionist Movements in the Early Twentieth Century

After several decades of campaigning, women over the age of thirty were given the right to vote in parliamentary elections and to sit as MPs in 1918. But with female exclusion from the parliamentary arena up to this date, one cannot assume that women played no political part or were politically disinterested. Although the nineteenth-century ideal was that women's so-called proper place was not public or political, but private and domestic, Irish women's political activity was extensive and varied. Even before the 1800s there are examples of women rioting in times of extreme economic distress and becoming involved in agrarian disturbances. Such activities continued into the nineteenth century. Other women exercised an informal but at times potent influence over the voting behavior of male family members, while others participated in election riots. In addition, aristocratic women had access to those in positions of political power and, using the networks of London's high society, a number of Anglo-Irish women became important political hostesses.

As the nineteenth century advanced, an increasing number of women became publicly active, although the motivations for this varied from the altruistic to the feminist and the political. For instance, a small number of women played a part in the Young Ireland movement of the 1840s, contributing articles, letters, and poems to the advanced nationalist newspaper, the Nation. However, women's involvement in Young Ireland was both subordinate and idealized. By comparison, female forays into later Irish nationalist campaigns, such as the Fenian movement of the late 1850s through 1860s and the Land League of 1879 to 1882, were more practically based. For example, women carried dispatches and messages between Fenian leaders, and in October 1865 a ladies' committee was inaugurated to assist the families of imprisoned Fenians. This work continued until the general amnesty of 1872. The Ladies' Land League, spearheaded by Anna Parnell and Fanny Parnell, functioned at first as a fundraising and philanthropic organization that was active in both America and Ireland in the early 1880s. However, with the imprisonment of key Land League leaders, the women's organization took over the day-to-day running of the land campaign—distributing propaganda and providing relief for evicted tenants. By adopting such a high public and political profile, they aroused widespread criticism, even from the higher echelons of the Land League itself.

The emergence of the Home Rule debate from the mid-1880s both divided Irish society and brought a new generation of Irish women into politics. Although still denied access to the vote, they formed organizations that helped men promote or oppose Home Rule, depending on their political persuasion, and developed a specifically female agenda. Women were excluded on the basis of sex from numerous late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century nationalist organizations, and this prompted the formation of an exclusively female nationalist body, Inghinidhe na hÉireann (Daughters of Ireland) in 1900. It was run for and by women. Under the presidency of Maud Gonne, it aimed to promote Irish independence (by armed means if necessary), and to encourage the purchase of Irish manufactures and the study of Irish language, history, literature, music, and art. Gonne wanted to prove that women were capable of political activity and could contribute positively to the campaign for Irish independence. However, Inghinidhe na hÉireann's agenda, although never radically feminist, was too belligerent to rally popular support. In essence, it remained a collection of interested individuals rather than a united body working toward a singular goal, and it was increasingly overshadowed by another female nationalist organization Cumann na mBan (Women's Council).

Cumann na mBan was set up in 1914 as a female auxiliary of the Irish Volunteers, aiming to assist the campaign for Irish independence and to counter the organizational efficiency and militancy of unionists who were preparing to resist Home Rule by armed force. Each branch of Cumann na mBan was affiliated to and took orders from a local battalion of Irish Volunteers, and members raised funds, cooked, sewed uniforms, cared for military equipment, and undertook first aid and the training of nurses. Despite this ancillary status, feminism had more of a place in Cumann na mBan's ideology than in that of Inghinidhe na hÉireann. However, nationalism remained its primary aim. This stance provoked some criticism from Irish suffragists, who opined that female nationalists' priorities were wrong. Cumann na mBan retorted that there could be no free women in an enslaved nation.

Cumann na mBan also developed specifically female rhetoric, highlighting the security of the home and the protection of children as contributions to nation building in an attempt to attract women into the organization. Yet a real surge in the popularity of Cumann na mBan occurred only in the aftermath of the 1916 Rising, an event that saw sixty members of the organization carry dispatches, nurse the wounded, and cook for the rebel forces. After 1916 there was an upsurge in republican sympathy, and by 1921 Cumann na mBan had an estimated 750 branches with approximately 4,500 members. This popularity was short lived. Moderate support waned as the organization was the first to reject the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921, and as its members supported the antitreaty forces during the Civil War (1919–1921 and 1922–1923).

Women were similarly active within unionism. Again, it was the political discourse over Home Rule that drew many women into politics from the time of the first Home Rule bill in 1886. Initially female involvement in the unionist campaign occurred on a local or individual basis with women petitioning, demonstrating, disseminating propaganda, canvassing, and fundraising, but this developed into more collective activity with the creation of the Ulster Women's Unionist Council (UWUC) in January 1911. Led by members of Ulster's aristocratic elite, with the majority of officeholders related by marriage or birth to leading unionist MPs and peers, this organization continued and augmented the female unionist activities of the late nineteenth century. However, the organization aimed to have both "the peeress and the peasant represented" (Belfast News-Letter, 24 January 1911) in its ranks, and by 1912 the UWUC had an estimated membership of between 115,000 and 200,000 members. This was easily the largest female political body that Ireland had ever seen. Female unionism was also dramatically apparent on 28 September 1912, when 16,000 more women than men signed the Women's declaration, a female equivalent of the Ulster Solemn League and Covenant. In addition, the UWUC waged a huge anti–Home Rule propaganda campaign, with more than 10,000 pro-unionist leaflets and newspapers being sent weekly to Britain by 1913.

Like Cumann na mBan, the UWUC was an auxiliary association, and following the creation of the Ulster Volunteer Force in 1913, many unionist women received instruction in nursing, signaling, intelligence work, and driving. Furthermore, while UWUC echoed the economic, religious, constitutional, and imperial objections espoused by male unionists, the organization also developed a gendered anti–Home Rule argument. Here, in parallel with Cumann na mBan, the sanctity of the home and well-being of children was emphasized, with women's political activism being depicted as an extension of maternal responsibility. In addition to the similarities between female unionist and nationalist rhetoric, their views of the Irish suffrage movement had much in common. The overwhelming majority of both unionist and nationalist women gave priority to Home Rule over the issue of female suffrage. This in effect weakened the level of support that the Irish suffrage movement could arouse. At a time of political crisis it became increasingly difficult for suffragists to maintain a neutral political position; thus, even though the early years of the twentieth century saw an unprecedented number of women working toward political ends, their views were as divided as the political climate in which they worked.

SEE ALSO Cumann na mBan; Fenian Movement and the Irish Republican Brotherhood; Gonne, Maud; Ladies' Land League; Struggle for Independence from 1916 to 1921; Unionism from 1885 to 1922; Young Ireland and the Irish Confederation


Luddy, Maria. Women in Ireland, 1800–1918: A Documentary History. 1995.

Urquhart, Diane. Women in Ulster Politics, 1890–1940. 2000.

Urquhart, Diane. The Minutes of the Ulster Women's Unionist Council and Executive Committee, 1911–1940. 2001.

Ward, Margaret. Unmanageable Revolutionaries: Women and Irish Nationalism. 1995.

Diane Urquhart

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Women in Nationalist and Unionist Movements in the Early Twentieth Century

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Women in Nationalist and Unionist Movements in the Early Twentieth Century