Cousins, Margaret (1878–1954)

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Cousins, Margaret (1878–1954)

Irish suffragist, theosophist, and vegetarian who immigrated to India in 1915, and was active in Indian women's and nationalist movements, and became the first woman magistrate in India. Name variations: M.E.C.; Gretta. Born Margaret Elizabeth Gillespie on November 7, 1878, in Boyle, Co. Roscommon, Ireland; died in Adyar, India, on March 11, 1954; attended local National (elementary) School in Boyle and Boyle Intermediate School; won a scholarship to Victoria High School for Girls in Derry; studied at the Royal Academy of Music in Dublin; received a Bachelors degree in Music at the Royal University of Ireland in 1902; married James Cousins (a poet, teacher, lecturer, and government adviser), in 1903; no children.


elected to be the first non-Indian member of the Indian Women's University at Poona (1916); invited to become first woman magistrate in India (1922); awarded Founders' Silver Medal of the Theosophical Society (1928); granted scholarship bythe International Institute of the Teachers' College in Columbia University, New York (1931); awarded 5,000 rupees by the Madras government for being a "political sufferer for Indian freedom" (1949).

Helped organize the Irish Vegetarian Society (1904–05); was one of the four founders of the Irish Women's Franchise League (1908); served one month in prison in Holloway jail for stone throwing (1910); served one month in Tullamore jail for breaking windows (1913); moved to Liverpool with husband (June 1913); became founder member of the Church of the New Ideal (March 1914); sailed for India (October 1915); served as founder member of the Women's Indian Association (July 1917); appointed foundation head-mistress of the National Girls' School in Mangalore (1919–20); became first honorary woman magistrate in Madras (1922); initiated first All-Asia Women's Conference at Lahore (January 1931); addressed mass meeting in New York to protest imprisonment of Gandhi (February 1932); sentenced to one year's imprisonment at Vellore for addressing a public meeting (December 1932).

Selected publications:

The Awakening of Asian Womanhood (Madras: Ganesh, 1922); The Music of Orient and Occident (Madras: B.G. Paul, 1935); Indian Womanhood Today (Allahabad: Kitabistan, 1941); (with James Cousins) We Two Together (Madras: Ganesh, 1950).

Vastly different in size and population, and geographically thousands of miles apart, Ireland and India have experienced common dilemmas as a result of their colonization by Britain. Their women have had similar tugs of loyalties; whether to fight for their countries freedom or put their energies into the women's suffrage and other feminist causes at the risk of being labeled unfeminine and unpatriotic. A woman who recognized the similarities and was a supporter of nationalist and feminist causes in both countries was Irishwoman Margaret Cousins, born Margaret Elizabeth Gillespie.

In 1878, the year of Cousins' birth, Charles Stuart Parnell, the leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party at Westminster, was wielding constitutional nationalists into a force to be reckoned with, and Home Rule for Ireland was becoming a possibility at some point in the future. The revolutionary nationalists, the Fenians, were planning to gain independence by more violent means. In India, seven years later in 1885, the Indian National Congress was formed to fight for Indian Home Rule. By this stage, John Stuart Mill, an English Liberal member of Parliament, had already raised the issue of women's suffrage at Westminster when he attempted to add a women's suffrage amendment to the 1867 Reform Bill. Despite his failure, his efforts did not go unrewarded as they inspired the foundation of women's suffrage movements in both Britain and Ireland. These three issues, Irish independence, Indian independence, and women's rights would be major influences in Cousins' life.

As a girl growing up in the west of Ireland, Cousins, the eldest of 12 children in a Protestant Unionist household, quickly became politically aware; one of her daily tasks was to read the newspaper to her father. In the joint autobiography she later wrote with her husband James H. Cousins, she recalls seeing Parnell addressing a meeting in her town of Boyle, County Roscommon, and later observed the condemnation that was poured upon him by the clergy when he was named as co-respondent with Katherine O'Shea in a divorce case that cost him his political career. Despite her Protestant background, Cousins very much sympathized with the Home Rule cause.

Within my first year of landing on Indian soil I was dedicated to the service of India via service to that half of India—its womanhood—which seemed to me the most direct instrument for leverage of the whole people.

—Margaret Cousins

Her experiences as a daughter and her observations of her own and her sisters' different treatment from their younger brothers brought home to her the injustice of women's unequal position in the world. This was reinforced by her sympathy for her mother who had little say in running the household. Mrs. Gillespie was not given a weekly or monthly allowance, only accounts at local stores. When bills had to be paid, she always encountered complaints and "black looks" from her husband. To Cousins, who, nevertheless, seemed to hold great affection for her father, this situation was indicative of the plight of many women. "And it was there and then that my girlish determination began to try and change the financial status of wives and mothers, who all worked so hard and got no money for themselves. I saw that it was a kind of curse in those days to be born a girl; and I used to wish deeply that I had been born a boy."

A successful student, Cousins appeared to have enjoyed her schooling and was particularly astute at music. She developed her talents in this direction and obtained a scholarship to a high school in Derry. It is significant that, on leaving this institution, her headmistress warned her: "I should not be so independent." Independence of spirit was a characteristic that was to remain with her throughout her life.

After high school, she went to Dublin to study music. This was in the first years of the 20th century when the atmosphere in Dublin was invigorating for young intellectuals. The Celtic revival and Irish literary Renaissance were in full swing and writers like James Joyce, W.B. Yeats, and J.M. Synge were making their names known in literature, poetry, and drama. The nationalist movement, too, which was not unconnected, was also gathering force. These were the circles that Margaret got drawn into, and she met her future husband, schoolteacher and rising poet James Cousins, during this period. According to her memoirs, there seems to be an initial period when she had to persuade herself that he would be a suitable partner. In time, however, their common interests in poetry, music, literature, and theosophy created a bond that was to last 50 years.

At the time of their marriage, she declared that she would join her spouse in his vegetarianism and now was "happy to look the animal kingdom innocently in the face." In the ensuing years before the First World War, James taught high school, and she taught music part-time. Three issues dominated their attention: vegetarianism, theosophy, and women's suffrage. They helped found the Irish Vegetarian Society in 1905, and Margaret Cousins was its honorary secretary. They were regulars at the vegetarian restaurant in College Street, Dublin, which, writes C.P. Curran, "was a rendezvous for the literary set" and became "a place of propaganda." There, they and their friends would discuss life and politics. Some were fascinated by the supernatural and claimed to have psychic experiences.

This led the couple into theosophy, a study of the mysticism of the East, and also into participation in seances. They went to hear and meet Annie Besant , the renowned theosophist, on her visit to Dublin in 1902 to give a lecture on "Theosophy and Ireland." This portentous meeting with an Englishwoman who claimed to be three-quarters Irish would later lead Margaret and James to a new life in India in 1915. After another visit by Besant in 1909, the couple helped resurrect the Dublin Lodge of the Theosophical Society.

All of Margaret Cousins' interests very much overlapped and had an impact upon each other. When she went to Manchester in 1906 to attend a vegetarian conference, she also ended up attending a conference of the National Council of Women. There, she made contacts with English women suffragists and was deeply interested in their campaign for the enfranchisement of women. So much so that in the following years she was to make return visits to attend meetings of the Women's Social and Political Union that was led by the Pankhursts . Cousins participated in their campaigns and, indeed, in their violence.

Fired up by her English contacts with suffragism, Cousins and her husband, along with another couple, Frank and Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington , founded the Irish Women's Franchise League (IWFL) in November 1908. This was not the first, or only, suffrage movement in Ireland. The Irish Women's Suffrage and Local Government Association (IWSLGA) had been founded by Quaker Anna Haslam and her husband back in 1867, shortly after John Stuart Mill's failed attempt to amend the Second Reform Bill, and there were other organizations reflecting different denominations and political orientations. However, the new, militant IWFL deemed them all to be too mild and asserted that the IWSLGA had failed entirely to awaken popular enthusiasm or sympathy, and that the masses of the population had never heard of it.

Cousins, who was determined that she would wake up the Irish public, took to speaking on the back of trucks, in parks, in meeting halls, outside churches, before university students, and anywhere else she could find a crowd gathering. She later recalled her tours around the country: "In rousing and educating opinion in country towns our experiences were very varied. Usually we set off two by two on tours. There were difficulties in securing places for meetings, difficulty in finding hotel accommodation or a press that would urgently print our notices of a meeting. Very rarely did we find a local man or woman who would preside." It did not take her long to get used to public speaking, although at first she practiced "in a field behind our house with only an ass for my audience."

Between 1908 and 1913, Margaret Cousins was very much involved in the suffrage movements in both England and Ireland. She was a regular contributor to the weekly newspaper of the IWFL, The Irish Citizen, and wrote columns on a wide number of issues. She was in contact with international suffragists and played a role in bringing foreign suffragists to Ireland for lecture tours.

The problems facing suffragists in Ireland were more complex than those facing women in England. Irish women did not have a domestic parliament to appeal to. They had to petition the Parliament at Westminster along with English women for a women's suffrage bill. They also had an alternate route of petitioning Irish politicians who had seats there and tried to persuade them to have a women's suffrage amendment included in a Home Rule Bill for Ireland. However, the Irish members of Parliament were reluctant to include anything that might jeopardize the Home Rule Bill. And it was unlikely that as long as the British Parliament was unwilling to give the vote to English women that they would give it to Irish women.

Cousins and her fellow suffragists were not deterred by these obstacles and were determined to make their voices heard. In 1910, Margaret served a month in Holloway, the women's prison in London, for throwing stones at No. 10 Downing Street, the residence of the Liberal prime minister, Herbert Henry Asquith. She was again sentenced for the cause in 1913. This time it was in Tullamore jail in Ireland for breaking windows in Dublin Castle, the center of British administration in Ireland. Her stay in Tullamore was marked by a hunger strike that was carried out in order to get political status. In a letter to the chair of the prison board, she asserted: "I am not a criminal but a political prisoner—my motives were neither criminal nor personal—being wholly associated with the agitation to obtain Votes for Women. I shall fight in every way in my power against being branded a criminal." Cousins was successful in her fight for political status and was released after a month.

In June 1913, Margaret and James moved to Liverpool, England. Although they were very much part of Dublin life and active in many spheres, their financial situation was not a happy one. In their joint autobiography, James Cousins talks about being a bankrupt and unable to manage upon his meager teacher's salary. He was offered a position in Liverpool with a much higher salary by a businessman with vegetarian interests. This was to be an interim step on their way to India to pursue their interests in theosophy.

While in England, Margaret Cousins continued her activities with the WSPU and also became president of the Liverpool Vegetarian Society. She blended her interests in feminism and spiritualism when she became a founder member of a church for women called the Church of the New Ideal. "I was not myself an enthusiastic churchgoer," she recalled. "Yet psalms and hymns stirred something in my background, and where responses did not agree with my conviction, I left on others the responsibility of making them." She was aware of dissatisfaction among other women with their churches, particularly Church of England women, and argued that, "Preaching has been a masculine monopoly, but the women's time to preach is coming. Women would no doubt preach the same things as men, but they would view them from a different angle." She asserted that if the churches did not voluntarily change their attitudes towards women, "women will organize their own churches." There are few known records on this church, and Cousins only gives it a small space in her autobiography. However, its services did seem to be recognizably Christian and there was an emphasis on women preaching.

World War I had been going on for more than a year when the couple finally set sail for India in October 1915. They had been informed by Annie Besant that she had use for their skills. Margaret Cousins' experiences in England and Ireland in many ways prepared her for her next 40 years in India. The same causes and issues evident in her early life were to consume her as the years went by.

Women's education at all levels became a major commitment for Cousins. She was the first non-Indian member of the women's university at Poona in 1916 and worked hard to improve the curriculum. In 1919, she traveled 1,000 miles to start a girls' school at Mangalore. It was here she came up against the reality of child marriage that she was later to campaign against. She was appalled at the lack of girls' schools in India and reckoned that for every ten boys' schools there was only one for girls. Her arguments were shrewd; she questioned how uneducated women could make good wives for educated men. She campaigned hard for compulsory education for girls, and largely through her efforts it was introduced in Madras in 1932. In 1934, she was appointed to the board of Studies in Western Music at Madras University. Subsequently, she published a book, The Music of Orient and Occident (Madras, 1935), which was based upon a collection of articles she had written for the Indian press. She offered to "the Goddess of Music this humble endeavor to promote mutual appreciation between East and West through the medium of sweet sound."

When she first came to India, Cousins believed that women's suffrage was at least one hundred years away. Within a year or two, however, she changed her mind and began actively campaigning for the vote for Indian women. Her experience in the Irish and English suffrage movements came in handy, especially when she had to speak to the British, petition politicians, organize, lecture, and produce a journal. She helped found the Women's India Association (WIA) in 1917 and was editor of its monthly journal Stri Dharma. There were similarities with the Irish suffrage campaign: India was not yet independent and there were disputes among women in the WIA whether or not women's suffrage was detracting from the nationalist cause. There were differences of opinion between Annie Besant, its president, and Margaret Cousins on this matter. Nevertheless, Cousins and a number of supporters persisted, and in 1917 Madras became the first Indian region to grant women full suffrage rights. Other sections of India followed over the next ten years. In fact, Cousins proudly claimed that women in India had full suffrage earlier than British women who had to wait until 1928 to qualify for the vote at the age of 21.

Women's suffrage was only one of Cousins' feminist concerns. She wrote two books, Awakening of Asian Womanhood (1922) and Indian Womanhood Today (1941), and numerous journal and newspaper articles that outlined the areas that could be focused upon to improve the quality of women's lives. Child marriage, the purdah system, the plight of young widows, the scarcity of education for women, and vocational training were all issues that claimed her attention. Her heart went out to little girls as young as five or six who were married off and producing babies by the time they were 12 or 13. Then there were those females who were widowed in their teens and for the rest of their lives had no status and were treated as no better than servants by their in-laws and families. Purdah or the enclosure of Muslim women was, she declared, both physically and mentally oppressive, and the society as a whole could not advance if women were continued to be kept in this manner.

These were not problems that Cousins could solve alone or in the immediate future, but they were focused upon at several conferences she helped to organize. In 1927, the first All-India Women's Conference was held at Poona, concentrating on educational reform. Other such conferences followed, and in 1931 the first All-Asia Women's Conference was held at Lahore, largely due to the efforts of Cousins who had been inspired when she attended a session of the Pan-Pacific Women's Conference in the United States in 1930. Another All-India Women's conference was held at Ahmedabad in December 1936, which Cousins presided over.

She did not just write and lecture on women's issues. Cousins was very much involved in philanthropic work and was instrumental in setting up child, maternity, and welfare clinics to improve the lot of Indian women, as well as encouraging the setting up of networks of women's organizations, and calling for the establishment of teacher-training colleges for women. With her community services widely recognized, she was appointed first woman magistrate in Madras, as well as India, in 1922. As magistrate, she was in a position to observe the general injustices in society and have a role in correcting the behavior of individuals.

Coming from Ireland, Margaret Cousins had full sympathy with the cause of Indian nationalism. She had close associations with the Indian National Congress and was a friend and associate of Mohandas Gandhi. She spoke on behalf of the Indian National Congress and in defense of Gandhi and his imprisonment at a mass meeting in New York in 1932. Several months later, she pleaded at the League of Nations in Geneva for Indian independence: "In those centers of international opinion I laid bare the dual game Britain is playing; its pretence of making a Constitution to give India freedom, but its determination to hold tight to everything essential to India's self-government."

When she returned to India after a year-and-a-half's absence towards the end of 1932, she found that things had tightened up considerably and that British rule was becoming paranoid about Indian nationalism. She particularly objected to the Ordinances that prevented public speaking. These she felt must be challenged, and after getting legal advice and meeting with several prominent nationalist individuals, including Gandhi who was in prison, she decided to address a public meeting of more than a thousand people on a beach. Arrested shortly after, she gave an impassioned courtroom speech pleading the cause of Indian nationalism. She concluded by saying, "If it is their intention to strike me dumb for a year, are we to deduce that their new Constitution is going to be so unsatisfactory that I must be locked up for all time to prevent my criticism of it? If this is British justice and democracy, then I am proud of free speech and Indian national freedom, and I am ashamed that English idealism has fallen to the present depths of oppression."

She spent ten and a half months in prison, and, while there, true to form, attempted to improve the lot of her fellow prisoners. She took over part of the prison courtyard to plant flowers, and she started classes in civics, singing, and needlework. She was also able to persuade prison authorities to allow her to give weekly recitals for "our other sisters" (women under life sentences) using Indian records and an old gramophone. The reality of capital punishment was brought before her when a woman in the second next cell was hanged for a domestic murder for which she claimed innocence. Cousins was to campaign against this when she came out of prison.

During the remainder of the 1930s and part of the 1940s, Cousins continued pursuing issues that had always interested her. She and James began writing their joint autobiography in 1940. Over 700 pages, this volume is an invaluable resource on the suffrage movements in Ireland and England and the woman's movement in India, as well as being a fascinating account of the Indian nationalist movement and providing insight for scholars of theosophy. She campaigned for election candidates who were members of the National Congress Party. Likewise, she supported women candidates in a variety of elections. She continued her philanthropic and educational work and her advocacy of female education. Theosophy remained important for the rest of her life, as well as music. Throughout, a piano was never far from her side. Her reputation spread nationally and internationally, and wherever she traveled she was asked to lecture.

Bad health finally slowed Cousins down in the 1940s. She had high blood pressure and suffered from a stroke. Her husband and good friends took care of her in her remaining years. Nevertheless, she lived long enough to see Indian Independence in 1947, though it was somewhat soured by the partition of the country and the creation of Pakistan. The new Indian government recognized her contributions to the state by awarding her 5,000 rupees in 1949, a great help to the financially strapped couple. She also lived to witness an increasing number of Indian women participate in politics, and female education become more widespread and acceptable. While there was still much to be done at the time of her death in 1954, Margaret Cousins had initiated numerous reforms and improvements for Indian womanhood.


Cousins, Margaret. The Awakening of Asian Womanhood. Madras: Ganesh, 1922.

——. Indian Womanhood Today. Allahabad, Kitabistan, 1941.

—— and James Cousins. We Two Together. Madras, Ganesh, 1950.

——. The Music of Orient and Occident. Madras, B.G. Paul, 1935.

Curran, C.P. Under the Receding Wave. Dublin: Gill and MacMillan, 1970.

Denson, Alan. James H. Cousins and Margaret E. Cousins: A Biobibliographical Survey. Kendal: Alan Denson, 1967.

Murphy, Cliona. The Women's Suffrage Movement and Irish Society in the Early Twentieth Century. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 1989.

One Who Knows: Mrs Margaret Cousins and Her Work in India. Madras: Women's Indian Association, 1956.

P.L.P. "James Cousins and Margaret Cousins. An Appreciation," in Dublin Magazine. April–June 1956, pp. 29–32.

Ramusack, Barbara. "Cultural Missionaries, Maternal Imperialists, Feminist Allies: British Women Activists in India, 1865–1945," in Women's Studies International Forum. Vol. 13, no. 4, 1990. pp. 309–321.


All-India Women's Conference Archives, Margaret Cousins Library, New Delhi; annual Reports of the Irish Women's Franchise League, National Library of Ireland.

Cliona Murphy , History Department, California State University, Bakersfield, and author of The Women's Suffrage Movement and Irish Society in the Early Twentieth Century

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Cousins, Margaret (1878–1954)

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