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[Post Famine Ireland- Social Structure Ireland as it Really Was. Copyright © 2006 by Desmond Keenan. Book available from and]

Chapter Fourteen


Chapter Summary. This chapter deals with the rapidly changing situation of women in society in the period. New opportunities were opened to them, in every field, in personal liberty, in education, in job opportunities, in sport, and in politics. Much remained to be done, but the position of women was much better at the end of the period than at the beginning.

            The status of women changed enormously in the seventy years between 1850 and 1920, a phenomenon common to most English-speaking countries. This was an ongoing process. Observations however concern the literate classes, the position of middle class and upper class women. Working class women just did whatever they had to do in particular circumstances. So an Irish woman married to a soldier during the Peninsular War might buy a passage on a boat going to Lisbon and then set out on foot to join her husband. The effects of the emancipation (in the broadest sense) of women of the working class would need a special study of its own. On the other hand, great wealthy ladies in every age just did what they wanted. And in Britain the rules never applied to a reigning queen.

            In the year 1900 an Article, ‘Woman and the New Century’, by Lady Violet Greville  was printed in the Irish Times setting out the progress of women over the previous century. She paid tribute to the great women of the preceding century, Mary Woolstonecraft, Hannah More, Elizabeth Fry, and Jane Austen. She noted that Jane Austen's novels conveyed a very accurate description of the restricted life of middle class women of that day; long hours of needlework, dull domestic duties, short walks taken in thin shoes and white stockings, the subjection of all natural desires to lady-like behaviour.

            There were nowadays immense changes, and great openings for a woman who now had her own latchkey, her bicycle, her hansom, her trips abroad by herself or with another woman. A large part of this was due to the more ordered state of society which allows a woman to go without male escort. Early in Victoria's reign a woman never went abroad even to walk in the park unless accompanied by a maid, but now a woman can walk alone in respectable streets. These days women are allowed to do almost anything, go to the play and the opera, stay in hotels, dine in a restaurant, and belong to a club, without male escort or approval.

Foreigners are astonished at young ladies walking, climbing mountains, boating, cycling, sightseeing, accompanied only by one of her own sex. Much of this can be attributed to athletics where a young girl can take part in tennis, croquet, golf, and hockey in their clubs, go to skating rinks, and gymkhanas without mother or chaperone. The result is well-developed, physically-fit young women, though some exercise excessively; on the whole habits of early rising and healthy exercise stand to them well in the rest of their lives.

            The education of women too is now highly developed; at one time Lady Mary Wortly Montague noted that women were not allowed serious books, and educated women of that century educated themselves; Dr More prevented his daughter Hannah from pursuing her studies of Latin and mathematics; Mrs Elizabeth Carter and Mrs Montague and her set were nicknamed bluestockings. Queen's College in London was founded in 1848, having grown out of the Governesses' Benevolent Institution; in 1869 a college was founded in Hitchin in Hertfordshire from which derived Girton in Cambridge in 1872, quickly followed by Newnham in 1875; new schools were provided by people like Miss Buss to improve girls' education.

            Women flocked into new careers in medicine, science, nursing, bookbinding, printing, and all the branches of art; women competed for the highest prizes; they became doctors in medicine, members of the school board, factory inspectors, and teachers of a wide variety of subjects. Girls of the class who formerly became domestic servants now prefer to be shop assistants and clerks; long hours, unfair agreements, capricious and vexatious deductions of salary, unsanitary surroundings and poor living count for nothing compared with increased liberty. The women of the poorer classes are still confined to making shirts, mantels, and trousers, and matchboxes invariably at a lower wage than for men; women's work is considered as supplementary to the man's earnings.

            Gentlewomen have been driven by the vicissitudes of fortune into trade; the Post Office Savings Bank and the telegraph employ many women; type writers and shorthand secretaries find ready employment; shops for dresses, millinery, and bric-a-brac employ women; some women keep tea-shops; others take up journalism; while the stage is no longer considered immoral or degrading.

             The first women’s' trade union was founded in 1874 by Emma Pattison, and women's leagues have been formed, among them the Primrose League [Conservative formed in honour of Disraeli] and the Women's Liberal Foundation. The vast schemes in connection with religion, temperance, and social regeneration of all kinds, are presided over by women of rank; every great lady toils as well as the poorest.

             There have been losses as well as gains; manners have suffered, politeness and elegance of manners has disappeared, the modern girl is brusque, angular, rude in speech, and self-assertive. There is less respect for parents; less regard for duties in the concrete while subscribing to a vague humanitarianism. The lives of factory  women are ruined by the conditions in the factories, and they have sickly children, the health of the children in the manufacturing towns being very poor (Weekly Irish Times 27 Jan. 1900).

            Those who followed the careers of ladies like the Countess of Fingall or Lady Isabella Gregory realise that Irishwomen were not shrinking violets living at home living at home under the thumb of a male relative. One was very active in the co-operative movement and the other in the arts. Determined women could always carve out careers for themselves. And that included the revolutionary movement. Not only could they ride out with the hunt, but they could also go shooting and fishing along with the men, and even become a master of the hunt (Lady of the House 15 Oct. 1900).

 There were other improvements which Lady Violet Greville did not dwell on. The two most important were giving rights to women to retain control of their own property after marriage, whether she brought it with her as her dowry or whether she earned it after her marriage, and the limited right to vote. A woman could now sue her husband in respect of her own property (Irish Law Times 8 May 1920). Formerly, if an heiress married all her property was transferred to her husband who could do what he liked with it. In 1891, the law that permitted a man to beat his wife was finally declared obsolete. Women were still taxed jointly with their husbands. This was unfair, for her deductions from her income to support dependent relatives, unlike his, were not allowed against the joint income (Weekly Irish Times 12 April 1919).

 Ireland was in the forefront in providing improved education for girls and women at every level. At one stage women from Girton and Newnham Colleges for Women in Cambridge had to get their degrees from the Royal University. Leading girls schools placed themselves under the Intermediate Board on the same terms as boys, and prepared girls for university. It is true that very few girls compared to boys applied for university places, but it was not until nearly the end of the 20th century that applications from girls equalled those from boys. But the opportunity was there. The Royal University admitted women on an equal basis in 1880; it was not until 1904 that Trinity College admitted them.

When Henry Fawcett was Postmaster General under Gladstone (1880-84) he took care to increase opportunities for the employment of women, and opened the door to vast areas of employment in secretarial duties. In 1872 972 women were employed by the Post Office as telegraphists; since then more posts have been opened to them and the Post Office now employs 38,103 girls, of whom 8,132 are telegraphists or telephonists; the remainder are called postmaster's assistants. Employment began with the introduction of the telegraphs in the 1870s; in 1875 women were employed in the Savings Bank Department, and in 1881 in the postal order branch; later came the money order business and the telephone business, and women now account for a fifth of the workforce. The civil service also now has many openings for women (Warder 3 Oct. 1903). Employment opportunities for women in ordinary businesses were vastly increased with the invention of the typewriter which women proved adept at using.

By 1900, the Civil Service was opened up to women, and secretarial colleges sprang up to prepare boys and girls for the entrance examinations. Teaching and nursing, both of which had acquired semi-professional status attracted many Irish girls. The general acceptance, even by the Catholic Church, of the need for trained teachers, raised the status of teachers as a whole. A trained teacher had to have passed the Intermediate examinations in her sixth year at a girls school and then attend a training college for one or two years. Women were always paid less than men for the same work, a grievance which remained until the second half of the 20th century.

Nursing, following the example of Florence Nightingale, was regarded as a suitable career for girls of good [upper class] family. Following the progress in hospital treatment by the likes of Joseph Lister the standards of nursing care rose. At first they worked in hospitals or in army hospitals, or could be hired as private nurses. Then nurses began to be employed in public nursing by local health authorities or by charities like the jubilee nurses. Nursing was unique in a way for it provided a career structure for women managed by women (see the earlier section on nurses).

After a campaign of nearly half a century certain classes of women were allowed to vote in local government elections, and could be elected to be town commissioners, urban and rural district councillors, and Poor Law guardians. After 1911 they could be county councillors. In 1918, certain categories of women were allowed to vote in parliamentary elections. In 1919, women were admitted to all civil public offices. Women could become justices of the peace and officers of the courts, and could serve on juries. At first of course few women applied, but those brave pioneering women who first applied to be doctors, to be admitted to universities, or to be trained for the bar were saluted in the press (see the earlier section on the franchise). Women were for the first time allowed to vote in select vestries in Church of Ireland parishes. Select vestries by this date dealt only with Church affairs.

The First World War was the occasion for the admission of women to many occupations from which they had formerly been debarred by custom if not by statute. Women did jobs because the men had been conscripted into the army. The peculiar conditions of wartime in cities led to the recruitment of women police. Post women were employed to deliver the mail. Women volunteers undertook farm and forestry work. Women were taught how to drive motorcars. They became ticket collectors at railway stations and on trams; they became shop assistants in the grocery business, and of course typists (Weekly Irish Times 18 Sept 1915). Women were increasingly employed in the munitions factories which were springing up to increase the production of shells and ammunition. Women too were employed as sanitary inspectors by Dublin Corporation. Naturally, the introduction of women did not please the trade unions

Not only had the safety bicycle become a great instrument for increasing women’s personal liberty, but the change of fashion in women’s clothes which marked the beginning of the 20th century was equally important. Skirts became shorter and shorter, and clothing in general less restrictive. The blouse and skirt became very common, as it was more practical. Women’s clothes which could be worn without a tight corset were designed from 1908 onwards. The corset itself became shorter, not covering the breasts, and was more properly called a girdle, though the old name stuck. This was followed by the invention of the brassiere in 1912. Knickers became general after the First World War with women who wore them often dispensing with a petticoat (Farmers’ Journal 10 Feb 1922). By 1913 women were taking to wearing pyjamas at night, and the trouser skirt would surely lead to trousers for women (Weekly Irish Times 29 Nov. 1913). But the hobble skirt (1910) which was very narrow around the ankles was not universally approved and was short-lived. There was also disapproval at the scantiness of women’s dress seen on the streets of Dublin. Irishwomen had no need to follow foreign fashions (Weekly Irish Times 9 Aug. 1913).

Rather unusual was the Prostitutes’ Rescue Society, established by leading Irishwomen to protect young women from the prostitution or white slave traffic. An Act dealing with the trade was passed in 1912 and applied to Ireland. The targets of the traffickers were young, single, country girls newly arrived in Dublin. Though Dublin was no worse in this respect than other cities, young girls, some scarcely 16, were frequently seen walking the streets after dark, and houses of ill-fame abounded in the city. The Dublin Corporation did little, and occasionally the nationalists denounced ‘the English soldiery and their female companions’ (Weekly Irish Times 22 Feb 1913; in the 1920s the Catholic society, the Legion of Mary founded by Frank Duff in 1921 paid great attention to this problem). Girls trapped in this way could never go home, and could never find other shelter or employment without help. Patrols by women, and later women police officers were formed to deal with the problem, the first women’s patrols appearing in Dublin in 1915. Women patrols in Dublin patrol in pairs, one Catholic and one Protestant. They aimed to make friends of girls on the street, to gain their confidence, and to put them in contact with clubs, societies, or classes in connection with their religion. This work is different from rescue work - the aim is to prevent young girls being carried away by the excitement of war and the presence of young soldiers (Weekly Irish Times 14 Aug. 1915).

As noted earlier women’s units in the armed forces were; Queen Mary's Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC), Red Cross, Voluntary Aid Detachment, women (VAD), Legion Corps, Women's Royal Air Force, Women's Royal Naval Service (WRNS), Women's Royal Army Service Corps, Women’s Forestry Corps, and Women's Land Corps (Weekly Irish Times 16 Aug 1919). [Top]


Copyright Desmond J. Keenan, B.S.Sc.; Ph.D. ;.London, U.K.