Review of Tara M. McCarthy’s Respectability & Reform: Irish American Women’s Activism, 1880-1920


respectability and reform      Reviewed by Sophie Cooper

Tara McCarthy’s Respectability & Reformpresents an important and understudied perspective on the evolution of women’s activism in the United States during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, emphasising the particular role of Irish American women in the politics of reform through the interlinked lenses of Irish nationalism, labour, and suffrage. These are explored using local, national, and transnational contexts and therefore provide a useful addition to the study of American politics in addition to the Irish diaspora’s experiences abroad.

The histories of reform movements in the United States and the histories of Irish nationalism often undervalue the role played by Irish American women. Ely Janis’ book on the Ladies Land League (2015) and the work of on Gilded Age female reformers by scholars such as Janet E. Nolan, Maureen A. Flanagan, and Meredith Tax have sought to rectify this imbalance. McCarthy’s book continues this mission, linking the Irish American experience with the wider politics of reform, and highlighting the connections between labour activism, nationalism, and suffrage that led to a specific tradition of priorities and tactics engaged in by Irish American women. As recent work has shown, the Ladies Land League (LLL) of the 1880s was far from simply an auxiliary of the men’s branch, instead it was often more radical and brought the women involved into conflict with both their male counterparts and the Catholic Church’s hierarchy in Ireland and the United States. McCarthy argues that involvement in the LLL coloured the tactics and radicalism of future Irish American women’s activism, bringing Irishwomen into the public and political sphere for the first time and visibly impacting the evolution of Irish-American women’s activism over the next forty years.

McCarthy brings together moderate and radical activism across the themes of labour, suffrage, and nationalism, highlighting the varied experiences of Irish American women of different classes, ages, and geographies. While focusing on the northern states of the USA, and often drawing on the activities in cities like Chicago, Boston, and New York, McCarthy provides an array of examples to show the interconnectedness of these women. They relied on speaking tour networks, familial links (in the USA and in Britain and Ireland), and national organisations, in addition to newspapers. McCarthy also uses these networks to show the changing priorities of organisers with regard to ideas of respectability. While labour movement tactics and rousing speeches were useful to raise the profile of female suffrage at a state level, as chapter six explores, women who were used to appeal to working class voters were often dismissed when the fight moved from the local to the national. Cross-class cooperation was utilised, but long-term relationships between middle class reformers and working women were filled with tensions, a theme also explored in chapter two.

This book highlights high-profile women like nationalist and suffragist Delia Parnell and labour organiser Mother Jones but it also brings to life women like Margaret Foley who gave a speech on the importance of women’s suffrage to a group of nuns in 1919 and was received with rapturous thanks and excitement. Theresa Kelly whose sudden death after she had attended an Anti-Poverty Society meeting, banned by Archbishop Corrigan of New York, led to questions of ex-communication and the eventual dismissal of the parish priest who allowed her burial in consecrated land. The changing social mission of the Catholic Church’s hierarchy and how it interacted and often initially conflicted with women-led reform movements is a strong theme throughout the book. These stories, and these women from across class boundaries, are used to emphasise the multiple layers of Irish American women’s activism across the forty-year period covered by McCarthy’s book.

Organised across three sections on labour activism, Irish nationalism, and women’s suffrage, Respectability & Reformdoes suffer from a certain amount of repetition. While this is expected within any book which emphasises links and connections, it can occasionally lead to feelings of déjà vu. McCarthy’s main focus is on Irish Catholic lay activism and though the chapter on women’s suffrage does emphasise cross-religious cooperation, there seems to be a disconnect between Irish Catholic women’s activism across society and middle-class activism which assumes Protestantism and non-Irish heritage.

McCarthy has provided scholars of the Irish diaspora, women’s lives, and reform movements with an important piece of research. It appeals on a range of levels. It is clearly written and provides a useful overview to Irish American women’s history. As it is also out in paperback, I would recommend its use on undergraduate modules. For those of us who research Irish diasporic history, it presents new ideas and presents connections across a range of movements while also bringing in the specifically Irish influences of nationalist and labour organisations.

The overarching theme of this book was the agency of women, and the willingness to utilise a range of experiences to bring about reform across American and Irish society. It also pulled out the limited and caveated support that women activists received from their brothers in the labour and nationalist movements, and within the Catholic Church. Ideas of respectability were used to both support and hinder women’s reform activists, and they were frequently abandoned when activities were deemed to bring the Church or labour organisation into disrepute.

Just as today, the public voices of these organisations were supportive when women’s reform measures seemed to hold no threat to men’s status, when it didn’t undermine the authority of religious and market institutions, or when women paid lip service to their traditional roles in the home. However, women activists also played on these ideas of respect and respectability utilising the economic power of the purse to boycott, by emphasising their position as mother and wife to sway public opinion, to gently persuade their beaus to support certain efforts, and also through their rising numbers in the teaching profession to financially support themselves and gain access to positions of power.

Tara McCarthy brings together the traditions of labour activism and Irish nationalism to persuasively argue that these movements influenced each other, and those activists went on to join and influence the women’s suffrage movement in the United States. She raises new questions and contributes an important piece of work to the history of Irish and diasporic Irish women’s social influence.

Respectability & Reform was published in 2018 by Syracuse University Press.

Dr Sophie Cooper is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Edinburgh. She completed her PhD on Irish diasporic identity in Melbourne and Chicago during the nineteenth century in 2017.