Review of Maryann Gialanella Valiulis’s The Making of Inequality by Aisling Shalvey

Maryann Gialanella Valiulis, The Making of Inequality: Women, Power, and Gender Ideology in the Irish Free State, 1922-1937. Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2019. ISBN: 978-1-84682-792-1. 192pp. €19.95

Reviewed by Aisling Shalvey


‘The Making of Inequality’ by Maryann Gialanella Valiulis details the chronological development of the Irish Free State and the ensuing issues surrounding women’s equality. The chapters include: a discussion of the promise of equality from the 1916 revolution; women and jury duty in the Irish Free State; the barriers to women’s employment;  the role of the Catholic church in promoting women’s domestic role to the detriment of their involvement in public life; and concludes with a discussion of  women’s public identity.

This book begins by situating Irish women in the 1916 rebellion, highlighting how despite their marginalised position in society, women played a central role in the fight for independence. Valiluis draws on a range of primary source material to describe women’s experiences of the rebellion, such as the testimony of Mary Colum, Margaret Brady, and Marie Perolz among others, stating how they felt ‘we were all soldiers’ (page 20). It also explains the importance of membership of Cumann na mBan, Inighnide na hEireann and how the right of women to risk their lives led to their increased self-advocacy during the Civil War. Valiulis artfully explains how women’s roles were integral to the fight for independence, whether that involved physical armament or more ‘domestic’ roles on the front line. She explains how this radicalisation happened partially through bearing arms and physically fighting, but also the extreme situations in which they found themselves conducting everyday activities for the rebellion:

It is one thing to make sandwiches in the privacy of your own home, it is quite another to do it in a burning building. Under the promise and protection of the Proclamation, undertaking private sphere activities like cooking and first aid while bullets were flying and flames were dancing around very likely would have radicalised the women involved. They were choosing to risk their lives (page 25).

Valiulis details how promises made in the 1916 Proclamation led women to believe they had earned the right to contribute as equal citizens in the foundation of the Irish Free State. However, as Valiulis also demonstrates, the period of revolution led to conservatism as the fledgling state aimed for stability at all costs, thereby negating the promises of equal opportunity and citizenship (page 46).

This aim for stability undermined the principles of universal suffrage when the issue of jury service was debated in the Dáil. The electoral register only included women over the age of 30, thereby discounting the right to vote that had been promised. Despite the fact that the restrictive legislation preventing women from sitting on juries violated article three of the Constitution, it simply resulted in the ‘paring down’ of the equality clause rather than changing legislation. The Seanad debate of 1927 detailed how women were seen as inherently different; pretty women sitting on the jury was thought to distract the other jurors, and women were thought to make up their minds too soon on the case (page 62). The Irish Save the Children Fund argued in judicial cases concerning women and children that the jury should include those of their own sex (page 72). This highlighted their disenfranchisement in the new state; women had a domestic role, but they were denied a political identity, despite having fought for equal political representation (page 54).

The book notes how this ideal of equality was far from the truth; the constitution limited a woman’s place, and their right to employment outside the home. Valiulis states that the significant level of unemployment was not unique to Ireland in this era, nor was the Irish Free State response to unemployment, by restricting women’s right to work. However, it is argued that the reality of the integral part women had to play in employment outside the home was at odds with the idea of women’s role as home-makers who could be sustained entirely by their husbands’ income. The reality was that many lower income households, were dependent on women’s earnings to sustain themselves. Despite this, as Valiulis outlines, even some women’s organisations such as the Irish Women’s Workers Union, were hesitant about the right of married women to work outside of the home (page 84).

Women’s discrimination in the workplace, and the response to this by the existing patriarchal system, highlighted that their desire for work based on merit rather than sex was radical. Their insistence on meritocratic promotion at work would destabilise the patriarchal system, and for this reason was denied to them. While the issues surrounding the Constitution and the infamous article 41.2.1 which situated women firmly in the home are not new, the foregrounding of women in this battle is truly innovative. The book also reflects on how the central role of the church in Irish society continued to ensure a woman’s place was in the home, simultaneously holding her to a higher moral standard and excluding her from public life.

Previous historiography solely focusing on legislative change and the role of male politicians in enacting changes to laws has often overlooked the primary source material which centres women in the debate and the fight for equal rights in Irish society. Valiulis engages artfully with historiography to show how the formerly liminal role of women was in fact a false depiction.  She contrasts antiquated historiographical notions of ‘hysterical women’ with the primary source material which reveals the  women who fought for their promised equality in a new state they had helped to construct. Overall, this book was an enlightening read. It revealed how, despite the ideals of the 1916 Rising, the ultimate need for international recognition and stability led to the disenfranchisement of women in the Irish Free State. It illustrates the central role of women from 1916 to 1937, and how, despite the attempts to sideline women in the Irish Free State, women demanded recognition and continued to fight for equality. Valiulis also leaves the reader with some interesting afterthoughts concerning equality in modern Ireland. She reflects on the process of churching following childbirth, the recent decriminalisation of homosexuality, the equal right to marriage, amongst other changes in Irish society. The opposition to the dominance of the Catholic church, as well as violence against women in this era, is foregrounded for further research. Valiulis notes that while significant change has occurred in Irish society, further work needs to be done to grant equality in a new multicultural Ireland.

Aisling Shalvey (University of Strasbourg) completed her undergraduate in English and history in Maynooth University, and her Erasmus at the University of Vienna. Her masters in the history of medicine at Oxford Brookes University focused on the study of medical ethics, eugenics and biopolitics. She is currently a PhD researcher at the University of Strasbourg. Her thesis entitled ‘History of Paediatric Treatment in the Reichsuniversität Strassburg 1941-1944’ funded by the Fondation pour la Memoire de la Shoah.