Review of Christina A. Brophy and Cara Delay (eds.) Women, Reform and Resistance in Ireland, 1850-1950, by Amy Heath-Carpentier

brophybookimageBROPHY, CHRISTINA A. & DELAY, CARA (eds.), Women, Reform, and Resistance in Ireland, 1850-1950, New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2015. ISBN 978 1 137 513131 7. £63.00

While the legacies of Maud Gonne, Constance Markievicz, Kathleen Lynn, and organizations such as Cumann na mBan, among others, are receiving well-deserved attention in the spotlight of the Decade of Centenaries, Women, Reform, and Resistance in Ireland, 1850-1950 advances the historiography of modern Irish women by illuminating the lives of demotic women and by revealing how poor, working-class, outcast, and rural women resisted the gendered, patriarchal structures that bound them during this significant 100 years in Irish history.

The volume’s editors, Christina S. Brophy and Cara Delay, entice the reader with a well-composed collection of ten essays covering diverse topics and subjects, each revealing how women negotiated gender-based oppression reified by the Church, State, and society. Both residing in the United States, Brophy is a Professor of History and Humanities and 2016 Faculty of the Year at Triton College. Her co-editor, Delay, is Associate Professor of History at the College of Charleston in South Carolina. As chairs of the women and gender studies programs at their institutions, Brophy and Delay brought considerable expertise in cross-disciplinary gender analysis and Irish women’s historiography to this volume. While the interdisciplinary nature of each chapter varies based on the inclinations of the author and the requirements of the subject, the editors achieve a flow between them. While the contributors are based in history, sociology, and anthropology, each scrutinizes how gender, class, and sectarian identities operated concurrently and were buttressed by, as Conor Reidy highlights, life experiences of poverty, infant-child mortality, violence, and marital disintegration.

The first four chapters by Margaret Preston, Vanessa Rutherford, Jennifer Redmond, and Lindsey Earner-Byrne concentrate on how poor women interacted with upper-class female philanthropists, the State, and the Catholic Church. Preston, Rutherford, and Redmond demonstrate how middle and upper-class Irish women constructed public personas and fashioned quasi-professional lives through philanthropic interventions in the lives of their lower class female counterparts, who were deemed morally inferior due to their poverty and thus in need of reform, education, or protection. At a time when paid employment was considered unrespectable, philanthropy was an avenue for women to form a public life, yet as Redmond points out, “Nobody asked Emigrant Women what they wanted: services were delivered to them without consultation” (70). Earner-Byrne analyzes the begging letters of the faithful to their Roman Catholic Archbishop, Edward J. Byrne, in the critical years of 1921-1940 and reveals “a rare glimpse of the agency poor women employed and the various rhetorical strategies they devised to elicit support from their church” (77). Elaine Farrell, Conor Reidy, and Brigittine M. French examine how women asserted themselves in their interactions with the court system, prisons, and inebriate reformatories, despite the highly gendered nature of these systems. A highlight is French’s bridging of district court records and ethnographic field notes to provide a contextual understanding of how women experienced constructions of citizenship within County Clare during the 1930s. Finally, the last three essays by Cara Delay, Christina S. Brophy, and E. Moore Quinn explore how girls were able to access knowledge about their bodies and sexuality through informal networks of women (Delay), how class impacted the suppression of the widow’s curse (Moore Quinn), and how “imaginative resistance” was employed in the form of folk customs and fairy stories to counteract misogyny and reinforce values of hospitality and communal interconnectedness (Brophy).

A strength of the collection is in the way the essays complement one another by reinforcing the narratives that surrounded non-elite women’s lives, coupled with numerous, compelling descriptions of how women resisted, subverted, and rebelled against these narratives and the institutions that enforced them. In several chapters, a theoretical backbone situates historical research within broader, multidisciplinary discourses, largely expanding the book’s appeal beyond the field of Irish history. Throughout, the interplay between class, gender, and sectarianism exemplifies the deft application of intersectional analysis to a historical project.

No volume can aim to cover all potential topics of interest to a reader. Perhaps intentionally, the book does not address women’s participation in militant action during the Irish Revolutionary period. This is heavily covered elsewhere and thus its absence is conspicuous here. The intersectional, interdisciplinary approach employed in this volume would benefit and diversify the existing body of literature on women’s militant action in this period.

While I would argue that Irish women’s historians, following Margaret MacCurtain’s lead, have been particularly innovative in unearthing, analyzing, and preserving unique sources for women’s history, the scholars in Women, Reform, and Resistance in Ireland, 1850-1950 advance Irish women’s history and history from below through an impressive array of compelling subjects and the innovative use of source material, interrupting the often projected image of the Irish woman as “poor, passive, and desperately clinging to her oppressive faith” (1). Brophy, Delay, and their contributors succeed in forwarding both our understanding of Irish women’s history and elevating the voices of non-elites from the historical sources in ways that not only expose how authorities, institutions, and elites acted upon them, but how they, in turn, asserted themselves within the midst of a gendered, classist, and sectarian landscape of modern Ireland.

Amy Heath-Carpentier, PhD Student, California Institute of Integral Studies, & Assistant Director, PreGraduate School and Career Development, Washington University in St. Louis