Feminist fusions: Irish socialist feminists, 1900s-1940s

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Kyte, Elizabeth
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University College Cork
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This thesis concerns the connections Irish socialist women made to radical individuals, groups and movements from the 1900s to the 1940s (see Figure 1: ‘Mapping Feminist Connections to Radicalism’ which follows). This is a biographical study which aims to expose these connections through the activist lives of ten Irish socialist women; Constance Markievicz (1868-1927), Eva Gore-Booth (1870-1926), Hanna Sheehy Skeffington (1877-1946), Rosamond Jacob (1888-1960), Patricia Lynch (1894-1973), Sighle Humphreys (1899-1994), Kathleen Lynn (1874- 1955), Nora Connolly O’Brien (1892-1981), Charlotte Despard (1844-1939), and Helena Molony (1883-1967). The thesis aims to foreground the voices and diverse experiences of Irish socialist women to counter assumptions within the historical record. Therefore, the purpose of the project is to reveal Irish feminists’ identification with socialism, as well as the breadth of radical interests and causes they pursued across their sustained and productive political lives. The study explores thematically their backgrounds and politicisation through the prerevolutionary counterculture. It examines how they diversely engaged with the suffrage campaign from 1908 until 1923. The thesis then shifts focus and traces Irish socialist women’s connections with the international left through major discourses in international socialism. It follows Irish socialist women’s personal experiences of violence through a decade of social and political upheaval (1913-1923). The dynamic development of these insights into a resistance to militarism is investigated. The diffusiveness of feminism in Irish feminists’ engagement with republicanism and communism in the Irish anti-imperialist movement is explored. At the forefront of their politics in the 1920s and 1930s, anti-imperialism provided a space for this group of women to expand feminist consciousness in their attempts to gender socialist republicanism. They were also active organising in the unemployed movement, supporting Soviet Russia, and through anti-fascist activism in support of the Spanish Republicans. The Spanish Civil War marked the end of their political journeys and a 2 decline in interwar radicalism as the approaching Second World War changed the landscape of the left. This study about Irish socialist women asks questions about the wider phenomena of Irish feminisms; the assumptions made about it, the ways we can (re)define it, and how we should historicise it. What do the interactions between Irish socialist women and radicalism say about the relationship between feminism and social change? How do the unconventional backgrounds and diverse political identities of Irish socialist women affect who is included within the description ‘Irish feminist’? This study investigates how Irish women attempted to fuse the claims of class, gender and nation, and the implications these experiments have for understanding the assumption that division was an overwhelming dynamic in Irish feminism. The thesis interrogates whether Irish socialist women were able to develop a woman-focused politics in Irish socialism, and what this can tell us about the relationship between feminist ideas and activism. The study also explores the implications of this relationship for exploring the boundaries of Irish feminism, and whether Irish socialist women were a radicalising influence on Irish feminism. The implications that a biographical focus has for expanding the historical understandings of Irish feminisms are explored. Focusing on the biographical sources foregrounds the activist experiences of Irish socialist women to expose the range of connections they made; to each other, to leftwing individuals, groups and movements. This biographical study of Irish socialist feminism provides an alternative lens through which to view Irish feminism and shift the historical narrative. The privileging of immediate narratives, such as letters, diaries, and eyewitness accounts, draws attention to how Irish socialist women balanced competing claims on their political identity, made alliances and formed a new feminist dynamic through their everyday activist encounters. Therefore, this thesis makes conclusions about how biography shifts the perception of nationalism as the dominant movement with which feminists interacted, towards socialist alliances and the broader counterculture which facilitated these complex 3 interconnections. The presence of a group of Irish socialist women identified in this study lends Irish feminism a more inclusive quality than has previously been assumed. The thesis documents the fluid and shifting approaches Irish socialist women took towards the different political choices they made, and this suggests the dynamic quality of Irish socialist feminism necessary to overcoming tensions and building alliances. Irish socialist feminists’ gendering of radicalism through domestic discourses highlights the presence of a broadening feminist consciousness and the diffusiveness of Irish feminism. The radicalising impact of Irish socialist women on Irish feminism is evidenced through the expansion of suffrage demands by 1923. Irish socialist women’s interwar radicalism extends the usual historical timeframe beyond suffrage and nationalist accounts, and establishes a persistent feminist presence across the first half of the twentieth century. All of these conclusions relate to how Irish socialist women’s lives indicate an interactivity, plurality, dynamism, diffusiveness and persistence presence to Irish feminism, changing how we perceive the history of Irish feminism.
Irish , Socialism , Feminism , Radicalism
Kyte, E. 2018. Feminist fusions: Irish socialist feminists, 1900s-1940s. PhD Thesis, University College Cork.