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Pre-Famine Ireland: Social Structure Copyright 2000 by Desmond Keenan Hard copy of book available from and

Chapter Thirty

                   The Condition of Women and Feminism

Summary of chapter. The position of women was still the traditional one, though ideas of equality derived from the French Revolution were beginning to appear. The status of women at all levels of society was much as it was in Britain and America at the time. The great change in the social status of women came in the second half of the century

(i) The Condition of Women

(ii) Women's Rights


(i) The Condition of Women 

There is no single set of conditions applicable to all women, for much, now as in the past, depends on other factors. Whether women worked inside or outside the home depended to a considerable extent on their husbands' income, and this varied with social class. But even within the same class conditions varied. The status, duties, and rewards of a woman in the cashless cottier society were not necessarily the same as those of the wife of a small farmer, or the wife of a craftsman in the wage economy. Detailed studies are lacking. 

In the eighteenth century none of the women from any of the classes were noted for their industry. Women in the upper classes did not work, and the women in the lowest classes, like their menfolk, were noted for their idleness. Well-meaning persons, often connected with the Churches or the Bible Societies, deplored the fact that women who lived in the poorest cottages did not sweep the floor, nor clean the windows, nor make curtains, nor mend their children's clothes, but spent their time gossiping. (The men were similarly criticised for not mending the roof, not cleaning the manure from the cabin, or just shifting it outside the front door, not making or mending a gate, and so on.) Cooking was frequently reduced to the most vestigial, namely putting potatoes in a pot and boiling them. Educators noted that even a tiny garden could be used to produce cabbage, carrots, chives etc. and in fact, by the end of the century such gardens had become common. At the time of the Famine it seems that many women had no culinary skills other than potato-boiling, and were at a total loss how to find or prepare other food. 

It was the usual practice in the nineteenth century that a man, as soon as his income would allow it, acquired servants. Their wives then left most of the housework to them. As the salary of a living-in servant might be no more than three or four pounds a year besides meals, it is clear that a man with an income of twenty pounds a year could afford servants. Social pressures ensured that he did. A man who could afford to keep a servant was expected to do so. 

Servants were notoriously badly trained by British standards. They were nominally on duty all day, but nobody expected them actually to spend the whole time working. 

A tendency to educate girls above their station by having them taught music, French, and embroidery was noted. The idea was that they should marry men able to afford servants.  

It is difficult to determine what middle class women actually did. Women of a superior class, like the wives of barristers, were expected to visit the elderly, or sick tenants, or to supervise the village school, and so on, as we can see from descriptions by contemporary novelists. The keeping of ornamental poultry and supervising the gardener's work, we know from Jane Austen, to be recognised pursuits of women who merely attended the social round. A fondness for party-going was noted among Irish middle class women. Four fifths of this class too in 1798 did not nurse their children (SNL 24 Nov 1798).  

As the century advanced social pressures to perform good works increased. In 1793 a group of nobles ladies were reported as acting as collectors for a charity collection. In 1797 a group of ladies of rank volunteered to act as a supervisory committee in the mismanaged Founding Hospital, and received the thanks of Parliament for their work. So these women became prominent in the works of the Bible Societies, or societies for freeing Negro slaves, or for promoting missions to the pagans. They also formed committees to supervise the management of parish orphanages, and to run bazaars and other fund-raising events. 

An interesting correspondence appeared in the Farmers' Journal in 1816 on the changes in habits among middle-class women. A young lady wrote to the editor to say that the young women of her generation were inspired by Maria Edgeworth and Hannah More (a leading English Evangelical). Formerly, she said, ladies did little but play cards and choose clothes. Nowadays they devoted themselves to painting, dancing, and needlework. An elderly gentleman, in reply, wrote that the young lady was exaggerating a bit. In his youth, it was true, there was much tea-drinking, card-playing, and gossiping, but there had also been some drawing (mostly poor), some music, and some tapestry-making. Ladies in those days wasted much time writing long letters to each other, but nowadays wasted more time reading novels. There was no doubt, he agreed, that women nowadays were more pre-occupied with 'doing something useful'.  

Another lady wrote to say that nowadays the education of girls was the burning topic among women of all ranks from duchesses to hucksters. Another lady stressed that women should be taught to be self-reliant, but not to be independent: they should be able actively to assist their husbands, fathers, and brothers. The example of Maria Edgeworth managing her father's estates was obviously admired. That girls' schools should teach Latin or that women should be admitted to universities was not envisaged. The subordination of women was taught in the Bible, and it was accepted without question that woman was made by God to help man not to rule over him. This does not mean that women had an unimportant role in society. In a period when the Whig party was virtually eclipsed in Parliament the great Whig ladies in places like Holland House in London did as much as anyone else to keep the party alive. 

The theatre and literature were two areas where women could and did compete successfully with men. Charles II allowed women on to the British stage. Women could appear as instrumentalists in charity concerts.  

Teaching in girls' schools was another outlet for gentlewomen, but many middle class girls were virtually forced by their circumstances to become governesses in private families. Governesses were rejected both by the family they served and by the servants in the same house. Private hairdressing of ladies, and the keeping of a shop were other respectable occupations open to middle-class girls. 

What work was done by farmer's wives is not clear. Carleton has a picture of a strong farmer's wife providing elaborate meals when the priest was expected. But her duties were clearly supervisory, and the servants did the actual work. 

Among the working classes men's work was often sharply differentiated from women's work. Men looked after the cattle, women after the poultry and eggs. Women span while men wove. Men used the sickle while women bound the sheaves. Women were indoor servants while men were outdoor servants. But the division was not hard and fast. I have come across no references to women working in the coalmines. In England, where many of the seams were close to the surface, and easily worked, women and children would be employed as family labour. But all Irish mines in the nineteenth century were dependent on capitalist enterprise. A certain number of women were allowed to accompany regiments and were placed on the ration-strength. So too were some women allowed on board ships in the navy when there were very young midshipmen on board.[Top] 

(ii) Women's Rights 

The legal state of dependence and subordination had its other side. Women were not obliged to serve in the armed forces. The male head of the family, where such existed was obliged to support them, whether he was father, husband, brother, or son. At her wedding, therefore, a woman had to be provided with a dowry, which in theory was to contribute towards her support for the rest of her life. Irish law, like British law, does not seem to have provided any safeguards against the misuse of a woman's money by her husband. (Nor did Catholic Canon Law protect a nun's dowry, and the money could be spent on building a chapel.) 

With regard to the law women were treated as the equals of men, and received equal protection. Their testimony in courts was equal to that of men. The courts scrupulously protected the rights of women when such were brought before them. While unmarried or widowed they had full rights to acquire, inherit, own, control, and dispose of their own property. 

With regard to civil rights or privileges it may be said that with one exception they had none. The exception was that a woman could be the reigning queen, and so head of the Church, the State, and the armed forces. A Queen consort was entitled to nothing except what her husband allowed, as George IV demonstrated, excluding his wife even from his coronation. Women could not sit on juries nor belong to parish vestries. They could not be appointed to any public offices. They were excluded from acting in any capacity in the lawcourts, except as a jury of matrons in capital cases, and then only to decide on the issue of pregnancy. They could not vote in any elections, nor be elected to any public office. They could not belong to a trade guild. (Compared with the lot of women, Catholic gentlemen had little to complain about.) Nor before mid-century was there any agitation to change the order of things. 

This is all the more strange because the issue of 'Women's Rights' and the 'Liberation of Women' arose about the time of the French Revolution. However the ideas were swamped by the triumph of Toryism and the rise of the evangelical movement. When the Whigs finally got back to office in 1830 the issue did not re-emerge. One lady writing in the Irish Farmers' Journal said that she did not approve of these new ideas, but she had an aunt who could speak of nothing else. The leading promoter of women's rights was Mary Wollstonecraft (Mrs Godwin) who was born in London of Irish parents. She wrote a book, inspired by Rousseau, called the Vindication of the Rights of Women. She did not believe in marriage so this limited the appeal of her ideas among other women (DNB). More radical than her was Anna Wheeler whose views turned towards socialism, and who influenced William Thompson of Cork, who is sometimes called the first Irish socialist. 

More influential in the short term, perhaps because they were upper class ladies, were two Irishwomen, Lady Eleanor Butler and Miss Sarah Ponsonby, the 'Ladies of Llangollen'. These renounced the idea of marriage and settled themselves in a little cottage in Wales. Almost every traveller made a point of calling on them. They established the principle that women could look after themselves and did not need the support of a male relative.  

In any case Swift's satirical picture of women, 

                                               learnt the art,
At proper times to scream and start
Because she heard a sudden drum
Or found an earwig in a plum, 

was regarded as long out of date. Irishwomen were expected to be good horsewomen, and to enjoy the firing of cannons at a military review (IFJ 16 March 1816). 

Religion too provided great scope for the independence of women. In the Catholic Church, though in many ways under the authority of the male clergy, women in convents were enabled to develop their talents and to build up extensive educational and charitable institutions. Irish nuns founded convents in India in the 1840's and also in Australia and in the American Mid-West before 1850. In every case they were assisting Irish priests and bishops but their example showed what women could achieve. Some years later British and French nuns were helping to run hospitals in the Crimea before Florence Nightingale went out. Educated women started schools for girls, but none of these achieved much fame. 

It must be noted that much of the subordination of women owes much to women's views of themselves, which views they passed on to the children under their care.



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