Enlightened Feminism

The Enlightenment values which brought about the 1798 rebellion were also crucial to the burgeoning feminist movement, writes Sally Richardson

IN 1792 the United Irish newspaper, the Northern Star, announced a Belfast edition of Mary Wollstonecraft's recently published book A Vindication of the Rights of Women, and followed this two months later with a favourable review. Although it seems the Belfast edition may not have materialized, the book was printed in Dublin the following year.

Women's rights were high on the agenda of political discussion in these revolutionary years. Wollstonecraft, who was herself half–Irish, was an especially articulate and systematic propounder of feminism and women's equality, but she was by no means the only one.

Throughout the 18th century women's writings provide ample evidence of discontent and anger at the constraints of patriarchal society, marriage with duties but no rights, and double sexual standards. Many express an overwhelming craving for education and a longing to venture beyond the purely domestic sphere.

But it was the Enlightenment that provided an ideological framework in which women could articulate their demands for political rights. If all men were created free and equal, then women, as self–evident rational creatures, claimed freedom and equality on the same grounds.

Maria Edgeworth published her Letters for Literary Ladies in 1795 and a second revised edition came out in 1798. The earliest parts of the book date from 1787 when she was only nineteen years old.

Edgeworth set out the usual arguments against women's education and then proceeded to demolish them comprehensively. Her book, like Wollstonecraft's, is a product of enlightenment thought and values in its defence of reason and science; like Wollstonecraft, she argues that the breaking down of gender divisions is in the interest of men's happiness as well as women's and that domestic life would be improved and strengthened rather than damaged by women's education and freedom.

The American and French revolutions provided new opportunities for women's political activities. In America women's groups were formed to help the war effort against the British, and some began to talk of equal rights and citizenship. “Why should I not have liberty whilst you strive for liberty?” Mary Hay Burn of New Jersey wrote her husband, a soldier in Washington's army.

In the 1780s the state of New Jersey extended the right to vote to all free adults. For the first time women, as well as African Americans, had the vote. Alas, this was not the intention; the framers of the constitution realized their error, and the rules were tightened up to exclude women, although some black males were allowed to retain the franchise. The wrapping up of the concept of citizenship with maleness and whiteness was common enough in revolutionary America, but it was by no means unchallenged.

In France, Olympe de Gouges published her Declaration de la Femme et de la Citoyenne in 1791. A serious proposal to introduce votes for women was made in 1792. Many of the revolutionary clubs, including the prominent and influential Cordeliers, admitted women.

Women also formed their own societies. The Republicaines Revolutionnaires, founded in 1793 by actor Claire Lacombe and chocolatier Pauline Leon, associated themselves with the democratically–minded and class–conscious Enrages. The revolutionary authorities did not let their activites go unchecked for long and they were suppressed, along with other left–wing groupings. Olympe de Gouges was also suppressed — she was guillotined in 1793.

Belfast in the 1790s was well primed for revolution. It had in common with France an educated and economically successful middle class that was hungry for the political power it had been denied. Women participated in their own right in the economic life of the region; this undoubtedly encouraged them to form political aspirations of their own.

Mary Ann McCracken, from a prosperous Belfast family with interests in the printing, publishing and textile industries, ran a muslin manufacturing business in partnership with her sister Margaret. Her mother Ann and sister–in–law Rose Ann also ran their own businesses.

A long letter written by Mary McCracken in March 1797 to her brother Harry in Kilmainham Gaol expresses many of the concerns of contemporary feminists. She had some doubts about the United Irishwomen's societies, though, and preferred mixed organizations on principle.

"I wish to know if they have any rational ideas of liberty or equality for themselves or whether they are contented with their present abject and dependent situation', she wrote.

The United Irishwomen's groups appear to have left little record of their activities, but they should not be dismissed as 'teapot societies' (this, it should be noted, was a nickname given them by anti–republicans). Serious political discussion surely went on at their gatherings, as indeed it did at the men's drinking sessions documented by Wolfe Tone.

Peggy Munro of Lisburn is reputed to have founded the first United Irish quiltings. Quiltings (where women get together to assemble and stitch a quilt) were social occasions and became political forums as well. Their importance in the development of nineteenth–century American feminism is well acknowledged. More research may show their influence in the United Irish movement.

Scattered throughout the accounts of the fighting in 1798 are numerous — but often tantalizingly sketchy — references to the involvement of women. Although it seems that the celebrated Betsy Gray did not actually take part in the battle of Ballynahinch, she was among a large number of women who were present at the rebel camp on Ednavady Hill as auxiliaries.

James Thomson, then aged twelve, who had accompanied some of the women who brought provisions to the camp, did hear reports that two or three women 'remained on the field during the battle, submitting to their share of its labours and dangers and performing as valiant deeds as the men'.

Gray was murdered after the battle, along with her boyfriend and brother, by yeomanry who ruthlessly hunted down rebel fugitives.

Two women had borne the rebel standards at the battle of Ballynahinch. Both were killed in the fighting. The loyalist Freeman's Journal (edited by Francis Higgins, the 'Sham Squire') described them as prostitutes. Perhaps they were — after all, prositutes had a much reason and right as other women to fight for freedom and equality; but perhaps the description tells us more about loyalist attitudes than it does about these particular women.

Munro's brother Henry, the leader of the United Irish forces at Ballynahinch, was captured and hanged after the battle. She remained a fugitive (possibly spending some time in America) until she was captured and imprisoned in Carrickfergus Gaol in the aftermath of the 1803 rebelliion.

Jemmy Hope, a close associate of the McCrackens, described a narrow escape had by his wife Rosy while transporting 'a blunderbuss and a case of pistols' during the 1803 rebellion. Transportation and safe–keeping of arms was an often dangerous duty frequently taken on by women.

Mary Doyle, a working–class Wexford woman, was reported as being wherever the fighting was at its most intense during the battle of New Ross. Doyle took upon herself the task of cutting off and retrieving the cartridge boxes from the corpses of dead Dragoons. The United Irish forces certainly needed all the weaponry and ammunition they could get.

After the defeat at New Ross, rebel leader Bagenal Harvey came upon Doyle sitting astride a cannon, demanding help to move it to safety. It was the only piece of artillery saved by the rebels from the battle.

The attitude of United Irishmen towards women deserves some comment. Although some murders of women by the rebels are documented, atrocities on the United Irish side were few and discipline was on the whole good. Even hostile commentators remarked that there were no recorded instances of rape on the part of United Irish troops, unlike the British soldiers and Yeomanry whose depredations in this respect are only too well attested.

Barbara Lett, a loyalist (though with some United Irish family connections) dismissed the rebels as a 'merciless rabble' but claimed that the British soldiers had been far worse, firing on 'unoffending women' and murdering even loyalists. Lett was one of several women who were rescued and helped by United Irishmen in the chaos of battle.

United Irishmen on the whole treated women with respect and humanity, and showed a readiness to accept them as comrades. Evidence suggests that although rights for women never formed part of the official United Irish programme, feminist ideology was understood, accepted and promoted by men as well as women. “In political changes you [ie women] have been frequently the actuating principle”, acknowledged the Press, successor to the recently–suppressed Northern Star, in 1797, encouraging women's participation in the United Irish struggle.

Women in the United Irish movement acted as auxiliaries to republican military forces in much the same way that Cumann na mBan did more than a hundred years later. On the face of it it might not seem that much progress had been made in the intervening years.

But this is far from the case. Women helped to formulate and create the United Irish outlook, ideology and culture. The demand for equal rights could not be quenched. The politicisation and raised consciousness developed into the women's movement of the nineteenth century, which achieved many things for women, in spite of a repressive Establishment which did its best to entrench further the existing gender divisions, and this in turn led to the achievements of modern feminism.

Feminists in Ireland and Britain today owe much to the United Irishwomen and the wider feminist movement of their time. We are their direct inheritors; without them we would not have the rights and aspirations we enjoy today.

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This document was last modified by David Granville on 2004-05-26 10:49:53.
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