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Emily Bloom on "Unmanageable Revolutionaries"

Cover of "Unmanageable Revolutionaries": Illustration of Irish Protest

Margaret Ward

Unmanageable Revolutionaries: Women and Irish Nationalism

Pluto Press, 1996
316 pages

Reviewed by Emily Bloom

In 1915, Countess Markievicz wrote a series of articles titled “The Women of ‘98” for The Irish Citizen. The intent of the articles was to encourage the women of her generation to fight for Irish independence. By citing a hidden history of Irishwomen in the failed United Irishmen uprising of 1798, Markievicz draws on a tradition of “great fighting women” and notes that this history has become obscure, available only in rare “glimpses,” yet within this exploration of women’s history, she never questions why the women of ‘98 were left out of history. 

In 1983, when the fighting women of 1916 were becoming as historically obsolete as the women of 1798, Margaret Ward’s Unmanageable Revolutionaries (1983) again recovered the role of women in the history of Irish nationalism. Ward writes that she intended for her work to serve as “a stimulus for other feminist historians, so that in the future a much fuller account of the history of Irish women will be available to us all.” Beyond revising an historical omission, Ward shows the causes that push women’s movements to the margins of nationalist history.

Though the historical scope of Unmanageable Revolutionaries ranges from 1880 to 1940, Ward writes from the vantage of 1980s Northern Ireland where women’s rights remained subsumed within a landscape of ongoing sectarian bloodshed and links the failures of the earlier movement with the ongoing violence and inequality in the North. Ward specifically responds to the 1980 imprisonment and strip-searching of female IRA members in Armagh prison and their subsequent “dirty protest,” which reopened tensions between militant nationalism and feminism. Given our current historical junction after the Northern Irish peace process, it is an important time to look back at Ward’s book and evaluate its enduring significance for women’s history in post-peace process Ireland.

Unmanageable Revolutionaries examines women nationalists through a double lens—reclaiming a lost history of women’s political involvement in nationalism while at the same time assessing why this involvement never generated a strong feminist movement. Ward studies the period between 1881 and 1940, when women nationalists organized autonomous political organizations, took over leadership of nationalist organizations when male leaders were incarcerated or executed, and published political journals that appealed to both male and female readerships. In the rebel governments, women were appointed cabinet ministers, encouraged to run for local elections and became judges well ahead of women in most other nations. Given the significant political gains by nationalist women in this period, Ward asks why women’s nationalist organizations never turned their energies towards defining a nation with progressive women’s rights.

Ward focuses on three major organizational movements of nationalist women: the Ladies’ Land League, the Inghinide na hEireann and the Cumann na mBan. In analyzing these organizations, Ward shows how the historical shift from parliamentary debate towards a “militant, open, mass movement” beginning with the land agitations of the 1880s, created new avenues for female involvement that were impossible when action was restricted to the political establishment. Irish women in these organizations found outlets in propaganda, fundraising, speechmaking, public debate, and journalism. During periods of war, women were trained in first aid, acted as couriers, took up arms, went on hunger strikes in prisons, campaigned for prisoners’ rights, and headed dependents’ trusts for the families of those imprisoned and executed. However, in the end, Ward shows how the terms of female involvement were limited to periods of extreme stress and their contributions were consistently undercut by accusations that they had become too radical, bitter and militant to participate in the political mainstream.

Ward’s focus on organizational movements challenges historical representations of militant women as individual exceptions. Although she highlights influential individuals such as Countess Markievicz, Anna Parnell, Maud Gonne and Hanna Sheehy Skeffington, she also notes that individualism is a problem in women’s history and attempts to reclaim a history of organized collections of women. Ward’s goal as a socialist-feminist historian is not only to reclaim women’s involvement, but to highlight the importance of female collectivity.

Furthermore, though many individual nationalist women were also radical feminists, in the moments where nationalism and feminism conflicted on issues such as suffrage and the rights of women laborers, Ward shows how nationalist women’s organizations consistently prioritized nationalism. This relegation of feminist causes to secondary status within nationalist movements serves as a fatal flaw that unravels the political advances of these groups. Ward writes that there was never a strong feminist movement in Ireland analogous to the women’s nationalist movements, but rather, a “fragile collection of individuals.” There is a strong wistfulness in Ward’s analysis—a sense that if these individuals had developed a collective voice, the subsequent traditionalism and misogyny of Eamon de Valera’s constitution could have been averted. Although it is difficult to imagine an independent feminist movement capable of reversing the conservativism of post-Civil War nationalism, Ward is convincing in her claim that a feminist organization would have provided a forum for dissent that was otherwise unavailable.

Ward’s analysis of women nationalists continues to influence scholars of Irish women’s history. The 1988 film, Mother Ireland, furthered this debate between feminism and nationalism through powerful interviews with historians, feminists, and IRA women. Other work continues to resurrect the political contributions of women in the Celtic Revival period such as C.L. Innes’s Woman and Nation (1993) and Karen Steele’s recently published Women, Press and Politics During the Irish Revival (2007). Work on women nationalists during the Northern Troubles, such as Barbara Harlow’s Barred (1992) and Begona Aretxaga’s Shattering Silence (1997) examine the position of women in the IRA of the 1970s and 1980s.

However, other criticism of the feminist-nationalist relationship has also taken the form of censure among scholars that quickly condemn militant women who attempted to join a battle that would ultimately exclude them. In these critiques the historicity of female nationalists becomes a subject of critique. On an RTÉ television program in 2006, historian Ruth Dudley Edwards called Markievicz, “a bloodythirsty show-off” who “was all style and no substance along with other uncompromising green harpies of her generation.” These terms are identical to those with which male nationalists censored their female compatriots as “bitter” and “hysterical.” In light of this tendency, it is important to return to Ward’s feminist reclamation of women’s history that also offers a critical eye for the failures of this movement. Ward’s analysis never denies the impact of these women in establishing Irish independence, only their failure to establish women’s rights. Instead of a blanket condemnation of female violence, Ward shows how this bitterness is fomented, how “hysterics” are interpreted and why a female voice—either angry or idealistic—combined with an independent women’s movement could have channeled the explosive potential of female activism towards productive outcomes. 

Ward’s Unmanageable Revolutionaries preserves the historical relevance of women in nationalism while at the same time voicing a sense of radical potential subverted towards increasingly unsatisfactory ends. In analyzing the relationship between feminism, nationalism, and violence from the vantage of a post-peace process Ireland, the message of Ward’s book should continue to shape new critical reappraisals that avoid either uncritically creating heroines, demonizing the militancy of these organized women or, even worse, forgetting them all over again.