Mary S. Pierse (Editor), Irish Feminisms, 1810-1930

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Mary S. Pierse (editor), Irish Feminisms, 1810-1930. 5 vols. History of Feminism Series. Abington, Oxon: Routledge. 2010. 2426 pages. GBP 725.00.

These welcome volumes are an immensely valuable and engaging resource for researchers in nineteenth-century and twentieth-century Irish women's history, literature, and culture, and make available in five handsome (though expensive) volumes a total of 180 historical documents of differing genre and subject. The diverse materials thus assembled represent, in Pierse's terms, 'significant building blocks of literary, political and social history' that 'supplement and complement the important collections and anthologies of the past decade'.

Past decades have indeed shown forcefully the ways in which compilations of Irish historical materials can become not only contentious in the present moment but also deeply revelatory of that moment. Notable examples are the alternative--and newly conflicted--imaginings of the relationship between North and South generated by the first three Field Day volumes; or the extent--and to some overwhelmingly so--of the diversity of women's cultural expression made available by the fourth and fifth Field Day volumes at a time of rapid social and economic change. A longer historical perspective on collections might invoke as sobering comparison the fate of earlier acts of retrieval such as Elizabeth Owens Blackburne's Illustrious Irishwomen of 1877, in which the editor poignantly declares that the work of preserving 'in a collected form the names and achievements of some of the more gifted daughters of Erin, has been the silent patriotism of my life.' Read in the context of our contemporary economic and social crises, the relevance of many of the writings collected by Pierse (including political manifestoes, crusading journalism, new educational agendas, as well as poetic and fictional reimaginings of personal and social responsibility) appears even more compelling.

From the outset, Pierse confidently announces that this is a 'purposely eclectic collection', which aims to 'gather together many significant examples, in facsimile, of the multiple forms and expressions of Irish feminisms' with the special criterion for inclusion being that a document 'has not been easily or generally available since its first publication'. Her definition of feminism is carefully positioned: that 'feminism--for proponents and critics alike--is to be interpreted in this period as the desire, on the part of men and women, for greater personal and civic freedoms for women, together with the wish that these liberties be recognised and accorded as of right'. Thus a central concern throughout the volume is to make visible the historical variations in aspiration, disparities of interest, and differences in degrees and nature of autonomy sought. The organizing principle is chronological within each volume, highlighting some marked advances 'however belated'; though, as Pierse also notes, 'to recognise the achievements is to admit the low base from which the struggle to gain women's rights began'.

The five volumes are arranged by theme: 'leading the way' which includes various key ideological assertions of feminism; 'land and labour', examining the diversity of women's work; 'Eire abu?' which traces the relationship between feminist and nationalist discourses; 'in the real world' which focuses on material conditions and lived female experience as depicted by writers; and finally 'literary approaches'. These differentiations require some time to comprehend fully but are ultimately productive, allowing creative and suggestive combinations of specific texts. For example, in Volume One, the subjects of education and suffrage yield rich historical documents such as Anne Jellicoe's Memoranda of the Principal Points in the Constitution and Management of Alexandra College Dublin for the General Education of Ladies (1867). Another notable example is Jane ('Speranza') Wilde's writings on 'the bondage of woman' in Social Studies 1893, published when she was 72 years of age, which includes a characteristic refutation of monotony 'as that which kills, not excitement' and a wistful portrait of the contemporary opportunities available to 'the American woman'. …