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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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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.)
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.
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.
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
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
any case Swift's satirical picture of women,
learnt the art,
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
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
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.