Women, Ideals and the Nation
March 28, 1909 — Students’ National Literary Society, 25 Rutland Square, Dublin, Ireland
I take it as a great compliment that so many of you, the rising young women of Ireland, who are distinguishing yourselves every day and coming more and more to the front, should give me this opportunity. We older people look to you with great hopes and a great confidence the in your gradual emancipation you are bringing fresh ideas, fresh energies and above all a great genius for sacrifice into the life of the nation.
In Ireland the women seem to have taken less part in public life, and to have had les share in the struggle for liberty, than in other nations . . . . Now, I am not going to discuss the subtle psychological questions of why it was that so few women in Ireland have bene prominent in the national struggle, or try to discover how they lost in the dark ages of persecution the magnificent legacy of Maeve, Fheas, Macha and their other great fighting ancestors. Sure, several women distinguished themselves on the battle fields of ’98, and we have the women of the Nation newspaper, of the Ladies’ Land League, also in our own day the few women who have worked their hardest in the Sinn Féin movement and in the Gaelic League and we have the women who won a battle for Ireland, by preventing a wobbly Corporation from present King Edward of England with a loyal address. But for the most part our women, though sincere, steadfast Nationalists at heart, have been content to remain quietly at home, and leave all the fighting and the striving to the men.
Lately things seem to be changing . . . so now again a strong tide of liberty seems to be coming towards us, swelling and growing and carrying before it all the outposts that hold women enslaved and bearing them triumphantly into the life of the nation to which they belong.
We are in a very difficult position here, as so many Unionist women would fain have us work together with them for the emancipation of their sex and votes — obviously to send a member to Westminster. But I would ask every nationalist women to pause before she joined a Suffrage Society or Franchise League that did no include in their program the Freedom of their Nation. A free Ireland with No Sex Disabilities in her Constitution should be the motto of all Nationalist Women. And a grand motto it is.
Women, from having till very recently stood so far removed from all politics, should be able to formulate a much clearer and more incisive view of the political situation than men. For a man from the time he is a mere lad is more or less in touch with politics, and has usually the label of some party attached to him, long before he properly understands what it really means.
Now, here is a chance for our women. Let the remind their men, that their first duty is to examine any legislation proposed not from a party point of view, not fro the point of view of a sex, a trade or a class, but simply and only from the standpoint of their nation. Let them learn to be statesmen and not merely politicians. Let them consider how their action with regard to it may help or hinder their national struggle for independence and nothing else, and then let them act accordingly.
Fix your mind on the ideal of Ireland free, with her women enjoying the full rights of citizenship in their own nation, and no one will be able to side-track you, and so make use of you to use up the energies of the nation in obtaining all sorts of concessions — concessions too, that for the most part were coming in the natural course of evolution, and were perhaps just hastened a few years by the fierce agitations to obtain them. . . .
If the women of Ireland would organize the movement for buying Irish goods more, they might do a great deal to help their country. If they would make it the fashion to dress in Irish clothes, feed on Irish food — in fact, in this as in everything live really Irish lives, they would be doing something great, and don’t let our clever Irish colleens rest content with doing this individually, but let them go out and speak publicly about it, form leagues, of which ‘No English goods’ is the war-cry. . . .
I daresay you will think this all very obvious and very dull, but Patriotism and Nationalism and all great things are made up of much that is obvious and dull, and much that in the beginning is small, but that will be found to lead out into fields that are broader and full of interest. You will go out into the world and get elected onto as many public bodies as possible, and by degrees through your exertions no public institution — whether hospital, workhouse, asylum or any other, and no private house — but will be supporting the industries of your country.
Tommy Moore, the popular poet of his day and also many days later, has set Ireland a very low idea of woman to worship. To him, woman is merely sex and an excuse for a drink. Not a companion or a friend, but a beautiful houri holding dominion by her careful manipulation of her sex and her good looks.
The better ideal for women who, whether they like it or not, are living in a work-a-day world, would be – If you want to walk round Ireland, or any other country, dress suitably in short skirts and strong boots, leave your jewels and gold wands in the bank, and buy a revolver. Don’t trust to your ‘feminine charm’ and your capacity for getting on the soft side of men, but take up your responsibilities and be prepared to go your own way depending for safety on your own courage, your own truth and your own common sense, and not on the problematic chivalry of the men you may meet on the way.
A consciousness of their own dignity and worth should be encouraged in women. They should be urged to get away from wrong ideals and false standards of womanhood, to escape from their domestic ruts, their feminine pens . . . We have got to get rid of the last vestige of the Harem before woman is free as our dream of the future would have her.
To sum up in a few words what I want the Young Ireland women to remember from me. Regard yourselves as Irish, believe in yourselves as Irish, as units of a nation distinct from England your Conqueror, and as determined to maintain your distinctiveness and gain your deliverance. Arm yourselves with weapons to fight your nation’s cause. Arm your souls with noble and free ideals. Arm your minds with the histories and memories of your country and her martyrs, her language and a knowledge of her arts, and her industries. And if your day the call should come for your body to arm, do not shirk that either.
May this aspiration towards life and freedom among the women of Ireland bring forth a Joan of Arc to free our nation!
Source: Women, Ideals and the Nation, A Lecture Delivered to the Students’ National Literary Society, Dublin, by Constance de Markievicz (Dublin: Inghinidhe na h-Eireann) 1909.
Also: In Their Own Voice, Women and Irish Nationalism, ed. Margaret Ward (Attic Press, 1995), pp. 30-34.