Pioneers of women’s emancipation

  • Priscilla Metscher, Pioneers of Women’s Emancipation in Ireland (Connolly Books, Dublin, 2018)

This fascinating study stands out as a commentary on Irish fighters for women’s emancipation, written from a Marxist viewpoint. The author, Priscilla Metscher, examines in turn the ideas and activities of Mary Ann McCracken, Anna Doyle Wheeler, William Thompson, and James Connolly.

The emancipative ideas of Mary Ann McCracken (1770–1866) concerning the lot of women in her day is revealed in the correspondence with her brother Henry Joy McCracken, a founder-member of the Society of United Irishmen, while he was imprisoned in Kilmainham Gaol, Dublin. The goal of the United Irishmen was a separation from England and the setting up of a republic on the French model. Women were sworn in to the society, and some actively participated in the ’98 Rising.

Mary Ann McCracken is just one example of how mainstream historiography has neglected women’s contribution in shaping the outlook of their society. It is through her that we can see that feminist ideas were gaining ground in Ireland in the late eighteenth century.

Next Priscilla Metscher turns to two outstanding figures among the early socialists of the first decades of the nineteenth century, Anna Doyle Wheeler (1785–1848) and William Thompson (1775–1833). Both came from the Irish ascendancy and also had connections with leading socialists in Britain and France. Their ideas on the emancipation of women are expressed in their jointly written Appeal of One Half the Human Race, Women, Against the Pretensions of the Other Half, Men, to Retain Them in Political and Thence in Civil and Domestic Slavery, first published in 1825. This publication went further than the writings of the English feminist Mary Wollstonecraft by creating a set of concepts regarding the mutual oppression of the sexes under social inequality. While Wollstonecraft had commented on the degradation endured by women, Wheeler makes practical proposals concerning the equal rights of all citizens.

The Irish socialist James Connolly took a firm stand on the question of equal rights for women. He saw it as one of the prerequisites of a future socialist society in Ireland: “Of what use . . . can be the re-establishment of any form of Irish state if it does not embody the emancipation of womanhood?” Where necessary Connolly took direct action. When the Belfast textile manufacturers began to speed up production, Connolly, at the request of the women workers, began to organise them in a textile branch of the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union.

Within the socialist movement in Ireland and Britain, Connolly stands out as one of the few socialist leaders of the time who insisted that the economic and political emancipation of women must be an integral part of any socialist programme. As Francis Sheehy Skeffington, editor of the suffragist newspaper Irish Citizen, stated: “Mr. James Connolly . . . is the soundest and most thorough-going feminist among all the Irish labour men.”

This study outlines the thinking and actions of each individual considered in it. Implementing their beliefs put them in the forefront of the political movements of their times. Priscilla Metscher considers these pioneers within their times, showing what they achieved, or where their thinking fell short.

In this sense they were both ahead of their times and of their times. In a recognition that these pioneers too exist in history, it becomes clear that their insight would be brought forward and built on.

This book is published by Connolly Books and is available at €7 from