A Brief Look into Irish American Women and Politics
Below, you’ll find an interview with author Tara McCarthy about her novel Respectability and Reform: Irish American Women’s Activism, 1880-1920. The book focuses on a handful of women and the contributions they made as leaders, organizers, and activists in the Gilded Age and Progressive Era. McCarthy is an associate professor of history at Central Michigan University, with research interests in the areas of immigration, American women, and social reform movements.
1. What inspired you to write Respectability and Reform: Irish American Women’s Activism, 1880-1920?
The project began as my dissertation at the University of Rochester. Not much research had been done on Irish American women at that point, and I wanted to focus on politically active women, which had not been done yet. I was looking for a project that could keep my interest for a long time, and I wanted to feel invested in it.
2. You mention that the Irish American nationalism embraced by these women opened doors for further activism in the community and political sphere. Why do you think this sense of nationalism was such an important catalyst, and how did their actions affect the trajectory of women’s activism in America?
I think nationalism unified people. People disagreed within the nationalist movement, of course, but so many women were also nationalists. It was something that people could agree on (at least to a degree) and both men and women were drawn to it, but it also gave women the opportunity to become leaders, organizers, public speakers, and demonstrators often for the first time.
3. Can you tell us how you narrowed down which women to discuss and which movements to focus on (Irish nationalist, labor, suffrage) when writing Respectability and Reform: Irish American Women’s Activism, 1880-1920?
I started with women who left behind letters, diaries, autobiographies, etc. There aren’t that many unfortunately, but I also read widely in the Irish American press. This helped me identify which women and organizations to focus on. I looked very generally at what kinds of groups women were joining and leading before I decided to focus on these three movements, but there was much overlap between the three in terms of people and time period so I eventually chose to organize around those three.
4. It is mentioned that many accounts of Irish American women in America focus on their roles in the home rather than in the public sphere. What do you make of this and what compelled you to do the opposite in your research?
Irish immigrant women went overwhelmingly into domestic service—they served as maids in middle-class homes. This is an important aspect of Irish American history, and this was their job. When I began this project, I wanted to focus on politics, but I did not realize that suffrage would become such a large part of the final manuscript.
5. Can you share one of the most memorable facts or anecdotes you uncovered upon doing your research on these women?
I didn’t really expect to find so many women, and it is hard to stop doing research. I wish I could find out more about them. Are there particularly exciting finds? Yes. I was pretty excited to realize that Delia Parnell was a suffragist and that New York suffragists were working for Irish votes, but I am particularly pleased with the women that I can add to the historical record—women who have not been featured in other research.
6. Knowing the state of the women’s movement today, why do you feel it is important to shed light on the stories of these Irish American women and their involvement in political activism and the public sphere?
All of my research projects focus on women and social reform in some way. I find that students are very interested in learning about women’s history. They haven’t been as exposed to it as some other topics in history. So I do hope that the topic will resonate with readers, and I also hope that the current surge in organizing (and political activism) among women will also lead to more visibility for the roles that women have played in American culture and society, past and present.
7. What was the most challenging aspect of writing this book? The most rewarding?
I think the answer is the same for both. Doing research on women is both challenging and rewarding. Sources can be hard to come by, and I knew going into this project that I had very few women to start with who were already somewhat “known” in historical works and had left sources. I love the research. I like to dig and find something new, but at the same time, there are serious limitations to what can be found on many of these women. Their life stories still have a lot of holes, so that is disappointing.
8. What do you hope readers take away from your book, Respectability and Reform: Irish American Women’s Activism, 1880-1920?
I hope they enjoy seeing the complexity or roles in American and the Irish American community at the time. Women could be active in a number of ways. Women wanted to be active. Immigrants and the daughters of immigrants played an important role, not just in the development of the Irish nationalist movement in American, but also the labor and suffrage movements as well.