The Mothers’ Union and Four Nations History: cross border female activism in the mid-twentieth century

The Mothers’ Union and Four Nations History: cross border female activism in the mid-twentieth century

This week, Dr Caitríona Beaumont (London South Bank University) examines the activism of the Mothers’ Union in Ireland and Britain through a four nations lens. 

Hearing Dr Ian d’Alton’s paperA fifth nation? The parallel “Protestant Free State” in independent Ireland’, presented at the Four Nations History Conference 2015 reminded me of the role of the Mothers’ Union (MU) in the Irish women’s movement of the 1930s and 1940s. This in turn made me consider the links this history has with the four nations approach. At a time in Irish history when southern Protestants were outnumbered by a 93.4 per cent Catholic majority, Dr d’Alton characterised the Protestant experience in the Irish Free State as one of ‘obedience, acceptance and participation’.[1] There is no doubt that the MU in Ireland generally adhered to these key principles. However the evidence would suggest that when it came to the question of the welfare of women and girls, the MU spoke out to ensure that the well-being and status of Irishwomen, both Protestant and Catholic, was safeguarded.

The MU, an organisation for Anglican wives and mothers, was first established in Winchester in 1876.  By the early 1900s the Union had set up branches in English, Welsh, Scottish and Irish dioceses. The first branch in Ireland opened in 1887 in Dublin and in keeping with the structure of the Church of Ireland the MU’s work encompassed the whole island of Ireland, even after partition in 1922.[2] The key objectives of the MU were to uphold the sanctity of marriage, to ensure that parents were aware of the responsibility they had in raising future generations and to ‘organise in every place a band of mothers who will unite in prayer’.[3] By 1930 half a million women had joined the MU making it one of the largest organisations for women in Britain during the inter-war years. In 1954 the membership of the MU in England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland numbered 481,623.[4]

In the two decades following Irish independence in 1922 the position of women in the newly formed Irish Free State became increasingly compromised.[5] In response to this attempt to undermine the citizenship status of women a number of women’s groups came together to campaign against measures regarded as limiting the rights of women and girls. The Joint Committee of Women’s Societies and Social Workers (JCWSSW) was one such group. Established in 1935, with the MU as a founding member, this new organisation campaigned against a number of clauses in the 1934 Criminal Law (Amendment) Bill. Of particular concern was the proposal to increase the penalties for women convicted of solicitation from a fine to six months’ imprisonment.[6]

The JCWSSW objected, stating that the extended prison term was too severe for the women involved. It was also argued that the penalties for solicitation should be the same for both the men and women involved and that it was unfair that men were rarely charged with any offence.[7] It is significant that the view expressed in Ireland in the 1930s that men should be criminalised for paying for sex was echoed by the MU in Britain in the 1950s. In response to a moral panic about street prostitution, the MU launched a major campaign demanding that an ‘equal moral standard’ be enforced in law when it came to the treatment of female prostitutes within the criminal justice system.[8]

A second campaign actively supported by the MU in the four nations during the mid-twentieth century was the appointment of women to the police forces of England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland. Voluntary female police patrols in the UK were established by women’s organisations during the First World War and in 1918 the Metropolitan Police sanctioned the first women’s police force for London.[9] In spite of this major development, the appointment of women to police forces throughout the UK proved unpopular amongst local chief constables. As a result leading women’s organisations, including the MU, began a campaign to have such appointments made compulsory by order of the Home Secretary. This objective was finally achieved in 1944 but progress remained slow with just over 3,000 policewomen serving in England and Wales by 1963.[10]

In the Irish Free State the JCWSSW led the campaign for the appointment of women to the Irish police force. Throughout the 1930s the Committee, with the support of the MU, lobbied the government to establish a force of trained policewomen with powers of arrest and the same rights to remuneration as their male colleagues. Such demands were however dismissed time and again by the government on the grounds of cost and a lack of demand amongst the general population for women police.[11] As a result it wasn’t until 1959 that trained policewomen were finally appointed to the Garda Síochána.[12]

So how does the history of the MU in Great Britain and Ireland impact on understandings of four nations history? Firstly, the ability of an Anglican organisation to work effectively with Catholic women’s groups in the newly independent Ireland suggests that relations between Irish Catholics and southern Protestants were more dynamic than has previously been assumed. Secondly, the fact that the MU was able to maintain an ‘all-Ireland’ presence in the wake of partition implies that despite religious differences campaigning for gender equality could provide a common cause within the four nations. Finally, exploring the nature of female activism across the four nations demonstrates that a vibrant women’s movement remained active in Britain and Ireland throughout the mid-twentieth century.

[[1]] Ian d’Alton, ‘A fifth nation? The ‘parallel “Protestant Free State” in independent Ireland’ presented at the Four Nations History Conference, KCL 20 February 2015.

[[2]] For a history of the Mothers’ Union see Cordelia Moyse, A History of the Mothers’ Union: Women, Anglicanism and Globalisation, 1876-2008 (Woodbridge: The Boydell Press: 2009).

[[3]] The Mothers’ Union Journal, January 1926, p. 1.

[[4]] Caitríona Beaumont, Housewives and Citizens: Domesticity and the Women’s Movement in England, 1928-64 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2013), p. 190.

[[5]] During the 1920s and 1930s a number of legislative Acts were introduced which limited the role of women in public life, for example the right of women to sit on juries, the right of women to work in industries of their choosing and the introduction of a public service marriage bar from 1932. See Maryann Valiulis, ‘Power, gender, and identity in the Irish Free State’, in Journal for Women’s History (Winter/Spring 1995), Vol. 6, No. 4 & Vol. 7, No. 1, pp. 117-136.

[[6]] Caitríona Beaumont, ‘Women and the Politics of Equality: The Irish Women’s Movement, 1930-1943’, in Maryann Valiulis & Mary O’Dowd (eds), Women and Irish History: Essays in Honour of Margaret MacCurtain (Dublin: Wolfhound Press, 1997), p. 178.

[[7]] Ibid.

[[8]] Caitríona Beaumont, ‘Women of the Shadows’: voluntary women’s groups and the campaign to reform the law with regard to prostitution in the 1950s’ Social History Society Annual Conference University of Leeds, 27 March 2013.

[[9]] Beaumont, Housewives and Citizens, pp. 153-158 & Louise Jackson, Women Police: Gender, Welfare and Surveillance in the Twentieth Century (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2006).

[[10]] Beaumont, Housewives and Citizens, p. 157.

[[11]] Beaumont, ‘Women and the Politics of Equality’, p. 180.

[[12]] John Johnston-Kehoe, ‘Whenever A Woman Was Needed’: Garda Women Assistants in 1950s Dublin’, in Jennifer Redmond, Sonja Tiernan, Sandra McAvoy & Mary McAuliffe (eds), Sexual Politics in Modern Ireland (Sallins: Irish Academic Press, 2015).

Dr Caitríona Beaumont is Principal Lecturer in Social History at London South Bank University. She is the author of Housewives and Citizens: Domesticity and the Women’s Movement in England, 1928-64 published by Manchester University Press in 2013. You can find out more about her work on her page  or follow her on twitter @caitbeaumont


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