ireland

ELIZABETH GURLY FLYNN / Activist, president of the American Communist Party

Image Source: ThoughtCo

Image Source: ThoughtCo

Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, 1890–1964

Activist, president of American Communist Party

While Mother Jones started her activist life approaching 60 years of age, Gurley Flynn started hers as a 16-year-old schoolgirl, calling on American workers to rise in front of a red flag on a makeshift stage on a New York street corner. Quickly becoming a ‘jawsmith’ (orator) for the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), she was devoted to women, the working class, anti-racism, and anti-capitalism. Gurley Flynn was dedicated to women’s rights but saw feminism as bourgeois. She was a key figure in a generation of activists who saw class-based organization as key to the emancipation of women. She believed that women could never be free under capitalism; that only socialism could eradicate poverty and women’s economic dependence on men. She exemplifies intersectional feminism, recognising that the universal category of woman did not acknowledge the additional struggles faced by African American women, for example.

Gurley Flynn’s Irish parents were committed socialists and atheists, who imbued their children with a hatred of capitalism and empire. Annie Gurley encouraged her daughters to aspire to meaningful careers; she continued to work as a seamstress after marriage, at times supporting the household. While Gurley Flynn married at nineteen and had a son, this never defined her and she was determined to be financially self-sufficient (except during her ten-year relationship with the physician, Dr Marie Equi, when she rarely left their Portland home).

As a single parent, with the support of her mother and sister, she maintained her political commitments and gruelling schedule of US-wide public talks. When she started her career with the IWW (or ‘Wobblies’), workplace disputes commonly involved violence, long-drawn-out strikes, and lockouts. She was a brilliant strategist who pioneered new tactics, such as getting workers to sit idle at their machines, which eliminated ‘scab’ labour and prevented lockouts.

By 1910, she was the leading woman in the IWW. She also began to publicly advocate for women’s access to birth control, when it was still illegal to advertise such products in the press. In 1936, after a ten-year hiatus in Portland, Gurley Flynn returned to New York and joined the Communist Party, rising rapidly through its ranks. During the Cold War, communists were harassed and imprisoned as ‘un-American’. Gurley Flynn was one of over 100 communists imprisoned for their views in the 1950s, spending 28 months in the maximum-security wing of Alderson Female Penitentiary, West Virginia, in 1955–7. She had been in a similar position in 1917, when she and other members of the IWW were charged with ‘seditious conspiracy’, a charge next to treason.

American anti-communism only made Gurley Flynn more resolute in her commitment to freedom of speech and political association. She supported deportees who, under the 1918 Immigration Act, were summarily expelled as ‘alien anarchists’ without warning, and without their families. World War II gave American communists a brief reprieve, thanks to the alliance between the USA and the USSR. Gurley Flynn used this time to build a national platform and a wide support base, and to pursue feminist goals.

Her aims as director of the Women’s Commission of the Communist Party included the representation of women at all levels within the Party ‘against all concepts of male superiority’, and the full enfranchisement of African Americans and poorer women. Fascism, as she saw it, placed women in a subordinate position, so she framed gender equality as anti-fascist against the backdrop of millions of ‘Rosie the Riveters’ filling vacant jobs in factories. By 1943, 50% of the Party’s membership was female.

In 1961, she became the first woman elected head of the American Communist Party. She died on her second visit to Moscow in 1964. Lauded as a heroine in the USSR, she was given a full state funeral and Nina Khrushcheva was one of her pallbearers. Half of her ashes were buried by the Kremlin walls; the other half were conveyed to Chicago. Perhaps too-willing to believe that the ideals to which she had committed her life had been realised in the USSR, she never questioned Soviet propaganda about the quality of women’s lives under communism.

Sources: Lara Vapnek, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn: Modern American Revolutionary (Westview Press, 2015); Obituary, New York Times, 6 Sept. 1964.

Research by Dr Angela Byrne, DFAT Historian-in-Residence at EPIC The Irish Emigration Museum. Featured in the exhibition 'Blazing a Trail: Lives and Legacies of Irish Diaspora Women', a collaboration between Herstory, EPIC The Irish Emigration Museum and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

FANNY ISABEL PARNELL / Poet, Irish nationalist

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Fanny Isabel Parnell, 1848–1882

Poet, Irish nationalist

Fanny’s memory–and that of her sister, Anna – has been overshadowed by brother Charles, but she was a trailblazer in her own right. Her poetry was celebrated by Irish nationalists and her activism helped to bring many Irish and Irish-American women into politics. However, the Catholic archbishop of Dublin castigated the Ladies’ Land League for inducing women to ‘forget the modesty of their sex and the high dignity of their woman hood.’ More generally, Irish nationalist men did not concern themselves with women’s rights.

Fanny was born in a country suffering the ravages of famine, disease and emigration – events that would shape her early Fenianism. The eleven Parnell children were educated at home by private governesses and masters until their father’s death in 1859. In 1865, aged 17, Fanny accompanied her American mother, Delia, to Paris, where they lived with her uncle until 1874. His death prompted Fanny, Anna and Delia to move to the Stewart family estate in New Jersey. Their dependence on extended family support is a stark reminder that even elite women were denied independent incomes.

Fanny, Charles and Anna held ardent nationalist views, developed through independent reading and personal experience. In 1864, Fanny’s nationalist poetry first appeared, under the pen-name Aleria, in the Fenian newspaper, the Irish People; within six months, twelve more of her poems were published. While living in Paris, Fanny published scathing descriptions of elite social life in the American Register. She and Delia also volunteered with the American Ambulance during the Franco-Prussian War. This voluntary service probably prepared her for her later work on behalf of the Irish poor.

In America, Fanny gave full vent to her commitment to Irish nationalism and social justice, at first by volunteering 10 hours per day in the New York headquarters of the Irish Famine Relief Fund; 1879 saw the fourth successive failure of the potato crop. The Ladies’ Land League (LLL) was formed as an offshoot of Michael Davitt’s Land League, which was founded in 1879 with the aim of reforming landholding in Ireland, but the League’s male leadership were disabled by imprisonment. It was thought that a Ladies’ Land League would be immune from prosecution. The LLL was established in New York on 15 October 1880, with Fanny, Delia and Anna at the helm. Branches quickly sprang up all over the USA and Canada, and Fanny undertook an exhausting lecture tour, raising thousands of dollars for famine relief.

In January 1881, the Irish LLL was established under Anna’s leadership, giving Irish women their first opportunity to participate in a political movement. It was a massive undertaking, and members endured police harassment. Fanny promoted awareness of the plight of the Irish poor through her writing. Her pamphlet The Hovels of Ireland (1880) went through several editions, with profits going to famine relief. Her poetry, published in newspapers in Ireland, Britain and the USA, harnessed powerful, emotive language and was criticised as ‘unfeminine’. Her best-known poem, ‘Hold the Harvest’ was hailed by Michael Davitt as ‘the Marseillaise of the Irish peasant’, and made her the heroine of the Land League movement.

Despite her early Fenianism, by 1879 Fanny advocated peaceful resistance. ‘Hold the Harvest’ appealed to the Irish poor: ‘Hold your peace and hold your hands–not a finger on them lay, boys! / Let the pike and rifle stand–we have found a better way, boys.’

Fanny died, suddenly and prematurely, in her thirty-third year. Her funeral procession was witnessed by thousands, and her grave in Mount Auburn cemetery, Massachusetts, was a pilgrimage site for many years. Sadly, the devotion she and Anna showed to the cause of social justice was still not enough to make Irish men see women as political equals.

Sources:Jane McL. Côté,Fanny and Anna Parnell(Macmillan, 1991);Oxford Dictionary of National Biographyonlineedition; Margaret Ward,Unmanageable Revolutionaries([1989] Pluto Press, 1995).

Research by Dr Angela Byrne, DFAT Historian-in-Residence at EPIC The Irish Emigration Museum. Featured in the exhibition 'Blazing a Trail: Lives and Legacies of Irish Diaspora Women', a collaboration between Herstory, EPIC The Irish Emigration Museum and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

LOLA RIDGE / Modernist poet, anarchist, labour activist

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Lola Ridge, 1873–1941

Modernist poet, anarchist, labour activist

Rose Emily Ridge was born in Dolphin’s Barn, Dublin in 1873. Her medical student father died when she was three, so her mother emigrated to Australia, before moving on to New Zealand. Her mother remarried in 1880 to a Scottish miner and the family lived in a three-roomed shack on the Hokitikagold fields, among Maori and European and Chinese immigrants.

At 22, Ridge married a gold-mine manager in Kanieri, Hokitika. Their first son, born in 1896, died of bronchitis in infancy; their second, Keith, was born in 1900. In 1901 and 1902, under the name ‘Lola’, she published her first poems, ‘A Deserted Diggings, Maoriland’ and ‘Driving the Cattle Home’ in Bulletin and Otago Witness. This was a crossroads moment, when she decided to break with social convention to become an artist.

In 1903, she left her husband and took her son to her mother in Sydney, where she studied art at the Académie Julienne and wrote her first book, Verses. In 1907, her mother and stepfather both died, and she left for San Francisco. Her biographer, Daniel Tobin, understands her many migrations–from Ireland to Australia, to New Zealand, to Australia, to San Francisco, to New York City–as the means by which she reinvented herself. Before leaving San Francisco for New York in 1908, she left her son in an orphanage.

The move to New York saw the birth of Lola Ridge, modernist poet, utopian anarchist and labour activist, claiming to be ten years younger than she was. To support herself, she worked as an illustrator, factory worker, poet, and model. Her first book of American poems,The Ghetto and Other Poems, was published in 1918, and in the following year she gave a series of lectures around the Mid-West on‘Women and the Creative Will’. Throughout the 1920s, she published radical poetry in support of communism and the Soviet Union, including the poem ‘Bolshiviki’ in The New York Post Literary Review (1922), and the book Red Flag (1927). She followed her own maxim: ‘Write anything that burns you.’

Her reputation as a poet developed, and she was twice awarded the Shelley Memorial Award for Poetry (1935, 1936) and was awarded a Guggenheim Poetry Fellowship (1935). In 1927, she was arrested in Boston for protesting the execution of two anarchists. She was devoted to radical politics, and dedicated one of her poems to the Irish labour leader, James Larkin. She published five books of poems that, as a whole, deal with representing the harsh realities of life on the New Zealand goldfields and in the immigrant neighbourhoods of New York’s Lower East Side, while also attempting to reconcile her own radical politics and spirituality. This reflects her own life story, her political radicalism, and the ethereal image she shaped for herself.

A well-recognised feminist poet and modernist in her own lifetime, she has since been largely forgotten, possibly in part due to the inhospitality of mid-twentieth century America towards socialists and communists. Despite this neglect, she remains significant for the courage with which she addressed social issues in her writing and for her pivotal position among the modernist and women writers of twentieth-century America.

Sources:To the Many: Collected Early Works by Lola Ridge,ed.Daniel Tobin (Little Island Press, 2018);Light in Hand:Selected Early Poems of Lola Ridge,ed.Daniel Tobin (Quale Press, 2007); Terese Svoboda, Anything that Burns You:The Dialect of Modernism (Scheffer Press, 2016).

Research by Dr Angela Byrne, DFAT Historian-in-Residence at EPIC The Irish Emigration Museum. Featured in the exhibition 'Blazing a Trail: Lives and Legacies of Irish Diaspora Women', a collaboration between Herstory, EPIC The Irish Emigration Museum and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

ALEEN ISABEL CUST / First woman veterinary surgeon in Britain & Ireland

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Aleen Isabel Cust, 1868–1937

First woman veterinary surgeon in Britain and Ireland

Aleen Cust was the daughter of a baronet, but a life of ease was not for her. When her father died in 1878, her new guardians–also aristocrats–encouraged her independent streak, and supported her decision to become a veterinary surgeon, despite her mother’s disapproval.

In 1894, enabled by a modest private income, she enrolled in the New Veterinary College, Edinburgh aged 26. She was an excellent student, coming top of her class in her first year. She completed her training in 1900, but was barred by gender from using the title ‘veterinary surgeon’. The Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons (RCVS) maintained that in their regulations, the word ‘student’ implied male student. She had excellent references, however, and was offered a position as assistant to William Byrne’s veterinary practice in Athleague, Co. Roscommon.

As Byrne’s assistant, Cust gained the respect of the people of Roscommon and east Galway. In 1905,when a vacancy arose for the position of veterinary inspector for Mountbellew District, she was elected by 14 council votes to 10, against two male candidates. Her appointment was contested by the Department of Agriculture on the basis that a woman could not be a member of the RCVS and therefore, she did not meet the requirements of the position. Galway County Council argued that no other trained and experienced veterinarian lived in the region, and in June 1906, her appointment was finally sanctioned by the Department.

Cust was hardworking and determined, but still needed the support of male allies who fought on her behalf. On the evening of her selection, Councillor J.C. McDonnell said, in response to the question of her qualifications, that the RCVS ‘would have to change their opinion and adopt later day ideas (hear hear).’ Despite these noble sentiments on the injustice of Cust’s disbarment from the RCVS, the irony went unremarked that they were 24 men voting on the professional fate of a woman. Not everyone agreed on ‘later day ideas’. The Western News editorialised: ‘The county council have made an appointment in the horse and brute kingdom which appears to us at least disgusting, if not absolutely indecent ... We can understand women educating themselves to tend women–but horses! Heavens!’

William Byrne died in 1910, and Cust took over his practice. In 1915, she took a leave of absence from her Galway County Council and drove her own car to Abbeville, France, to volunteer as veterinary to the tens of thousands of horses on the Western Front. The passage of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act in 1919 forbade the exclusion of women from professions, and meant that the RCVS were now obliged to consider Cust’s membership. She was finally awarded her diploma in December 1922. From the 1920s, Cust found the Irish Free State no longer congenial, stating: ‘things became so unsettled that I had to leave. When one has the house raided and half a dozen revolvers are pointed at one’s head, it seems time to come home. But they were rather polite.’ She retired to the New Forest, England, where she devoted herself to breeding spaniels, but continued to attend Veterinary Medical Society meetings.

She died on 29 January 1937 while visiting friends in Jamaica, and was buried there. She left a fortune of almost £30,000, from which £5,000 was endowed for a scholarship in veterinary research (with a preference for female candidates), and £100 for a kennel at the RCVS in memory of her spaniels. An obituary published in The Times stated that Cust was ‘as much a pioneer in her particular sphere as, for example, Mrs Pankhurst, of women’s suffrage fame, was in hers, and the opposition encountered was as great in the one as it was in the other.’

Sources:Oxford Dictionary of National Biography online edition; Belfast News-Letter, 3 Feb. 1937;Western People, 23 June 1906;Western News, 4 Nov. 1905;Irish Times, 5 Feb. 2018;Skibbereen Eagle, 27 Feb. 1915;Freeman’s Journal, 22 Dec. 1922;The Times, 8 Feb. 1937;will of Aleen Cust, quoted in Irish Examiner, 19 Apr. 1937.

Research by Dr Angela Byrne, DFAT Historian-in-Residence at EPIC The Irish Emigration Museum. Featured in the exhibition 'Blazing a Trail: Lives and Legacies of Irish Diaspora Women', a collaboration between Herstory, EPIC The Irish Emigration Museum and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.