Wednesday 23 October 2019

The five most famous Irish women you've never heard of (including the lady who coined the term 'birth control')

The 'most dangerous woman in America', coining the term 'birth control' and the inspiration for Wonder Woman

Mary Lee
Mary Lee
Denise Calnan

Denise Calnan

Do you think you know your history?

The 'most dangerous woman in America', coining the term 'birth control' and the inspiration for Wonder Woman - here are the five most famous Irish women you've never heard of.

'The Most Dangerous Woman in America' - Mother Jones (1837 – 1930)

'Mother Jones' was born Mary Harris Jones in Shandon, Cork in 1837. After the Famine, she emigrated as a teenager to Canada and then to America with her family. In Memphis, she married and had four children with George Jones, who was an iron worker and union supporter. She lost her husband and all four of her children as a result of yellow fever in 1867.

She moved to Chicago and set up a dressmaking business, but just four years later, it was destroyed in the 1871 Great Fire of Chicago.

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'Mother Jones'

She then got involved with the American labour movement and became a prominent campaigner, labour activist and community organiser.

Well-known for her passionate speeches and firebrand attitude, she rallied against child labour, and championed the rights of American mine workers as a campaigner for the United Mine Workers Union. She gained the moniker 'Mother Jones' due to her care for workers.

She co-ordinated major strikes, and was a founder of both the Social Democratic Party and the Industrial Workers of the World.

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'Mother Jones'

In 1902 Jones was dubbed the "most dangerous woman in America" due to her success in organised campaigns to improve working conditions for people.

She died in 1930, at the age of 93.


'A Key Woman in the Campaign for Right To Vote' - Mary Lee (1821 – 1909)

Mary Lee was born at Kilknock Estate, County Monaghan in 1821, and not much is known about her early life in Ireland.

In 1879 Lee and her daughter Evelyn left Ireland for Adelaide in Australia to care of her son, John Benjamin, who had fallen ill. He sadly died the following year but Lee remained, having become quite attached to the area.

There, she became the secretary for J. C. Kirby’s Social Purity Society, with whom she worked to bring about positive legal changes for women. One such legal change included successfully raising the legal age of consent to 16. In 1888 Lee and fellow members from the Social Purity Society founded the South Australian Women’s Suffrage League.

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Mary Lee

She delivered many moving speeches, and wrote articles and letters, on the topic of women’s suffrage. Concerned about women’s working conditions, particularly in factories and sweat shops, she promoted the formation of women’s trade unions, which led to the creation of the Working Women’s Trade Union. The group examined working conditions and distributed clothes and food to those in need during the economic depression of the 1890s.

During that time, she also organised a petition calling for women’s right to vote. The document consisted of 11,600 signatures – and was an incredible 122 metres long! The call could not be ignored, and in 1894 South Australian women became the first in Australia to receive a parliamentary vote. Additionally, they could also stand for parliament – so becoming the first place in the world where women had this right.


'The Inspiration for Wonder Woman' - Margaret Sanger (1879 – 1966)

Margaret Sanger was born in New York to Irish parents in 1879, and is best known for founding the birth control movement in the United States in the 1900s.

The term ‘birth control’ is one that she herself coined – and was a hugely controversial topic at the time. Sanger worked as an obstetric nurse on New York’s Lower East Side, a poverty-stricken immigrant area.

She noticed that there were strong correlations between poverty and child-birth – such as children that families could not afford to have as a result of uncontrolled fertility; high rates of infant and mother mortality; and serious injuries and – even death – as a result of illegal abortions gone wrong. In 1914, she wrote that "enforced motherhood is the most complete denial of a woman’s right to life and liberty."

She felt that women everywhere could be helped if they had the facts about contraception, which she made available through articles and publications such as 'What Every Girl Should Know' for the New York Call.

In 1916, she went a step further, and opened America’s first birth control clinic in Brooklyn – for which she was arrested. The clinic was closed nine days later.

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Margaret Sanger

Sanger published her own periodical – The Birth Control Review – and founded the American Birth Control League, which would later become Planned Parenthood.

However, though she contributed so much to women’s health, her legacy is undeniably complicated as a result of her vocal support for the eugenics movement.

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Margaret Sanger

Sanger was also an inspiration for Wonder Woman, a comic book character introduced by William Marston in 1941. Marston was influenced by early feminist thought while in college, and later formed a romantic relationship with Sanger's niece, Olive Byrne. According to Jill Lepore, several Wonder Woman story lines were at least in part inspired by Sanger, like the character's involvement with different labor strikes and protests.


'The Woman who was Too Independent' - Margaret ‘Gretta’ Cousins (1878 – 1954)

Margaret Cousins was born in Boyle, County Roscommon, in 1878. When she left school, her headmistress apparently warned her, saying she "should not be so independent". Needless to say, Margaret paid this no heed and her independent spirit endured.

She married James Cousins in 1903, and the two were committed to vegetarianism – with Margaret herself appointed as honorary secretary of the Irish Vegetarian Society – as well as theosophy and women’s suffrage. Although it was unusual for women at the time to continue working after marriage, Cousins continued with her job as a part-time music teacher.

Passionate about women’s rights, she joined the Irish Women’s Suffrage and the Local Government Association and, alongside Hannah Sheehy Skeffington, she founded the Irish Women’s Franchise League. She was imprisoned twice, in 1910 and 1913, for breaking the windows of government buildings.

In 1915, she and her husband moved to Madras (modern-day Chennai) in India where she became the first non-Indian member of the Indian Women’s University at Poona in 1916, and established the All India Women’s Conference in 1926. She also campaigned for compulsory education for girls, which was introduced in Madras in 1932 – largely on the back of her campaign. Also in 1932, she was imprisoned yet again – this time for her support of Gandhi’s free-speech campaign.

Cousins suffered from ill health in the 1940s, but lived to see India gain its independence in 1947, and was awarded 5,000 rupees for her contributions to the state. She is the author of three books on women’s rights in India, and died in 1954.


'The Farmer's Daughter Fighting for Women's Working Rights' - Leonora Barry (1849 – 1930)

Leonora Barry was born in Cork in 1849 to a farming couple. Her family left for America in 1852 due to the devastating effects of the Great Famine and settled in New York.

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Leonora Barry

She became a teacher at age 15, and spent several years teaching before she married. Women could not teach after marriage, and so she had to resign her post. After the death of her husband in 1881, she took up a job in a knitting factory to support her family. Her experience of the tough work combined with low wages spurred her on to become involved with labour activism.

In 1884, she joined the Knights of Labor and became Master Workman, or Chief Officer, of their Victory Assembly – a group of around 1,500 female knitwear workers. By 1885, she was overseeing 52 different groups and over 9,000 members. In 1886, she was sent as a delegate to the national convention, at which it was decided that a women’s department should be created with Barry at its head.

The next four years were devoted to travelling the country inspecting women’s working conditions, recruiting for the Knights of Labor, and public speaking.

As a direct result of her efforts, Pennsylvania passed its first Factory Inspection Act. She resigned from her post in 1890, but remained active in the suffrage movement, as well as the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and the Catholic Total Abstinence Union of America.

She died in 1930 after a battle with mouth cancer.

Thanks to EPIC The Irish Emigration Museum for their assistance with this feature

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