Irish Women at Work is an academic book made up of research from a collection of interviews that were conducted with forty-two women about their working lives between the 1930s and 1960s in Cork, Kerry and Limerick as part of an oral history project. The authors, Elizabeth Kiely and Maire Leane are social policy lecturers in University College Cork.
With an introduction by Maria Luddy, a significant voice in Women's History Studies in Ireland, Luddy emphasises how pioneering this work is in offering insight into women's entry into the world of paid work and what it was to be a working woman, highlighting the fact that most gave up this job on marriage. The book is an opportunity for these usually marginalised women to have their stories recorded- an important issue often addressed in women's history. Describing it as a landmark study, it will enter into the world of Irish history and social sciences academia to be referenced by many a third-level student. But this fascinating book should not just be marginalised to this specialsed group as it contains a wealth of fascinating quoted stories from ordinary Irish women. The brief biographical details of the interviewees listing out the Joans and Marys reminds you that these are real lives we are about to be privy to.
The legislation and policies introduced by the new Irish state from 1921 onwards that limited women's rights, idealising their caring and homemaking roles was the staring point for the questions of how this affected the aspirations and experiences of women in relation to work.
The book has six chapters; childhood and entry into work, work in factories and services, work in offices and professions, identities as working women, family and community connections and finally an account of women's accommodation agency and resistance in their work experience. It carries some fascinating photographs including a Christmas party of telephonists circa 1940s, domestic science students with their poultry instructress circa 1950s, a civil engineering graduate in 1949 (surely unusual enough then-as now) and a trainee nurse standing outside Whipps Cross hospital in East London in the late 1940s- the destination for many of the young trainee Irish nurses.
Nursing Staff at Whipps Cross
Just less than half of the women interviewed had only been in school until fourteen, with no further education and parents played a key role in choosing their daughter occupation. Women who took factory jobs were mainly working class living in urban settings, and the service sector jobs were poorly paid. The professional women were mainly engaged in gender stereotypical jobs with nursing viewed in vocational terms. A professional role gave women the chance to exercise certain autonomy at work and gain advancement. The women were generally accepting of social and cultural norms of the home as being the place to fulfil the role of wife and mother with little regret at employment termination on marriage or pregnancy. But for some this brought physical drudgery or social isolation.
Social class was significant for the married women's experience of employment but opportunities were negotiated by women in their own individual ways.There were expectations of daughterly obedience and women had an awareness of public opinion on the various types of work undertaken. But workplace identity spilled over into their social lives bringing solidarity and identity. Most women saw themselves as compliant workers, fearing parental opinion or work reputation if involved in labour activism- less important if the job was not seen as a life long career. The motivation to organise developed more in terms in terms of the women's lives as housewives and mothers rather than workers in organisations such as the Irish Countrywomen's association and the Irish Housewives Association.
A record of oral evidence, not meant to be representative, but with potential for future research maybe into single women's work experience, this book's importance should not be underestimated. It will enter the shelves of university libraries all over the country and be added to required reading for students and any close followers of social and women's history in Ireland.
A project website was created www.ucc.ie/wisp/ohp with publications and conference papers to download so that the information is accessible not just in the book.
Published by Irish Academic Press