By Mary McFarland
Other countries sent their sons to America, Ireland sent its daughters. And, in the U.S., these women took advantage of the educational opportunities available to the them and moved from a first generation of maids and nannies to an educated force to be reckoned with.
Not surprisingly these same women developed a reputation for independence. They became education advocates, civil rights and union leaders and cultural critics. They changed the U.S.
The Catholic Church in Ireland launched an education initiative in the late 19th century expanding access to educational opportunities. The Catholic Church in American built on that teaching mission, establishing parochial schools throughout the country that educated generations of Irish Americans. In addition, Irish-Catholic sisters founded numerous schools and women’s colleges, which resulted in Irish American girls attending school at higher rates than any other group, including American-born boys, by the year 1900. Before coeducation in the 1960s opened American colleges to more women, more American women earned degrees from Catholic women’s colleges than from Protestant or nondenominational institutions. Most importantly, this effort helped with social and economic mobility for successive generations.
Their training hastened Irish American women’s introduction to professions as this second generation of Irish women entered the workforce at higher rates than any other immigrant group, becoming teachers, bookkeepers, typists, journalists, social workers, and nurses.
Public school elementary teachers were represented by a majority of Irish daughters by 1910, especially in Providence, Boston, New York, Chicago, and San Francisco. Amazingly in 1939, 70 percent of Chicago’s schoolteachers were Irish American women. Not long before, domestic work provided the first generation of Irish women’s entry point into the American economy. This second generation had had enough of servitude, moving on to independence and regular hours found in government and business.
Not surprisingly, after they landed in the workplace, Irish women demanded justice and equality, protesting obvious discrimination. This second generation of Irish women were among the first to organize and join or start labor unions. Though they were underrepresented among manufacturing workers, Irish American women were overrepresented among union leadership. Moreover, they introduced unions to service and professional fields. For example, they organized teachers unions in order to eliminate male and female pay discrepancy.
Irish American women also made their mark through literature and journalism as advanced training created a generation of literary women, many of whom became professional journalists and novelists. Their subject matter often addressed women’s social inequities. For example, crusading journalist Elizabeth Cochrane, known by the pen name Nellie Bly, revealed abuse of the mentally ill in her newspaper expose “Ten Days in a Mad House”. Kate Chopin’s classic novel The Awakening criticized the stultifying confines of traditional American womanhood and Margaret Culkin Banning (from Duluth) wrote over 400 articles for the leading women’s magazines of the day (Ladies Home Journal, Ladies Companion and Harper’s Bazaar) addressing taboo subjects like body image, alcoholism, and the difficulties of marriage. Their combined bodies of work demonstrate a commitment to fairness and social justice. Irish women in America made a difference
The documentary evidence gathered from letters and journals suggests that Irish women found the adventure of their new lives in America as compelling as the economic opportunities. Living and working in the United States offered Irish women opportunities for autonomy and the self-sufficiency they had lacked in the more patriarchal structure found in Ireland. In America they gathered together into strong organizations, formed by immigration patterns and strengthened by shared membership in the Catholic Church, unions and other networks which nurtured a culture and pride among Irish American women that continues to this day and that the U.S. is the beneficiary of.