Gender & Nationalism: What? Why? Where to Now?

This month, H-Nationalism posted a few questions: How have constructions of gender and national identity been linked? How has gender been mobilized by, for and against nationalist movements? Where does the future of research on these topics lie? These are some of my responses:

Banner of Irish nationalist women’s paper, Bean na h-Eireann

One of the most effective ways of getting at the nature of historical identities arising out of the relationship between gender and nationalism is to look at exchanges taking place between those profoundly implicated in, but formally excluded from the nationalist and nation-building processes: women activists – those who articulated and recorded their aspirations for and frustrations with ongoing nationalist movements.

Exchanges between Irish and English nationalist feminists at the turn of the twentieth century are exemplary of this. For example, in July 1912, three English militant suffragists travelled to Ireland where, in what is now a renowned display of suffragette activism, they threw a small hatchet at Herbert Asquith, visiting British prime minister, and John Redmond, leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party, who were meeting to discuss the issue of Irish Home Rule. Later, they also set fire to Dublin’s Theatre Royal where Asquith was due to speak. The women were members of the British organisation, the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), and they had not consulted Dublin-based militant suffragists, members of the Irish Women’s Franchise League (IWFL), before undertaking either action. The IWFL were militant and would normally have condoned the actions of their fellow feminist militants across the Irish Sea. However, the sheer disregard for the specific conditions of the intertwining nationalist and feminist movements in Ireland meant that they were angered rather than drawn into a feminist form of solidarity.

Different conceptualisations of the relationship between gender and nationalism stood at the centre of this dispute. Irish women in the anti-colonial nationalist campaign argued for their rights as citizens of an imagined free Irish nation by drawing on a history of an ancient Celtic brotherhood and sisterhood. As feminist nationalists, they worked to convince modern Irish men that Irish women should be equal partners in the nation-building process. However, English suffragists – those from the imperial centre – did not consider the delicate political situation in anti-colonial nationalist Ireland – one that was growing increasingly hostile and violent –when they performed militancy there. Not only did their incursions into a volatile Irish terrain cast light on the diverse relationships between different nationalisms and feminisms, they also worked to expose the powerful role that English nationalism played in suffrage politics across the United Kingdom (UK) at a time when nearly all the focus was on the disruptive influence of Irish nationalism (Crozier-De Rosa in Contemporary British History, 32/4, 2018).

Dora Meeson’s The Womens Suffrage Banner: Trust The Women. 1908

Differing conceptions of the relationship between nationalisms and feminisms were not unique to the UK, they were also apparent across the British Empire. Here, across this vast territorial entity, gendered national identities manifested themselves in relation to, among other things, historic pasts (imagined or real), regional priorities, physical and emotional environments, and the various projects of the formation of new nationalisms arising out of imperial, colonial and anti-colonial politics. For example, white Australian women, who had been granted the right to vote in a newly federated Australia almost two decades before their peers in England and Ireland, struggled to fit themselves within an imperial-centred conception of womanhood that privileged the apolitical woman over the political. Their position as voters on matters of imperial importance (for example, on matters related to World War One when women in the imperial centre could not vote on this) elicited passionate, sometimes vitriolic, response from those in the British metropole. Why should women in a faraway colony – one whose parliament, a facetious English parliamentarian claimed, voted only on matters relevant to an overgrown sheep station – decide on issues that were relevant to the running of a vast and troublesome empire? Gendered nationalism was not equal everywhere was the implication.

This issue of passion – emotion – is of pivotal concern here because one exciting new research direction for future scholarship on the relationship between gender and national identity is exploring how feminist-nationalist entanglements laid bare the emotional politics of nation and also of empire.

In my work, particularly my 2018 book, Shame and the Anti-Feminist Backlash: Britain, Ireland and Australia (Routledge), I look at how nationalist women from separate but connected national sites understood and approached emotions and emotional concepts like shame and honour in order to protect and police their communities of patriotic womanhood at a time when radical feminists were proposing drastic changes to existing concepts of gendered citizenship – through proposing the model of the voting woman.

How did concerns about shame and honour merge with gender anxieties to produce a history of national and imperial emotional politics? Well, in Britain for example, women who opposed women getting the vote often cited the danger the woman voter represented to the honour of the nation when they made their impassioned pleas to suffragists to abandon their disruptive campaign for the female franchise. The shameless public woman, rivalling her country’s manhood for political power, shamed the nation through shaming its manhood (the shame and honour of the masculinised nation and its manhood being intertwined). More than that, she threatened the integrity of the British Empire whose pride knew no boundaries.

Irish feminists confronted a different emotional terrain. The shame of the colonised man was palpable. Did she compound that shame when begging his ever-virulent oppressor, the British man, for a vote in his British Parliament – that which ruled over Ireland and to which the colonised Irish man had already practised servility? Similarly, when she picked up a gun to help him in his quest for national autonomy, did she help him or cast a light on his inadequacy? Did she bring him a shameful reminder of his inability to free and protect his womanhood – or did she free him up from the limitations of British-imposed notions of separate spheres? What about her? Did her belief in an ancient ethnic past of shared male and female warrior status enable her to prove her honour? Or, given that it was out of synch with an Anglified, modernised and therefore ‘civilised’ notion of femininity, did this claim only bring her shame too?

Whatever the national differences, other questions of emotions and ethics abounded. Could women embody national pride and honour? Was this a prerequisite for having the right to exercise the national franchise – and, in the arena of international affairs, for representing the nation on the international stage?

In the battle over national pride and honour – within nations and aspiring nations across the entire British imperial spectrum – evolving and disputed understandings of gender and national identity were laid bare. Through investigating these, historians can expose the unevenness of the emotional politics of nation and empire. Emotions are everywhere in the political and social life of the nation. How can their history be harnessed to enlighten us about the gendered life of nationalism? How can understandings of the contested and ever-changing relationship between national identity and gender cast a light on the emotional life of the nation?