Finding Women’s Voices in History

In An Expert Opinion with Dr. Leanne McCormick, we discuss the importance of women's history.

27 Mar 2024   10 min read

Finding Women’s Voices in History

Dr. Leanne McCormick is a social historian of Modern Irish History whose widely published work focuses on women’s history, the history of sexuality, and the history of medicine on the island of Ireland and the Irish diaspora.

In ‘An Expert Opinion’ Leanne talks us through her mission to give voices to many Irish women across history.

Where did your passion for women’s history begin?

As I studied History at school, for GCSE and A-Level, I noticed the lack of women’s stories, it was all very male-dominated history being covered. When I was at University, that was the first time I did a module about gender in history and suddenly this whole world opened up to me that you could study these topics.  After I finished my undergraduate degree, I went on to get my PGCE. I was teaching in a boy's school in Edinburgh when my mum cut out an ad in the paper for PhD opportunities at Ulster University.

I was interested in women and sexuality and admired the work of Maria Luddy, who looked at women in prostitution in the 19th century, and I thought I could look at the same area but in the 20th century. Thankfully, I got accepted to do a PhD, supervised by Professor Greta Jones. My PhD expanded and evolved and to look at female sexuality in Ulster from 1900 to 1945. That was how I got completely hooked on the topic.

After my PhD, I got a job as a Research Associate at the Centre for the History of Medicine in Ireland, at Ulster University, where I worked predominately on women’s health, with a focus on family planning and abortion from a historical perspective.

In 2019, I got a Lecturer job at Ulster University in Coleraine and I’ve been there ever since.

Why do you think it's important to be aware of women's history particularly?

Women make up more than half of the population globally, but yet in terms of history, particularly history that people know or are familiar with, it's very male-dominated.
I’m a social historian and my interest lies in the stories of everyday women, those women that aren’t the leaders, rulers, or members of the upper classes.

Dr. Leanne McCormick

“These are the women that we ordinarily don’t know much about, but those stories are incredibly important and tell us so much about society in the past, and how it operated.”

If we only hear or read about men’s stories then we’re only seeing a fraction of the picture, and our understanding of the past becomes completely skewed.

It's harder to find women’s voices, they’re often there in the archives in the same way that male voices are. Personal archives or records that were kept more often relate to men, you often have to think laterally about sources to find female stories, but they are there, stories about survival, female strength and capacity. These stories haven’t been treated with as much importance but are essential in explaining our societal structures and nuisances.

It is great to see though, particularly in Irish History, the increased interest and research giving voice to women’s stories.

Can you tell us about some of the women that you've been studying and how you’ve found their stories?

I have a class that I teach in 3rd year called Saints and Sinners, about women in 19th and 20th century Ireland, and one of the assessments is an oral history interview. The students have to talk to a woman of an older generation, and they often find out something interesting has happened through interviewing these women.

Dr. Leanne McCormick

“It's not that women are written out of the story, it’s that they’re often not there to begin with. Often what we’ve got written down is only part of the story.”

Oral history is important in several projects I’m working on.

Particularly now in the work of The Truth Recovery Independent Panel and my previous research into mother and baby institutions and Magdalene Laundries, oral history has been essential to uncover people’s experiences, by gathering testimonies and those stories that you cannot find in archives.

In a current project, Queer Northern Ireland, Sexuality before Liberation, it has been tricky uncovering women’s stories because, unlike male homosexuality, female homosexuality was never criminalised so there isn’t the same level of  archival material available. In these cases, you’re relying on people coming forward to tell their stories or piecing together relationships in diaries and letters to find out what was happening.

In Bad Bridget, a project that looks at criminal Irish women in North America between 1838 and 1918, many of our sources are at the point when women are interacting with have been interacting with police, courts, prisons, social workers, or similar professions. Although this gives us great material, it's still often the voice of the official filling in the form rather than the woman’s voice. Sometimes you do get little glimpses though. We’ve got some great records from women going into a Reformatory in Boston where one of the questions they’ve asked on an entry form relates to why that woman has ended up there. So, from this one question, you’ve got this lovely record of women telling their own stories for once.

Bad Bridget: Crime, mayhem and the lives of Irish emigrant women

An image from Bad Bridget

What are the important learnings you've had from studying Women's History?

My partner on Bad Bridget, Elaine Farrell, and I often say ‘Don’t do this at home’ but as we found more of these stories, you came to admire women’s capacity to survive, finding ways to survive in very difficult situations.

We have one woman, Margaret Brown, well into her 80s, known as Old Mother Hubbard because her cupboards are never bare, who has all sorts of ingenious hooks on her shopping basket and a self-styled clock with pockets for pickpocketing. Women were finding all kinds of ingenious ways to survive because they had to.

What makes Irish female immigration different from other countries, is that Irish women and girls often travelled on their own. They were expected to make it there safely, find a job, a place to stay, and send money back home, often with no support systems, and often starting in precarious circumstances. In itself, that tells us a lot about the complexity of migratory experiences, and I think it tells us a lot about people who leave a country today with nothing except the hope of making a better life.

Similarly, on The Truth Recovery Independent Panel, we hear a lot of women’s stories for survival as well. Incredibly moving stories where many have dealt with trauma, and how they have been able to address it and move past to form lives and families. There are many individuals have spoken publicly about their experiences and campaigned for change. Research then adds to these testimonies, providing context and perhaps an explanation of why these events happened. Having this fuller picture of events can impact redress today and change how people’s past experiences are acknowledged.

If you could meet any women in history, who would it be?

This is the hardest question of all!

I do have a favourite Bad Bridget. Her name is Marian Canning. She was 19 in 1891, living in New York, from rural County Leitrim, and was working as a sex worker. She was arrested for theft, and even though there was no evidence she had committed a crime she was sentenced to seven years in prison. What is really unusual is that her father writes letters, from Ireland, to the judge and the which leads to them reviewing the case and pardoning her.

We know that she goes back home, and she gets married, but I still have so many questions. Did her father really know how she was earning a living? We assume nobody back home would have known any of her story as it would have been difficult to get married if her criminal past was known. So I’d love to be able to get the real story about what happened from her.

Another woman who I’d love to know a little bit more about is a woman called Isabella Tod. She lived in Belfast in the mid to late 19th century and was involved in absolutely every cause you could think of. She never married, she lived with another woman as a companion, and I’d love to hear her thoughts and opinions. We know nothing about her personal life. Unlike most men in her situation, where diaries and records would have been preserved in archives in some way, we have no letters to get to know her more intimately.

Bad Bridget Exhibition

An image from the Bad Bridget exhibition

Finding more women's voices