Irish American Women Literature Review

Irish American Women Literature Review

Irish immigration is of major significance to United States history in the 19th century.  The years 1845-1855 was a period of massive Irish immigration into the United States, in which over a million Irish immigrated to the United States, more than half consisting of women. However, the misrepresented history omits an important group that greatly impacted both the United States and Ireland. Up until the 1980’s, Irish women were excluded from the scholarship of the Irish diaspora, until historians began to significate the experiences and the impacts that Irish-American women had on the historiography. As well, the identity of the Irish American woman and her fixed stereotypes were largely misrepresented in American cinema. If Irish American women were acknowledged or portrayed in American visual arts, it was through rigid stereotypes created by American society. The literature on late 19th and early 20th century female Irish immigration examines the common portrayals and representations of these women in the historiography of immigration history, women’s and gender studies, and American visual arts. The inclusion of Irish women into the field changes the understanding and representation of Irish immigration and its effects on late nineteenth and early twentieth century Irish and American stereotypes and portrayals in early American visual arts.

Some of the biggest contributions to the field of women’s immigration studies, women and gender studies, and Irish immigration studies are from historians, Hasia Diner, Donna Gabaccia, and Janet Nolan. Hasia Diner’s work in Erin’s Daughters in America establishes the foundation of the field of Irish-American women, which before Diner, had little scholarship or historiography.[1] Hasia Diner explores the ignored or forgotten history of female Irish immigrants in nineteenth century America. Diner’s work illustrates the social restrictions of women in Ireland, their purpose of emigrating to the United States, Irish women in the labor force, their social issues in America, and the scholarship on Irish-American women.[2] Diner’s work remains to be the most used and referenced foundational source of female Irish immigration history that historians such as Nolan and Gabaccia build and challenge their scholarship. However, a critique of the available scholarship is that a large part of the representation of Irish American women in American society was based on stereotypes. While scholars have begun to uncover the hidden history of these Irish American women, they never fully engage in these restricting stereotypes and portrayals that strongly ties into female Irish identity and representation. Women’s sense of identity was within the family and that the world outside made women vulnerable to economic exploitation and cultural alienation.[3] This leads to a common representation and portrayal as Irish women being homemakers. Since many of the women who immigrated to the United States were unmarried, they were able to enter the work field whether it be as domestic servants or as workers in the urban and industrial eras.[4] Women were facing the same economic and physical challenges as men gaining with them the masculine and butch stereotype.[5] In addition, since these women were taking jobs that other female immigrants were not, this also gave Irish women another stereotype of being wild, tame workers due to their job occupation and ethnic connection.

A few key themes found in late 19th and early 20th century literature of female Irish immigrants, is the apparent role of gender and ethnicity. The role of gender is a tremendous complication of the history of Irish immigration in that women were largely left out of the history until Hasia Diner’s Erin’s Daughters in America. In addition, the way Irish men and women were portrayed often times related to each other through the image of masculinity.[6] One way that gender can be seen is through the labor force. In America, women were able to work and earn wages, even if they were low-labor and low-paying jobs. Some Irish women participated in physical labor jobs alongside their male counterparts, however that was rare.[7] Instead, Irish women were more likely to participate in domestic based jobs such as servants, maids, nannies, etc. The reason these women took these roles was due in large part to the fact that no other female immigrant groups did not wish to accept these jobs as they were considered low-class and required unmanageable hours.[8] As well, to native-born American girls, domestic based jobs was considered a form of slavery.[9] Irish women when they immigrated to the United States, remained largely unmarried and without families which allowed for them to accept jobs that required lived-in services such as the domestic work.[10] The image and name of the “Irish Bridget” arises from the growing number of Irish women who dominated the domestic based job field.[11] This adds to the historiography in that it establishes the difference between the representations of Irish women in the work force to other female immigrant groups. However, this also establishes similarities among a few other female immigrant groups with the identity of racial discriminations. According to Branch and Wooten, native born white women, foreign-born white women, and black women were most likely to enter the domestic service field. However, unlike native born white women, Irish women and black women did not have access to much social mobility, leaving them restricted to their identity of domestic work.[12] The stereotype of the undomesticated and undisciplined nature of Irish women would corrupt the ideal, quiet passivity of American womanhood.[13] Gender and ethnicity or race is an important aspect of the historiography of Irish immigration as it explains the social parameters at which Irish immigrant women were discriminated and later misrepresented in late 19th and early 20th century visual arts.

An important theme that is missing in the dominant literature of scholars is through the creation of female Irish stereotypes in American culture. This can be seen through many different aspects of social life in early American film themes, such as the “Irish Bridget” in the work force.[14] The Irish Bridget was the symbol of the Irish domestic, servant that often came to be one of the most dominant and classifying stereotypes represented not only in American cinema, but also in American visual arts.[15] However, another important aspect is the defining discriminative parameter of social class. A common stereotype among the Irish, both male and female, was that Irish were considered working class. This plays an important part in female Irish discrimination during the 19th and 20th centuries, resulting in stereotypes of female Irish Americans in American cinema. This can be seen in Peter Flynn’s article: “How Bridget was Framed: the Irish Domestic in Early American Cinema, 1895-1917” where Irish women not only are portrayed as domestic servants, but as well as a low class, untamed, nuisance of society. As well, Andrew Urban, Hannah Branch, and Melissa Wooten all examine the prevalence of race and ethnicity in Irish American women in the domestic services. This classified Irish American women as ethnically inferior to other immigrant women at this time due to the strong connection of race with social class.[16] The representation of female Irish American’s as poor, servant girls are a common theme found among the dominant scholars of the female Irish American immigrant field. However, the inclusion of race/ethnicity and social class as prominent stereotypes by newer scholars includes more detailed understanding of portrayals of Irish women in American cinema.

The historiography provides strong evidence that women were strongly present in the history of Irish immigration. These historians assert the importance of subjective assimilation experiences and how sentimentalism impacts the historical lens of Irish-American immigrant women. This provides a valuable historiographical lens into one of the reasons why female Irish American women have distorted historical significance and representation on American society through late 19th and early 20th century visual arts. The presence and significance of Irish immigrant women can be seen through major themes of gender and social class identity in the literature of 19th and 20th century female Irish immigration, immigration history, and women’s and gender studies. While great strides have been made by historians to push for not only the inclusion of female Irish immigrants in the history of Irish immigration into the United States, but also in the accurate representation and portrayal of these women. The history and image of these Irish American women itself will remain distorted and inaccurate until the significance and accuracy of Irish women is acknowledged in American society and visual arts.




[1] Hasia, Diner, “Erin’s Daughters…” xiii

[2] Diner, xiii-xvi.

[3] Gabaccia, 64.

[4] Nolan, “Women’s Place…”,77.

[5] Nolan, “Women’s Place…”, 77.

[6] Dowd, “The Weird Tales…”,176-183

[7] Lynch-Brennan, 84-85.

[8] Janet Nolan, Servants of the Poor: Teachers and Mobility in Ireland and Irish America, 5.

[9] Hannah Branch and Melissa Wooten, “Suited for Service…”, 177.

[10] Lynch-Brennan, 93-95.

[11] Lynch-Brennan, 84-121.

[12] Branch, Wooten, 180.

[13] Diner, xiii-xvi.

[14] Lynch-Brennan, xviii.

[15] Andrew Urban, “Irish Domestic Servants…”, 263-286.

[16] Branch, Wooten, 180.



Branch, Enobong Hannah and Wooten, Melissa E. “Suited for Service: Racialized Rationalizations for the Ideal Domestic Servant from the Nineteenth to Twentieth Century.” Social Science History 36, No. 2 (2012): 169-189.


Diner, Hasia. Erin’s Daughters in America: Irish Immigrant women in the Nineteenth Century. The Johns Hopkins University Press (Baltimore), 1983.


Dowd, Christopher. “The Weird Tales, Spicy Detectives, amd startling stories of Irish-America: Irish Characters in American Pulp Magazines.” Irish Studies Review 23, No.2 (2015): 176-183.


Flynn, Peter. “How Bridget was Framed: the Irish Domestic in Early American Cinema, 1895-1917.” Cinema Journal 50. No. 2 (2011): 1-20.


Gabaccia, Donna. “Immigrant women: Nowhere at home?” Journal of American Ethnic History 10, No. 4 (1991), 61-86.


Lynch-Brennan, Margaret. The Irish Bridget: Irish Immigrant Women in Domestic Service in America 1840-1930. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2009.


Murphy, Maureen. “Bridget and Biddy: Images of the Irish Servant Girl in Puck Cartoons, 1880-1890” in New Perspectives on the Irish Diaspora. Southern Illinois University Press (Carbondale), 2000. 152-175.


Nolan, Janet. Ourselves Alone: Women’s Emigration from Ireland 1885-1920. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1989.


Nolan, Janet. Servants of the Poor: Teachers and Mobility in Ireland and Irish America. University of Notre Dame Press (Notre Dame), 2004.


Nolan, Janet. “Women’s Place in the History of the Irish Diaspora: A Snapshot.Journal of American Ethnic History 28, No. 4 (2009): 76-81.


Urban, Andrew. “Irish Domestic Servants, ‘Biddy’ and Rebellion in the American Home, 1850-  1900. Gender & History 21, No. 2 (2009): 263-287.