Stereotypes of Female Irish Immigrants in the late 19th and Early 20th century

Stereotypes of Female Irish Immigrants in the late 19th and Early 20th century


Stereotypes of Female Irish Immigrants in the late 19th and Early 20th century

The Irish Bridget was one of the many representations of Irish immigrant women in late 19th and early 20th century American popular culture. Widely regarded as the subservient domestic maid, Irish Bridget images were attached to the majority of Irish women immigrants regardless of their social status. Such stereotypes revealed the discrimination that Irish immigrant women experienced which were further reinforced by the attitudes of normative white, middleclass gender roles often associated with Irish Americans. Irish immigrant women were typically characterized as masculine, promiscuous, untamed, domestic, and alcoholic, justifying their mistreatment and marginalization. The most frequent and dominant portrayals were the “Irish Bridget,” the single Irish Rose, the middle-to-low class working girl, and the drunk Irish woman. These typecasts, and representations influenced and biased Irish immigrant women’s participation in the work force, their sexual reputations, their social status, and overall character traits. The persistence of these stereotypes in American popular culture highlighted the ways in which representations reflected and reinforced societal perceptions of Irish American women.

The literature on the history of stereotypes of Irish American women is a recent phenomenon. These published writings turn to a variety of subfields: immigration history, women’s and gender studies, and popular culture. Historians, such as Hasia Diner and Janet Nolan, explore these portrayals and how these stereotypes shaped the experiences these women often relate to a native born, middle class audience. Other historians also look at the portrayals of Irish American women in popular culture, especially the representation of the Irish servant in early American cinema.[1] Another way the literature explores these images is through the “Stage Irishman,” due to the attention it drew from not only a large number of Irish nationalists’ groups, but the Irish population in America, in general. In particular, many Irish held a belief that “they rejected the simian Irishman as a British export to the American stage designed to batter Irish dignity and humanity.”[2] Irish immigrants were responding to the various depictions of Irish immigrant women in the late 19th and early 20th century. According to the literature, these women were either marginalized in the history of the Irish diaspora or misrepresented within American popular culture. Such examples include their participation in the work force, their promiscuity, their ethnicity, their social class, and overall characteristics.[3]

One of the most common stereotypes of Irish immigrant women was that of the Irish Bridget. In the early 19th century, millions of Irish immigrated to the United States following the Great Famine in Ireland.[4] Significantly more women immigrated than men, in hopes of joining the work force and saving money to support their families back home.[5] Since many of these Irish immigrant women remained single and uneducated, they were willing to take jobs as domestic servants.[6] Eventually, since so many Irish women took these jobs, the image of Irish immigrant woman began to be linked to domestic servitude. The participation of Irish American women in the domestic work force can be seen in the popular culture of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, specifically advertising materials for plays. One photograph titled: “Russell Brothers,” shows two, white, muscular men dressed as Irish servants preparing for their play The Irish Servant Girls.[7] The depiction of men cross-dressing as Irish immigrant maids played to the perceived “oafish and unfeminine” nature of Irish immigrant women.[8] The production of this play also caused great consternation among the Irish American populations in the United States due to the misrepresentation of Irish immigrant women. Another form of popular culture used to represent Irish women as servants are short films. The plot for the film a Servants Revenge, includes an Irish maid who is fired by her mistress and seeks revenge for the dismissive attitude from the mistress.[9] Bridget embarks on a crusade to harass and torment her mistress due to her lack of self-control over her Irish temper. This film portrays the rebellious ways female Irish servants dealt with their mistress’s misbehavior and maltreatment. Another short film titled Fickle Bridget explores different immigrant groups in New York City, and the common stereotypes associated with each.[10] In this particular short film, the Fickle Bridget is an Irish cook that must choose between the courtships of several men. Bridget quits her job as a domestic cook for a family following the mistreatment of her employers and upon discovery of a family inheritance. The film continues with the competition between three men for the hand of Bridget. Then, the film ends with the Fickle Bridget winning the masculine competition among the men. These two films portray the ways in which Irish immigrant women were depicted in early American cinema as aggressive and revengeful when participating in the labor force. A servant’s Revenge, Fickle Bridget, and the Irish Servant Girls all relate to the identity of the Irish immigrant woman remaining solely on her work as a domestic servant. The Irish Bridget was known to be the Irish servant, subservient to the upper class, white, delicate womanhood of American or immigrant women.[11]

The representations of Irish immigrant women’s sexual behaviors and virginity were often represented in American popular culture, as well. While some women were being portrayed as masculine servants, they were also victims of submission and sexual ridicule. This can be seen through various different forms of American popular culture. Alison Kibler uses the examples of various plays such as The Belle of Avenue A and McFadden’s Row of Flats, to show that “these characters were eager for romance, but undesirable in their manliness.”[12] Both of the main characters depicted Irish immigrant women as drunks, flirtatious, and nonetheless undesirable women with a less than respectable nature. Due to their supposed wild natural behavior, Irish immigrant women were not considered womanly by American standards. Overall, American women were expected to be respectable, passive, and tamed in which the representation of Irish American women were challenged.[13] Irish women were portrayed as having very loose morals and untamable sexual behavior which went against a major American social parameter at this time. However, to the Irish themselves, these representations were extremely disturbing due to the importance of the virtuous Irish women.[14] Virtue and purity, especially among women, were of major emphasis in Irish society due to the traditional social structure and the guidance of the Catholic church. While Irish immigrant women were not viewed as being desirable due their masculine nature, the object of their purity objectified these immigrant women. This can be seen through Chauncey Olcott’s sheet music called My Wild Irish Rose.[15] Olcott writes about a “beautiful and sweet” Wild Irish Rose, alluding to the Irish wild ethnic nature and the fragility and virtuous characteristic of a rose. Olcott seemingly discriminates and objectifies his “Wild Irish Rose” lover by her representation of her purity equating to her beauty. In the plays previously mentioned, Irish immigrant women were often viewed as being undesirable through their aggressive sexual advances towards men. The only portrayals available that represent Irish immigrant women as beautiful is when they are represented as a delicate rose due to their purity. This portrayal in particular represents the notions of American womanhood through the importance of fragile, passive, and pure characteristics.

A common stereotype among the Irish, both male and female, was that Irish immigrants were considered to be “working class” citizens. This plays an important part in the description of Irish American women, resulting in stereotypes of female Irish Americans in American cinema. This can be seen through various short films that depict women working in the domestic field. The reason these women took these roles was due in large part to the fact that other female immigrant groups did not wish to accept these jobs as they were considered low-class and required unmanageable hours.[16] As well, to native-born American women, domestic jobs were considered a form of slavery.[17] Another discriminatory limitation on Irish immigrant women was their “racial” social classification. Examples of this racial stereotyping are depicting in the 1871 cartoon entitled “The Effect of the Fifteenth Amendment” that illustrates an African American mother telling her children to stay out of the mud or else they will look like the Irish. This cartoon illustrates the discrimination of the Irish by other immigrant groups of their representation of being less “white” by social status measures.

While the image of the Irish Bridget has been discussed, Irish women also eagerly flocked to positions in other fields. Some Irish immigrant women participated in physical jobs alongside their male counterparts however, that was rare.[18] If Irish women were not accepting domestic jobs or jobs in Catholic churches, they were working in factories. In Lewis W. Hine’s photograph of: “Irish stogie-maker, Pittsburgh, 1909,” Hine spotlighted a woman working in a factory to sew clothes.[19] At this time, labor conditions were not safe, and factory work was considered a working-class job. From the photograph, it can be interpreted that Hine was capturing the image to convey the message that Irish immigrant women were willing to accept many different jobs in varying levels of society. Furthermore, it is evident that Hine is making a clear distinction in the photograph by labeling it as an “Irish Stogie-Maker.” Hine is reinforcing the fact that while other immigrant women were more likely at this time to be pictured with their families or in the home, Irish immigrant women were photographed predominantly in their place of occupation. The photograph of the “Irish Stogie-Maker in Pittsburgh” reveals the average experiences of Irish immigrant women in their participation in the workplace that ultimately defined them as working-class citizens. While the association of men being linked to the working-class was often seen as a positive achievement, for Irish women it was a negative connation by American standards. This is attributed to the fact that Irish immigrant women openly defied their expected female American roles as homemakers and willingly identified themselves as working women. It can be argued that due to the classifying discriminatory representations of the Irish immigrant women, many of them were restricted to certain social parameters that identified them as low-class citizens, inferior to other immigrant groups. Irish women faced these discriminations due to the fact that their female immigrant counterparts rarely entered the work force at such high numbers as the Irish. Instead, other immigrant women seemed content to work as caretakers for their own families while most Irish immigrant women remained single and, thus, not constrained by familial responsibilities.

The portrayal of Irish immigrant women in 19th and 20th century American popular culture represented the characteristics that defined and marginalized these women in American society. The dominant characteristics of these women served as a basis of understanding on how these stereotypes embedded themselves in American popular culture. Many of the plays that were previously mentioned all included an immigrant female Irish character that resembled a wild drunken woman.[20] In an example from Kibler’s book, “female drinking on stage was contentious because it led to sloppiness and promiscuity.”[21] While a lot of the stereotypes above were based on clear anti-Irish sentiments arising from the time that embellished the representations of Irish American women, this stereotype in particular tied all of these exaggerations into an underlying cause, alcoholism. The plays mentioned above like The Belle of Avenue A and McFaddens Row of Flats, represents the negative characteristics and consequences of drunk Irish women. To truly portray the Irish woman as a sloppy, openly sexual, and unchaste figure in American society, was to reduce and marginalize her as a deviant in American society. In addition, “Irish community leaders were embarrassed when Protestant reformers noted the drunkenness among Irish women, because it was a manly public display, a sign of poverty and lawlessness, as well as a fall from the virtue associated with women in Ireland.”[22] “Drunkenness” was a social behavior not common among other female immigrant groups at this time due to the fact that drinking socially in public was a male pastime.[23] Irish immigrant women take on the characteristics of being unruly and overly sexual when they participate in social leisure activities unfitting of a woman in American society at this time. American women during the late 19th and early 20th century was expected to be conservative and modest women. The fragility of American womanhood rested on a woman’s ability to maintain virtuous and passive in not only the household, but also in a public setting.[24] So, it was considered unfitting for a woman, native-born or not, to participate in social activities that went beyond their restrictions which included public drinking. As well, since most immigrant women were characteristically known to be family figures, the number of single immigrant women were not nearly as high as they were with Irish immigrant women. Thus, other immigrant women did not find the need to participate in social interactions in an alcohol inclusive setting. Thus, it is not surprising that most other Americans or immigrant groups associated Irish immigrant women with alcoholism. Historians attribute this to anti-British colonialism sentiments from the Irish at this time.[25] However, this association of Irish immigrant woman to alcoholism can largely be the result of the strict social parameters of American womanhood that mandated Irish immigrant woman as inadequate.

During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Irish Americans had different or varying ways of interpreting and reacting to the portrayals of Irish immigrant women. One major way historians have analyzed these responses was through the Irish stage riots. These riots were a response to the portrayal of both Irish American men and women in negative ways.[26] The Irish protested, verbally and physically, about these poor representations.[27] The plays in particular that received a response from Irish Americans were the Russel Brothers Irish Servant Girls and McFadden’s Row of Flats.[28]  In particular, McFadden’s Row of Flats received the brunt of resentment from the Irish immigrant community due to the poor representations of both Irish immigrant men and women. It is interesting to note that the reaction within the Irish immigrant community also revealed the gender biases within that group since arguably the reaction would not have been as forceful if the portrayal of Irish men had not been as visceral.  The play explores an election between an Irishman and German man running for alderman. While the play itself is based off of popular comics of the time, The Yellow Kid by Richard Outcault and Happy Hooligan by Frederick Opper, the play further negatively portrays Irish immigrants compared to the original comic versions.[29] Following immediate protests, the producer of the play, Gus Hill, changed one, slight physical feature of an Irishman but overall, still portrayed Irish women as an objectified, drunk, animalistic woman.[30] Irish men felt offended and outraged at the misrepresentations of Irish immigrant women.[31] As mentioned before, the ideal image of Irish women possessing their purity and virtue was of significant importance within Irish culture. This was especially true not only in America at this time but also in Ireland. During the 19th and 20th centuries, British colonization of Ireland following the Great Famine altered Irish society and traditions and Irish nationalism.[32] First, Irish society shifted back to old traditional values of female chastity and sexual control to prevent excess births and children during a time a strife and devastation.[33] Secondly, Irish nationalism spurred into stronger action as a response to the devastation Ireland faced but also as a resistance of British control and Irish subjectivity.[34] These social reforms and Irish nationalism followed the Irish immigrants to America and influenced the fit into Irish-American society. With these biased and stereotyped Irish plays, the very essence of Irish morals and Irish Nationalism is brought into question. While the responses to these stereotypes vary, overall Irish immigrants responded in various ways as a counter-resistance against oppression and discrimination from American values. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Irish immigrants experienced stereotyping in all forms of their immigrant experiences and lives, especially through the dominance of American popular culture.

Irish immigrant women faced a series of discriminatory stereotypes that marginalized them in American society. Through American popular culture during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, these stereotypes were especially prevalent in stage plays, short films, photography, comics, and music all helped in reinforcing the Irish immigrant women stereotypes of the Irish Bridget, the Irish Rose, the Working-class girl, and the Wild, Masculine Alcoholic. These stereotypes facilitated the discrimination against generations of Irish American women. The ways in which the Irish populations responded to these stereotypes resulted in a stricter marginalization of the immigrant group as a social issue. This is seen though the violence of the Irish Stage Riots and the increase in Irish Nationalism on American soil.


[1] Peter Flynn, “How Bridget…”,

[2] Alison Kibler, Censoring…, 54

[3] Diner, Erin’s Daughters…, xi.

[4] Diner, Erin’s Daughters…, 4.

[5] Diner, Erin’s Daughters… ,4.

[6] Margaret Lynch-Brennan, The Irish Bridget…, xi.

[7] Billy Rose Theatre Division, The New York Public Library. “Russell Brothers as the Irish Serving Girls.” New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1890-1910.

[8] Kibler, 53.

[9] A Servants Revenge. Produced by Lubin Manufacturing Company. Distributed by Lubin Manufacturing Company. 1909.

[10] Fickle Bridget. Produced by Solax Film Company. Distributed by Motion Picture Distributors and Sales Company. 1911.

[11] Fickle Bridget. Produced by Solax Film Company. Distributed by Motion Picture Distributors and Sales Company. 1911.

[12] Kibler, 71

[13] Janet Nolan, “Women’s place…”, 77-79.

[14] Kibler, Censoring…, 72.

[15] Music Division, the New York Public Library. “My Wild Irish Rose” New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1899.

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

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

[18] Lynch-Brennan, The Irish Bridget, 84-85.

[19] The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints, and Photographs: Photography Collection, The New York Public Library. “Irish Stogie-Maker, Pittsburgh, 1909” New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1909.

[20] Kibler, Censoring…, 71.

[21] Kibler, Censoring…, 71.

[22] Kibler, Censoring…, 72.

[23] Kibler, Censoring…, 72.

[24] Kibler, Censoring…, 72.

[25] Kibler, Censoring…, 59-75.

[26] Kibler, Censoring…, 59-63.

[27] Kibler, Censoring…, 59.

[28] Kibler, Censoring…, 51.

[29] Kibler, Censoring…, 57.

[30] Kibler, Censoring…, 57.

[31] Kibler, Censoring…, 71.

[32] Janet Nolan, “Ourselves…”, x.

[33] Janet Nolan, “Women’s place…”, 77-79.

[34] Diner,”Erin’s Daughters…”, 1-5.



Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library. “Effect of the Fifteenth Amendment.”             New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1871.

Billy Rose Theatre Division, The New York Public Library. “Russell Brothers as the Irish            Serving Girls.” New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1890-1910.

Fickle Bridget. Produced by Solax Film Company. Distributed by Motion Picture Distributors and Sales Company. 1911.

The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints, and Photographs: Photography     Collection, The New York Public Library. “Irish Stogie-Maker, Pittsburgh, 1909” New           York Public Library Digital Collections. 1909.

Music Division, the New York Public Library. “My Wild Irish Rose” New York Public Library   Digital Collections. 1899.

A Servants Revenge. Produced by Lubin Manufacturing Company. Distributed by Lubin Manufacturing Company. 1909.



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

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