Book about the role of women’s words in history proving a hit

Sonja Tiernan
Sonja Tiernan
A book about historic women’s speeches by an Otago academic is proving so popular the printing presses are struggling to keep up with demand.

University of Otago Centre for Irish and Scottish Studies co-director Prof Sonja Tiernan’s latest book Irish Women’s Speeches: Voices that rocked the system has sold out and been reprinted four times since its launch in Ireland earlier this month.

Prof Tiernan said she was "thrilled" readers were responding so well to an academic, yet accessible, work on Irish women’s speeches, which were a record of women who "instead of rocking the cradle, rocked the system".

"It is not often that a history book published by an academic press can reach a popular audience as well as the scholarly community, and this is wonderful."

The book profiles 33 significant women who inspired change in Ireland and abroad, from 1881 to the present.

Among the 33 women are several Irish immigrants to New Zealand, including trade unionist and suffragist Harriet Morison.

She delivered a key speech to 1200 people at Dunedin City Hall in 1892, a year before the vote was extended to women, and helped establish Dunedin as the centre of the New Zealand suffrage movement.

Prof Tiernan said her speech remained as testimony to the impressive feminist legacy and showcased the contribution Irish emigrants made to the social and political development of New Zealand.

She said each of the speeches provided a different perspective of history when examining how, and why, Ireland had evolved over the past two centuries.

"It’s long been recognised that speeches have been a powerful source of alternative narratives in the course of modern Irish history, but a common aspect of the many previous volumes is that they rarely contain speeches by women, and therefore men are positioned as the predominant thinkers, reformers and politicians, and ultimately as the people who mattered in Irish history.

"I think many people are interested in discovering a more balanced view of Irish history.

"I think this aspect has struck a chord with people as the volume displays a different perspective of how modern Ireland has developed over the previous 140 years."

She said the women had been particularly vocal on issues relating to the Irish Land War, the struggle for independence and the plight of trade unionism, and in demands for peace.

"They often assessed these situations from a different perspective, taking into account the implications for the most vulnerable in society, as they fought against deeper injustices brought about by inequalities specific to gender."

She was now considering a "follow-on project" to this book.

"There are many speeches I could not include as this volume is a lengthy one.

"I would like to also focus on other aspects of Irish culture, especially literary women."

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