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Working in a new world: Female Irish Labor in the 1800's

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Irish female domestics posing for a photograph cira 1846

Irish female laborers, when coming to America faced a large set of challenges concerning labor, including discrimination and religious persecution. The argument we wish to present is that descrimination played a very big part in these women's ability to get jobs, but more than this, the effects this discrimination and religious persecution had on them while holding these positions, which will be addressed shortly. With the influx of Irish immigrants, Irish women would go on to hold the majority of domestic service jobs in the 1850’s up until African American woman would take most domestic servant jobs starting in the 1920’s.  Unmarried Irish women served as a crucial economic lifeline for family members who remained in Ireland, and it was common for Irish leaders in the US to discourage marriage among female immigrants, since it prevented them from earning wages outside the home. (Fitzgerald,pp. 64–7).


In the post-famine years between 1851 and 1921, 27 per cent of the approximately 4.5 million Irish immigrants who came to the US were females ages fifteen to twenty-four, the cohort most likely to enter into domestic service.  (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985). Before factory jobs were available for women, domestic service work was the only occupation readily available to women, and it held desirable qualities to Irish female laborers, at it offered high wages and sometimes room and board. The attraction of "living out" or "going into service" was appealing: Irish domestics could earn 50 percent more than saleswomen, 25 percent more than textile works; had no expenses for food, housing, shelter, heat, water, or transportation; as well as live in pleasant, middle-class neighborhoods, as opposed to the tenements occupied by factory workers. irish women faced a great deal of oppression, the exception to the general Irish antipathy to progressive movements was the Labor struggle, of which Irish women were actually leaders (Diner, 150). Historian Hasia Diner notes the apparent contradiction in so many Irish Catholic women's lives: they often migrated to America alone, were economically independent and more likely than their Protestant counterparts to delay or forego marriage, yet scorned feminism. For Irish women, ethnicity nearly always superseded gender loyalty. Opposed to a largely Protestant society, one in which Protestants were often their employers, Irish women usually clung to their ethnicity as a way to differentiate themselves from mainstream society (Diner, 139).

Back the the topic of wages, Irish women could save up to several thousand dollars as domestics, which they invariably sent home to their impoverished families (Diner, 90).  By 1855, Irish women accounted for 74 per cent of all domestic servants in New York City. Most of the money that flowed east across the Atlantic to post-Famine Ireland came, in fact, not from Irish men but from women, many of whom were still able to put enough aside to create their own dowries and establish families in the New World (Miller, 76-77). However, the success in business that these women acquired was also accompanied by mistreatment due to their religious beliefs. These women had to deal with anti-Catholic prejudice from protestant employers. The predominance of Irish women as servants coincided with the creation of an urban middle class who felt superior to the domestic employees they hired. (Salmon, pp. 54–62) It was common for middle-class women to hire Irish women as domestics, while lamenting their unsuitability for the job. 

 Mary Anne Sadlier was an Irish immigrant who in her early years worked as a domestic, and later went on to publish several books after being in the new world for six years. Sadlier began to write survival guides intended to help fellow immigrants make the transition. Mary Anne Madden Sadlier offered a critical counterpoint to our standard methods of interpreting women's literature, as well as the American Immigrant experience. She also wrote several poems, for example this elegy for her lost homeland:

"I hear thee now when time has damp'd

The hopes of earlier youth,

And cold experience shown the world/ In all its chilling truth" (Lacombe, 98). 

Sadlier also used her writing to speak out with her opinions of immigration from Ireland to Ameirca, and the unfairness she felt was present:

 "The father and mother who suffer their young daughters to come out unprotected to America in search of imaginary goods, would rather see them laid in their graves than lose sight of them, did they know the dangers which best their path in the New World"

 Through out her life, Sadlier contributed great insight into the realities of what being an Irish female laborer meant, and her guidance would result in helping many others like her through trying times of attemptiing to survive in the new world.





“David Roediger, ‘’Slaving like a Nigger’: Irish Jobs and Irish Whiteness.’” Caring Labor: An Archive. Accessed November 25, 2014.

“domestics1.jpg (333×264).” Accessed November 30, 2014.

Kerby Miller, Emigrants and Exiles: Ireland and the Irish Exodus to North America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985), p. 581

“Mary Anne Sadlier, Bessy Conway; Or, The Irish Girl in America.” Accessed November 30, 2014.

“Mary Anne Sadlier Introduction.” Biographical. Accessed November 25, 2014.

Maureen Fitzgerald, Habits of Compassion: Irish Catholic Nuns and the Origins of New York's Welfare System, 1830–1920(Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2006), pp. 64–7.

“Sadlier Biography.” Accessed November 30, 2014.

Urban, Andrew. “Irish Domestic Servants, ‘Biddy’ and Rebellion in the American Home, 1850–1900.” Gender & History 21, no. 2 (August 1, 2009): 263–86. doi:10.1111/j.1468-0424.2009.01548.x.

Working in a new world: Female Irish Labor in the 1800's