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Rosa Frances Emily Swiney (1847–1922) was a lady of the Anglo-Irish ascendancy, also a member of the British Raj in India, and married to a British Major-General, living in Cheltenham, a spa town renowned for its conservative views even in the 19th century. She was an early feminist.
She was born in Pune, India, in 1847, the daughter of Ensign John Biggs of H.M. 8th Regiment, later to become a Major in the 4th Royal Irish Dragoon Guards, and of Frances Charlotte Malden. Her father's family claimed descent, through the Hesketh family, from Isaac Newton. She spent most of her childhood in Ireland, returning to India apparently in early adulthood. Her first main interest was in painting. She studied under James Danby, son of Francis Danby, R.A., and specialised in pictures of Indian scenery and life, exhibiting at Simla, Madras, and Birmingham, England. She had even intended taking up painting as a profession, but in 1871 she married Major (later Major-General) John Swiney of Donegal, who was fifteen years her senior, and became a full-time wife and mother. In 1877 she returned to Britain and settled in Cheltenham, her husband finally joining her ten years later (he retired in 1890). She soon became involved in political activity, first through the Primrose League (becoming a member of its executive council, although she later left the League) and writing pamphlets on Irish Home Rule of a generally Unionist character. She retained a keen interest in Irish affairs, towards the end of her life being a strong supporter of the 1921 Treaty.
Despite her apparently conventional circumstances, she held many ideas popular with the radical progressive intelligentsia of her day, being an active member of such bodies as the Malthusian League, the Secular Education League and the Eugenic Education Society; her eugenic beliefs led her to write a series of leaflets entitled "Racial Poisons", warning of the dangers of alcohol, tobacco, syphilis, etc. However, her main political and philosophical interest was in feminism. She became involved with the Women's Emancipation Union, and in 1896 joined with Harriet McIlquham and others to form the Cheltenham Women's Suffrage Society, of which she remained the president until its merging with the local Women Citizens' Association in 1920. Despite her long connection with Cheltenham, she seems to have found campaigning hard there, and described it on her retirement from the suffrage society as "the town of no ideas"; on one occasion in 1913 she was mobbed while attempting to address a meeting on women's suffrage. Although her main official position linked her to the eventually non-militant National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies, she also joined the highly militant Women's Social and Political Union and the Women's Freedom League, and strongly defended militant action. In addition, from about 1907 she was the moving force behind the League of Isis, although she attributed its origin to Henry Ancketill of Durban, Natal. The object of the League was to promote the protection of maternity and more rational and humane sex relations generally. The League regularly met in the Eustace Miles Restaurant, London, and by 1911 it also had branches in New York, South Africa, and India.
At a time that saw a great flowering of feminist activity and theoretical writing, Swiney stood out as a highly original feminist thinker. Her writing increasingly reflected her interest in a Theosophical matriarchalism, and an evolutionary philosophy of feminism. As she put it in Woman and natural law, she believed that "[t]he first male cell, and the first male organism, was an initial failure on the part of the maternal organism to reproduce its like, and was due to a chemical deficiency in the metabolism or physique of the mother", and much of her writing was concerned to redress the malign effects of that failure. A major feature of her work which has contributed to her popularity with more recent feminists was her insistence on women's control over their own sexuality, expressed in terms similar to those of such other radical feminists as Elizabeth Clarke Wolstenholme Elmy, as for example in her insistence that the female alone should have the right to regulate sexual intercourse.
Her many feminist publications began with The plea of disfranchised women, published in 1897 under the auspices of the Women's Emancipation Union, and continued regularly thereafter, including such titles as The awakening of women, The bar of Isis, and The cosmic procession. She was a frequent contributor to periodicals. From 1902 to 1914 she wrote a regular column entitled "Women among the nations" for Jaakof Prelooker's monthly The Anglo-Russian, a paper which, as well as informing a British readership of the political situation in Russia, carried considerable information on feminist movements in Europe and America. In addition, from 1912 to 1914 she regularly wrote for The Christian Commonwealth, and at this time she also frequently contributed to the American feminist paper The Woman's Tribune. Above all, in 1913 and 1914 she wrote a series of major articles on sexuality for The Awakener, the organ of the Men's League for Women's Rights, a body campaigning against the traffic in women and for women's suffrage.
Her last major work, and the culmination of her philosophical beliefs, was The Ancient road, or the development of the soul, published in 1918; although in 1921 she had an interesting correspondence with Marie Stopes, which is held in the Wellcome Library for the History and Understanding of Medicine, in London. However, that year also saw the death of General Swiney, at the age of 86, and she herself did not long outlive him, dying of bronchial asthma on 3 May 1922, at her home, Sandford Lawn, Bath Road, Cheltenham. She was survived by four sons and a daughter, all of whom had seen distinguished service in the Great War. Her daughter, Mrs Gladys MacSwiney, was her sole legatee.
- The Ancient Road
- The Bar of Isis
- The Cosmic Procession
- Women and Natural Law
- Article in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography