This section contains:
- Women’s Rights and Suffrage in Ireland
- Stories of Change from pioneering women campaigning for votes for women
Women’s Rights and Suffrage in Ireland
‘Our future is linked to where we come from’
– Siphiwe Moyo
Smashing Times are using creative processes to make visible women’s stories and the history of women’s rights in the past, and to generate a citizen’s debate on themes of gender equality and human rights and what the vote means today. The name Smashing Times comes from a direct intervention at the turn of the century in the form of disrupting social institutions as part of the suffragette movement. As part of their struggle to obtain the right to vote suffragettes went around smashing the windows of public buildings to protest at their exclusion from the power structures within those buildings and this was referred to as the ‘smashing times period of the suffragette movement’.
In Ireland men and women were active in campaigning for women’s suffrage. In the latter half of the 1800’s, Ireland which was still under British rule, there was organised feminist action on various issues related to women especially in the areas of education and the parliamentary vote. Progress was slow but eventually women gained the right to attend university, to access degrees and to attain professional positions in areas such as medicine and psychiatry. ‘The Intermediate Education Act of 1878 and the Royal University Act of 1879 provided for second- and third-level education’. In 1885 the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland admitted women students for the first time and ‘in 1896 Dr Emily Winifred Dickson was elected the first woman fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland’.
Early feminists who campaigned for votes for women through peaceful, legal means were known as suffragists and those who campaigned through more radical, militant methods in the early 20th century became known as suffragettes. The early campaign for votes for women in the latter half of the 19th century was primarily successful in relation to local government reform rather than at national level. Initially campaigns tended to focus on votes for women ‘on the same terms as men’ which meant that all women were excluded as well as most men. ‘As the property qualification was reduced by successive acts of parliament, thus extending the franchise to more categories of men, the demand for women’s suffrage correspondingly extended to more women, and, as married women gained property rights, the suffragists demanded the removal of either sex or marriage bars’.
Women and men such as Anna Haslam (1829-1922) and her husband Thomas were active campaigners for equality for women using peaceful means. Anna was a Quaker from Youghal in County Cork and together with her husband, Thomas, founded the Dublin Women’s Suffrage Association in 1876 which later became the Irish Women’s Suffrage and Local Government Association (IWSLGA). Activities included writing letters to newspapers and periodicals, holding public meetings with prominent women speakers as well as drawing room meetings to influence ‘important’ people, liaising with suffrage associations in Northern Ireland, England and internationally, sending delegates to attend meetings and rallies and lobbying Irish MP’s (members of parliament) through letter writing, delegations and petitions ‘urging them to introduce or support bills or amendments to bills to enfranchise women’.
While Anna and Thomas shared a belief in equality for women and campaigned all their lives for women’s suffrage, they were also involved in campaigns to support the poor and supported the anti-slavery campaign, prison reform and temperance. Anna was involved with Isabella Tod, a Presbyterian based in Belfast who organised the first suffrage society in the country called the North of Ireland Women’s Suffrage Committee established in 1872, four years prior to Anna and Thomas Haslam establishing the Dublin Suffrage Association in 1876.
According to an article by Caitriona Crowe in the Irish Times ‘How Irish Women Won the Right to Vote in 1918’:
‘’The efforts of these (women such as Anna Haslam and Isabella Tod) and other campaigning suffragists bore fruit in Ireland in 1896, when Irish women fulfilling certain property qualifications were allowed serve as Poor Law guardians, and in 1898 when qualified women were allowed to vote in local elections and to be elected to rural and urban district councils. By 1899, Ireland had 85 female Poor Law guardians, 31 female rural district councillors, and four female urban district councillors. The focus now shifted decisively to an achievement of the parliamentary franchise’
‘The 1898 Local Government (Ireland) Act granted rural and urban district council voting rights to women. In 1911 Irish women received the right to sit on and vote for county councils; this was four years after the right had been granted to English women’.
The years 1900 to 1918 witnessed a wide range of activities for female suffrage. And yet according to Vivien Kelly, Assistant Advisory Officer in History for the Southern Education and Library Board, Armagh, in an Article in History Ireland:
‘From the headlines for the years 1912-14 it would seem that there was only one issue in Irish politics. Home Rule and its progress or otherwise dominated all local and national papers in Ireland. A simple survey of general history books for this dramatic period would lead one to believe that the women’s movement had passed Ireland by, that there had been no Irish suffragettes. While English women were bravely dodging the ‘cat and mouse’ act and hurling objects at politicians, women in Ireland were, it seemed, fulfilling their natural roles of making tea and comforting their husbands. Women are generally invisible in the histories and textbooks of the period . . The suffrage movement in Ireland was simply, as one newspaper headline of the time put it, ‘an amusing side-show’.
At the turn of the century in Ireland, women’s participation in social and political activities was limited. Women were involved in the Gaelic League but this was not enough for those who wanted more direct action. Nationalist and women’s organisations were formed including Inghínidhe na hÉireann founded by Maud Gonne (1866-1953) in 1900 with the aims of re-establishing the independence of Ireland. Members included Countess Markievicz (1868-1927), Helena Molony (1884-1967) and Dr Kathleen Lynn (1874-1955). Other organisations set up included the Irish Women’s Franchise League founded in 1908 by Hanna Sheehy Skeffington (1877-1946) and Margaret Cousins (1878-1954); the Irish Women’s Suffrage Federation founded by Louie Bennett (1870-1956) and Helen Chenevix (1886 –1963); the Irish Women’s Reform League founded by Louie Bennett and the Irish Women Worker’s Union with Delia Larkin (1878-1949) as its first secretary, all founded in 1911.
When the Irish Citizen Army was founded in 1913 it offered equal membership and training to men and women. 1914 saw the formation of Cumann na mBan with its main aim to help fund and arm the men of the Irish Volunteers.
A key event was the founding of the militant Irish Women’s Franchise League in 1908 to fight for emancipation and a woman’s right to vote. The organisation was set up by the radical activists and feminists Hanna Sheehy Skeffington and Margaret (Greta) Cousins along with their husbands Frank Sheehy-Skeffington and James Cousins. They spent time campaigning and petitioning for a woman’s right to vote, hosting rallies and protests, and taking part in campaigns to smash windows in government buildings to protest at their exclusion from power making structures. Targeted buildings included the General Post Office (GPO), Dublin Castle (the seat of British rule in Ireland) and the Custom’s House. Many of the women including Hanna were arrested and served jail sentences for promoting women’s suffrage.
The Irish Women’s Franchise League was closely aligned to the Women’s Social and Political Union in the United Kingdom, a militant wing of the British women’s suffrage movement set up by Emmeline Pankhurst in Manchester in 1903. In England women had been granted permission to ‘vote in local elections and act on school boards since the 1980’s’ however women in England and Ireland were denied the full right to vote. The movement in England became increasing radical and militant and conducted large marches and outdoor demonstrations, interrupted political gatherings or meetings, tied themselves to public railings outside Parliament, engaged in running battles with police, smashed windows, damaged property, were imprisoned and went on hunger strike. In England:
‘Their activities included pouring acid in mailboxes, breaking windows, defacing artwork in the National Gallery and tearing up golf courses. One suffragette vandalized the prime minister’s car. In 1913, at the Epsom Derby, suffragette Emily Davison moved onto the racetrack in front of a racehorse owned by King George, paying with her life to make a statement about wealth and power…Over a thousand suffragettes were imprisoned in England between 1908 and 1914 including Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughter Christabel Pankhurst.’
However, in 1914, the Women’s Social and Political Union curtailed its activities in order to support Great Britain’s involvement in the first World War or the Great War which ran from 2014 to 2018. The war played a part in influencing the British government to eventually grant limited suffrage.
‘There was concern within government circles in the final years of the war that without electoral reform, many soldiers and sailors would return to a country they had defended but in which they did not have a vote. The corollary of this thinking was that a bill to enfranchise all men on the basis of active service must also include women who had served their country during the war’.
In February 1918 the Representation of the People Act is passed by Westminster extending the franchise to women over the age of 30 in Great Britain and Ireland, giving them the right to vote as long as they are property owners or members of the local government registrar. All men over the age of 21 get the right to vote but women are still not equal. Only women over the age of 30 who are property owners or married to property owners can vote or stand for election. 1918 also saw the Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act which made women eligible to be elected to sit and vote in the House of Commons.
In the lead up to the 1918 elections to be held in December, conscription became an issue in Ireland. Unlike Great Britain, there was no conscription in Ireland and when the Great War broke out, the leader of the Irish party, John Redmond, called on Irish men to join up and support the British Empire. His call was successful as ‘more than 200,000 Irishmen had joined up; by far the largest military engagement in Irish history’. However by 1918 there was huge anti-war sentiment in Ireland. In April 1918 the British Prime Minister Lloyd George attempted to impose conscription in Ireland. ‘Delegates from across the spectrum of Irish nationalism, at a mass meeting at the Mansion House on April 18, signed a pledge denouncing this move as ‘naked militarism’ and pledged to ‘resist conscription by the most effective means at our disposal’. The anti-conscription movement in Ireland grew, holding a national strike on April 23 which became one of the biggest strikes in Irish history and which played a key role in stopping any legislation from being passed to impose conscription. The anti-conscription movement played a significant part in fuelling support for Irish self-determination and in the 1918 elections in Ireland, the Irish Party lost out to Sinn Féin led by Arthur Griffith who were viewed as the party most likely to campaign for independence. Sinn Féin won 73 out of 105 seats in total.
The elections of 1918 brought about huge political change. ‘The Representation of the People Act almost tripled the Irish electorate from 700,000 in 1910 to 1.93 million in 1918. Women over the age of 30 and working-class men over the age of 21 were allowed to vote for the first time. The results were seismic.’ Sinn Fein party won the majority of seats in Ireland and the ‘successful Sinn Féin candidates would not be MPs (members of parliament), they would be TD’s. They asked to be elected in effect, to a parliament that did not exist: an Irish parliament they intended to establish in Dublin’. They set about creating the first Dáil in Ireland in January 1919 and Ireland would go on to experience a war of independence (1919-1921), a civil war (1921-1923) and partitioning of the country.
According to journalist Fintan O’Toole ordinary people, both women and men:
‘didn’t just vote – they changed what voting meant in Ireland. In the 26 counties at least, they collectively withdrew from the state they were in and took the great risk of imagining another. And they did it not by killing anyone but by marking a piece of paper. They voted themselves out of the condition of subjects and into a hope of citizenship’.
It is necessary to point out that within the Sinn Féin party, equality for women was still being denied. Only two women candidates were put forward by Sinn Féin for the 1918 general election, Countess Markievicz in Dublin and Winifred Carney in Belfast, the latter standing for what was regarded as an ‘unwinnable’ seat. After the election, women themselves within the party had to insist and actively campaign and put pressure on to be given some form of representation at the top layer of the party with four women eventually co-opted onto the executive.
Overall in the general elections across Great Britain and Ireland, only 17 women stood in the elections including Countess Markievicz who became the only and first woman ever elected to the British House of Commons (she stood as a Sinn Fein candidate in the St Patrick Dunns constituency) though she did not take her seat in accordance with her party’s policy of abstentionism. She was in Holloway Prison, London at the time of the election. She was involved in the first Dáil Éireann in January 1919 and was appointed Minister for Labour and became the first women in Europe to hold a cabinet position.
The new Irish free state was established in 1921 and all women over the age of 21 were given the right to vote in 1922. The full franchise was extended in England in 1928. The women’s revolution is considered one of the greatest revolutions of the twentieth century. While many factors contributed to political change in Ireland during the period 1912 to 1923, there is no doubt that many women played a significant role. 1918 was a significant year for women as it was the first time ever that certain women were permitted to vote by law and to stand for election. It was the year that saw the first woman elected to the British parliament at Westminster, Countess Markievicz, representing a constituency in Dublin. She did not take her seat due to her party’s policy of abstentionism and instead she joined the revolutionary first Dáil (independent parliament) becoming the first female TD in Ireland.
Women’s Stories from 1918 – Votes for Women
The following stories of change have been researched (click on each name to view more):
Anna Haslam née Fisher (1829-1922) was a social reformer and woman’s rights campaigner, born in Youghal County Cork to a Quaker family. Anna, and her husband Thomas, were social reformers and played a key role in the campaign for votes for women through peaceful means. Anna founded the Dublin Women’s Suffrage Association in 1876 which later became the Irish Women’s Suffrage and Local Government Association (IWSLGA).
Hanna Sheehy Skeffington (1877-1946) was a radical activist, feminist, pacifist and human rights campaigner and one of Ireland’s foremost suffragettes. Hanna was one of the original founders of the militant Irish Women’s Franchise League set up in 1908 with Margaret Cousins to fight for emancipation and a woman’s right to vote.
Margaret (Gretta) Cousins (1878-1954) was an Irish born Theosifist, radical activist and feminist and one of the founders of the militant Irish Women’s Franchise League set up in 1908 to fight for emancipation and a woman’s right to vote. She also worked and lived in India where she established the Women’s Indian Association, one of first feminist groups in that country.
Dr Eleanora Fleury (1867- 1960) a successful psychiatrist, was the first woman member of the Medico Psychological Association (MPA), now the Royal College of Psychiatrists. Fleury served as assistant medical officer in the Richmond Asylum (later called Grangegorman) and later deputy resident medical superintendent (RMS) at the satellite asylum at Portrane, County Dublin. She was a suffragette and was active in the fight for Irish freedom. She was arrested during the Irish Civil War and imprisoned in Kilmainham Gaol where she served as medical officer to the Republican prisoners using whatever sparse resources were available to her.
Eva Gore Booth (1870-1926) was a poet, playwright, trade unionist, feminist, campaigner for equality and a sister of Constance Mankiewicz.
Louie Bennett (1870-1956) was an Irish suffragette, a trade union activist and a peace activist from Dublin. She was involved with the Irish Women’s Suffrage movement. In 1911 she cofounded, with her life-long friend and colleague Helen Chenevix, the Irishwomen’s Suffrage Federation, an umbrella organisation, which by 1913 had connected 15 Irish suffrage societies and established links with Europe and the United States.
Delia Larkin (1878-1949) was a trade union activist who set up the Irish Women’s Workers Union.
Isabella Tod (1836-1896) was a suffragist and Unionist campaigner originally from Edinburgh, Scotland. She lived in South Belfast, Northern Ireland and was an active campaigner for women’s rights. She campaigned to allow women to take exams at Queen’s University Belfast, and was an active campaigner in the suffrage movement. In 1873, she formed the first Irish suffrage association called the North of Ireland Women’s Suffrage Society.
Suffragette Movement in Great Britain
Emmeline Pankhurst (1858-1928) was a British political activist and suffragette who founded the Women’s Franchise League in 1898 which fought to allow married women to vote in local elections and later the more militant Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU).
Emily Wilding Davison (1872-1913) was a suffragette who fought for votes for women in Great Britain in the early twentieth century. She studied at Royal Holloway College and Oxford University and joined the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) in 1906. She eventually campaigned full time for the movement and was frequently arrested for a range of actions including causing public disturbance, throwing stones and burning post boxes. She spent several periods in jail where she was force fed. She was a militant suffragette activist. She died on 4 June 1914 after running out in front of the king’s horse as it was taking part in the Epsom Derby as part of an action to highlight the campaign for a woman’s right to vote.