The legacy of women's suffrage lives on

Maeve Riordan reflects on 2018, which marked 100 years since women in Ireland were allowed to cast their vote
The legacy of women's suffrage lives on
Countess Markievicz (Dr Jean van Sinderen-Law) in the Aula Maxima, University College Cork during a Celebration of Women’s Suffrage. Pic Michael Mac Sweeney/Provision

CASTING a vote can feel like a very small thing. The polling card arrives in the door, almost annually during the past few years, as we vote on referenda, presidential, general and local elections.

It can be easy to forget that it is only 100 years since women in Ireland had the opportunity to vote for the first time in a general election.

The right to vote was not won quickly, nor was it won easily (the first women’s suffrage organisations in Ireland had been set up back in the 1870s).

Despite other achievements won by early campaigners (such as in education, where women were permitted to sit the intermediate certificate and university examinations), there was intense opposition to women being given the right to vote. Women faced, at the very least digs and judgements, like that given out by Lady Carbery, of Castlefreke near Rosscarbery, who described an activist as ‘a bitter creature who thinks women should have votes’.

At the worst, women faced violence, arrest and even death. Imprisoned campaigners went on hunger and even thirst strike for the cause. The government began a policy of force-feeding suffrage prisoners, which involved pinning a woman down while forcibly inserting a tube down her throat or her nose and into her stomach. The ordeal could cause lasting damage.

In 1912, the Irish Parliamentary Party (Home Rule) MP, John Dillon, famously said to Hannah Sheehy-Skeffington of the Irish Women’s Franchise League:

“Women’s suffrage will, I believe, be the ruin of our Western civilisation. It will destroy the home, challenging the headship of man, laid down by God. It may come in your time — I hope not in mine.”

As it happened, women’s suffrage came in his time and while it has not brought about the ruin of Western civilisation, some argue that it brought about the ruin of his own Irish Parliamentary Party. The official party line was to oppose suffrage, as they needed support for their own cause of Home Rule, but they also failed to make a place for their female supporters at the grass roots level. In the run up to the general election this left them without willing, and cheap, volunteer labour. This failure only added to the advantage, and ultimate success, of the more radical Sinn Féin.

Even Sinn Féin, who had the support of Cumann na mBan, did not utilise fully its female support as it put only two women forward for election; one, Winifred Carney, stood in a staunchly unionist constituency in Belfast. The other, Countess Markievicz, became the first woman to be elected to Westminster, as well as the first minister of Dáil Éireann.

So what does the achievement of these women mean in 2018? It is certainly an achievement (together with the Irish Free State expansion of the franchise to all adults over the age of 21) which we as a society benefit from today. But, as is always is the case, history is written by the winners and the passing of time can mean we forget the sacrifices made by those who came before us.

Adult men and women having the right to vote is now accepted as the norm, but not all the demands of these early feminists were met or yet achieved; equal pay for equal work, for example, is still not a universal fact. Countess Markievicz was the first female minister of Dáil Éireann, but there were many other able women who were not put forward for election — the same can still be said today.

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