100 years of Irish Women’s Suffrage

A Book Review by Frances Devlin-Glass

Louise Ryan and Margaret Ward (eds): Irish Women and the Vote: Becoming Citizens, Irish Academic Press, Dublin, 2nd edition, 2018

ISBN: 9781788550130

RRP: €19.99

This year, 2018, marks the centenary of Irish women’s suffrage, and what a turbulent, and sometimes violent, struggle it was.

The early twentieth century in Dublin was  exciting place for young people and strong overlapping identities, as this book makes clear, emerged. It was a newly formative time for nationalists, women, socialists, and it seems suffragists. The revolutionary generation, as Roy Foster called them, were a cohort for whom the world must have seemed to be opening up. A sometimes bohemian group, they went away for camps to learn Irish and got a sex education to boot; women were for the first time going to university and in some cases choosing careers over family; even divorce was an option; and there were deep intergenerational tensions as the young moderns carved out lifestyles very different from those who not long before were resplendent in crinolines. Religion’s privileged place in the pantheon was sometimes under erasure and certainly threat. There were unprecedented fora for theatre, music, writing and influencing.

To mark the centenary of women’s winning the vote in Ireland, this book has gone into a second edition (very rare for an edition of academic essays), but its potential readership is undoubtedly wider than academe. Several essays make clear how protracted that original battle for basic rights was and  just how far, and falteringly (not for want of female desire, it has to be said), feminism has advanced in that century. For a start, when won in 1918, there was an age qualification: 30 years, and women were prepared to go to jail and on hunger strike for it.

One wonders why women’s suffrage was so different, was won so early in Australia (South Australia was the first state to grant it and to have a female elected to office in 1894, and Victoria the last in 1908), and so much less violent. There’s a comparative study to mount.

This book is a series of academic essays which are varied in subject matter and use different lenses to analyse the women’s suffrage movement: they range from overviews to individual’s  suffragist biographies (like those of the vegetarian and theosophist Margaret Cousins and the novelist Rosamond Jacob), accounts of novels and plays, to analyses of cartoons and the use of humour to deflect criticism.  Suffrage campaigns were a middle- and upper-class phenomenon, and often protestant-run, emanating at first from Quaker circles. They began in Ireland much earlier, in 1869, than in Australia (the Electoral Office gives 1884 as the starting point in Australia).  Organised by Quakers Anna and Thomas Haslam, and the petition-happy activist, Annie Robertson, they formed the National Society for Women’s Suffrage in 1869. Inspired by John Stuart Mill (Mary Shelley does not get a guernsey in this book, but perhaps should), attempts to educate girls had begun even earlier in the 1860s. A Northern Ireland Society for Women’s Suffrage was not too far behind in 1871, but it was much harder to mobilise Belfast lower-class working women for whom work conditions (in sweat-shops like the linen mills) and relative pay were more pressing issues than the vote.

The advocates for suffrage used a variety of prestigious venues to distribute their periodicals and legitimise their cause – Trinity College, Royal Dublin Society, Free Libraries and Mechanics Institutes, but even Coffee Palaces. A monster meeting at the Ancient Concert Rooms with a high-profile guest speaker in 1877 was not as successful as hoped, so smaller meetings in private homes were more the norm, though there were big meetings presided over by such as the Lord Mayor and Lord Talbot de Malahide later on.  Students debated the suffrage issue in 1904, and nuns in girls’ schools garner some credit for advances in the movement. In addition to speeches and debates, more democratic and women-inflected events like fetes where one could buy suffragist turkeys (I wonder if they sported purple, green and white ruffles on their drumsticks?), dolls and toys  were held to familiarise and naturalise the idea of suffrage. Such patient and decorous middle-class methods as were used took time to mature, but achieved results slowly. Curiously, the movement was more heterogeneous in Galway than in Dublin, successfully blending ages, classes, people with different levels of education, as one of the essayists makes clear.

One of the tricky intellectual links which suffragists challenged was the link between emancipation and immorality, and they pointed to the need for political and social reform in matters like prostitution, where women suffered stigma disproportionately to the men who used them. They interrogated the fact that Irish women did not have the right to sit on juries, or even if trained the right to practise as lawyers, until after they’d won the vote. This of course had led to failures to convict or lenient sentences for sexual crimes against women and children. Violence against property was more harshly punished than sexual crime, and suffragists bravely pointed to the prevalence of violence against women in the home as well as out of it. Their movement effectively challenge the very idea of the proper (and limited) sphere of women, and  argued for women taking on the rights and duties of  citizenship outside the home. They prosecuted the view having the vote would lead to a more just and moral society, a link that has proven more utopian than real.

We have become so inured to the idea of feminists as humourless that it is refreshing to see an essay on the uses of cartoons and comedy to deflect anti-suffrage opponents. One can but enjoy the perkiness of the middle-class woman in the cartoon used for the book’s cover – her youth, assurance, beauty, the tilt of her head, the toffy and fashionable clothes make the prominent hammer in her handbag almost an accessory. The surprise and fascination of the dumpy Mr Plod by her side completes the visual joke. The hammer brings me to the very real and shocking violence enacted by British and Irish feminists of this period: hammers, stones, bombs, arson, even a hatchet thrown at Redmond and the smashing of windows at Dublin Castle were all part of the repertoire. More shocking even is the notion that these women perfected the tactic of the hunger strike, and its concomitant, force-feeding. It would later have deadly results for a century of revolutionary men insisting on their rights as political prisoners. These middle-class women, among them Hannah Sheehy Skeffington, were treated more leniently than the men, and their protests often achieved results quickly as the propaganda value of these high profile women meant that jailers were not prepared to take risks with them. They even managed on occasion to have their children visit in the cells when small children had tantrums in more public spaces. Again, warders were unprepared to wear bad publicity. Some suffragist prisoners gained celebrity status.

I’d strongly recommend this collection of essays on the social history of suffragism in Ireland as its various lenses on the period brought the women advocates (and their male supporters) to the foreground. It also pays attention to the nuances of being suffragists in an era of revolutionary and war-torment, and shows how readily the Easter Rising and Great War could eclipse their political advances.

Frances Devlin-Glass

Frances is a member of the Tinteán collective.