A history of her story

Wed, Oct 17, 2012, 01:00

‘Every person, without distinction of sex . . . shall enjoy the privileges and be subject to the obligations of such citizenship,” reads Article 3 of the 1922 Constitution of the Irish Free State.

This came after more than 50 years campaigning to win recognition as citizens for more than half the population. The first wave of the international women’s movement began around 1840. It was not the first time women asserted that the roles allocated to them by society prevented their development as full human beings.

What was new was that in most countries in the western world groups of women organised to challenge laws, regulations and customs. The context was the economic and intellectual developments of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. With the industrial revolution and the expansion of manufacturing, commerce and finance, the middle classes grew in numbers and wealth. This had different results for women and men. Workplace and family home were increasingly separated as many middle-class families moved into the new suburbs. Middle-class women were increasingly confined to the domestic or “private” sphere, even as middle-class men were moving into political office and power.

At the same time Enlightenment thinking’s emphasis on the power of human reason encouraged ideas of democracy and the equality of all human beings. Few male thinkers extended equality to females, but some women did and used it to support claims that women were human persons with the right and duty to develop individual potential and contribute to shaping society.

Laws and customs differed from country to country but gender relationships were similar enough for activists to see themselves as part of an international movement. In Ireland women shared the same general civil and political disabilities as other women in the UK. Under the common law a married woman’s civil identity merged with that of her husband; she could not sue or be sued without his being joined in the action; he was the sole guardian of their children; her inherited or earned property came under his control to use or dispose of as he wished; if she left him his duty to support her ended.

In education, access to universities and degrees was confined to men, and thus entrance to the higher professions. Sexual double-standards pervaded laws and social attitudes. Voting in parliamentary elections, sitting in the House of Commons, and holding government office were confined to men.

Legislative change had to come from the UK parliament, so feminist co-operation was natural, and on some issues action in Ireland followed an English lead. The leading Irish activists were middle-class, unionist in politics and Protestant in religion, with Quakers particularly prominent. To many Irish nationalists feminism appeared an English import. Politically active nationalist women, Catholic and Protestant, were involved in campaigns from Catholic emancipation right through to Home Rule and the Ladies Land League.


In Ireland there was organised feminist action on four main issues: married women’s property, education, repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts and the parliamentary vote. The issues interacted. Married women’s property law restricted the autonomy of women of every social class. In conjunction with exclusion from the universities and professions it encouraged middle-class girls’ education towards accomplishments leading to advantageous marriage rather than intellectual development and economic independence.

This kind of education restricted the development of women’s potential, and would lessen their ability to use the vote to advance the common good. Feminists believed women would bring into political decision-making the values society associated with females, caring and nurturing,. The vote was itself a civil right and exercising it would further women’s self-development.

In 1875 Isabella Tod, a Presbyterian in Belfast and a leading figure in all the campaigns, summarised the feminist case. Women were “citizens of the state, inheritors with men of all the history which enobles a nation, guardians with men of all the best life of the nation; bound as much as men are bound to consider the good of the whole; and justified as much as men are justified in sharing the good of the whole”.

Actions included setting up committees and associations, educating public opinion by letters to the newspapers and drawing room and public meetings, organising petitions to parliament, lobbying MPs to introduce and support legislation that promoted women’s rights.

On the issue of married women’s property, action in Ireland was essentially part of an English-led campaign. Committees were formed in Dublin and Belfast; petitions organised and MPs lobbied. Tod, the only female witness to a select committee of the House of Commons in 1868, explained that Irish feminists’ main concern was for poorer married women who took employment to support their families. The law left their earnings completely at the mercy of their husbands. In 1870 the first of a series of acts giving married women gradually increasing degrees of control of their property was passed.

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