A history of her story

Wed, Oct 17, 2012, 01:00

The Contagious Diseases Acts were passed in the 1860s to protect the sexual health of the army and navy. In designated areas – in Ireland the Curragh, Cork, and Queenstown – a woman suspected of being a prostitute could be sent for compulsory medical examination and, if suffering from venereal disease, for compulsory treatment, before returning to work. Feminists opposed the double standards that targeted the women but not the men. Here too action in Ireland was part of an English-led campaign. The issue was challenging as respectable women were not supposed to know much about sex or prostitution, still less make public speeches about them. But they did and eventually the acts were repealed in 1886.

Action regarding education and the vote developed in the context of political developments in Ireland. High schools and colleges for girls and women to provide higher standards and better teachers were established. These included the Ladies Collegiate School, later Victoria College, in Belfast in 1859, and Alexandra College in Dublin in 1866.

Irish feminists made major breakthroughs by successful lobbying to have the provisions of the 1878 Intermediate Education Act and the 1879 University Act extended to girls and women. The first opened the Intermediate Education Board’s public examinations to girls’ schools as well as boys’, encouraging higher standards and a wider range of subjects. The second gave women access to degrees in the new Royal University, an examining and degree-awarding body that did not require attendance at specified institutions. By 1908 courses and degrees in all Irish universities were open to women.

Action on the parliamentary vote began in the 1860s. Isabella Tod founded the North of Ireland Women’s Suffrage Society in 1872-3, and Anna and Thomas Haslam the Dublin Women’s Suffrage Association (DWSA) in 1876.

Suffragists aimed at having amendments added to legislation extending the vote to widening categories of men, or at legislation solely for women’s suffrage. In 1896, in the area of local government, Irish women won eligibility for election as Poor Law Guardians, and under the 1898 Local Government Act they gained the vote for all the new councils and eligibility for election to all except county and borough councils. To build on these achievements the DWSA changed its name to The Irish Women’s Suffrage and Local Government Association (IWSLGA). The parliamentary vote remained elusive, and became the central feminist campaign in the early 20th century.


By this time the international suffrage movement was growing and becoming more assertive. Some suffragists, frustrated by the failure of constitutional methods, turned to civil disobedience, and some finally to physical violence. “Suffragettes” was the name given to the militants.

In Ireland more nationalist and Catholic women became active feminists. They were themselves increasingly active in the political and cultural revival, and had benefited from the pioneers’ achievements. As Home Rule became a likely eventuality, suffrage interacted with the growing tension between nationalism and unionism. Some suffragists were unionist in sympathy and some nationalist. New organisations appeared, most strictly constitutional in method. Nationalist feminists faced the question: “Nation first or suffrage first.” Should they campaign for UK suffrage legislation or put suffrage on hold until Home Rule was achieved, relying on Irish men to then give women the vote?

The largest groups included the long-established IWSLGA, non-party and constitutional, and the Irish Women’s Franchise League (IWFL), founded in 1908 by Hanna Sheehy Skeffington and Margaret Cousins, nationalist in sympathy and prepared to be militant. Its newspaper The Irish Citizen (1912-20) became a forum for feminist thinking. Its motto echoed the aims expressed by Isabella Tod 40 years earlier: “For men and women equally the rights of citizenship; from men and women equally the duties of citizenship.”

In its pages the same holistic view of feminist aims continued; personal development linked to the belief that women would use the vote to help create a fairer, more caring society, and a general opposition to war as a solution to disputes. A strong pacifist strand included opposition to any use of physical force, and opposition with exceptions in the case of a just war or a just rebellion.

When the Home Rule Bill was introduced in parliament in 1912 both nationalist and unionist suffragists wanted any future Irish parliament to include votes for women. The Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP) was lobbied to introduce a suffrage amendment to the bill. Individual members of the IPP had generally supported women’s rights, but now John Redmond, afraid of jeopardising Home Rule, and himself anti-suffrage, refused and also prevented IPP support for a limited suffrage bill. The IWFL responded by breaking windows in Government Buildings.

Suffragette militancy in Ulster reached higher levels of violence during 1913 and 1914. In the north most suffragists supported unionist opposition to any imposition of Home Rule on Ulster. Angered by Redmond, they were further enraged when Sir Edward Carson reneged on an undertaking to include women’s suffrage in a provisional Ulster Unionist government.

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