Divisions run deep
Northern Ireland: Ethnicity and class were just some of the pressures facing Ulster’s suffrage movement
Ulster was home to an array of suffrage organisations. The North of Ireland Women’s Suffrage Society was established by pioneering feminist Isabella Tod circa1873.
By 1914 there were 20 suffrage associations with a collective membership of 1,000, ranging from the militant Belfast-based Irish Women’s Suffrage Society (IWSS) to constitutional bodies such as the Church League for Women’s Suffrage. A branch of the Men’s Political Union was established in Belfast, the only all-male suffrage society ever operative in Ireland. Attempts were made to unify the movement. The Irish Women’s Suffrage Federation (IWSF), formed on the suggestion of Miss L A Walkington of Lisburn Suffrage Society, provided some cohesion, but, although an all-Ireland, politically neutral body, it never embraced all the groups, excluding more militant organisations from its ranks. Some organisations aligned to it also flouted its policy of neutrality. Whitehead Suffrage Society, for example, closed meetings with a rendition of the national anthem, vocally identifying with unionism.
In Ulster, as elsewhere, middle-class women formed the kernel of the suffrage movement, though considerable efforts were made to make the vote seem relevant to all classes. Addressing an open-air meeting at Belfast’s Ormeau Park in 1913, Mrs Chambers, a particularly vocal Ulster suffragist, emphasised the fallacy of denying women the vote: “The Law . . . says a woman is quite competent to perform a surgical operation, yet not tell the difference between Joe Devlin and Sir Edward Carson . . . if it were women’s work to fit the children to go into the world, it was equally important to see that the world was a fit place for their children.” Lunchtime suffrage meetings were held outside factories in Belfast and Derry and petitions were signed, but progress was limited. This prompted radical bodies such as the IWSS into militancy, which further divided the movement.
The political climate of the period was challenging for suffragists. Political parties saw women’s suffrage as a divisive issue and none would adopt the cause, and, in an Irish context, many focused solely on home rule. The IWSS remarked: “In Belfast, nothing will be entertained but home rule struggling with unionism.” Many suffragists were antagonistic towards women who worked either for or against home rule without aligning this to the suffrage cause; this stance deprived the movement of much support.
In 1913, the unionist leader, Sir Edward Carson, himself opposed to suffrage, unexpectedly announced that women’s suffrage would be granted under plans for a provisional government in Ulster.