Opponents of the cause

Wed, Oct 17, 2012, 01:00

She wrote of the “degenerate days of militant suffragettism and similar foolishness if not actual wickedness”. The harshness of political life was not compatible with the essentialist meekness, humility and self-sacrifice accorded to women under the ideology of separate spheres. A “true mother”, O’Mahony wrote, “has no thought of self”. For anti-suffragists, involvement in political life would tarnish women and consequently threaten the ordering of a stable society.

In Ireland, as elsewhere, there was a strong ecclesiastical voice in opposition to women’s suffrage. The churches, Catholic and Protestant, supported the image of the morally and spiritually superior woman located within the home but bound by patriarchal authority.

The common law concept that a married woman’s legal existence merged into that of her husband was being steadily dismantled by the married women’s property acts, but it was still influential and underpinned a central anti-suffragist argument that a wife did not need the vote as her husband’s vote expressed her political view.

There was widespread fear within society at the prospect of the female vote. Political parties feared how women would cast their vote. Another fear was that the vote would in turn bring demand for further equality. The spectre of shifting gender roles, and consequently society turned upside down, can be seen in many of the writings and pronouncements against votes for women. If women received the vote they would be entitled to sit in parliament, bringing further unwelcome and fear-provoking change.

Moreover, the female vote would strike at the heart of the family, damaging the relationship between husband and wife and putting the future of children, and consequently society, at risk. Crucially it might subvert the patriarchal order. Rev David Barry, writing in the Irish Ecclesiastical Record in 1909, addressed the possibility of a woman “casting her vote for the candidate that is opposed . . . to her father and husband”. A woman was, Barry wrote, supposed to be “shielded by her male relatives from most of the hardships and disabilities of citizenship”.

In the domestic sphere the final word was that of the husband. Why then, he wrote, should she “be accorded an autonomy in outside affairs that is denied her in the home?” Barry’s picture of a husband and wife with opposing political views makes clear his patriarchal view of marriage. A wife who disrespects her husband’s authority threatens the unity of the “domestic kingdom” and in that way “children are disedified”.

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