A history of her story

The big picture: The Irish women’s movement was created by unionists and nationalists, Home Rulers and republicans, liberals and socialists, Protestants, Catholics and women of no religion. They deserve a place in the history books.

‘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.

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.

Feminism and suffrage also interacted with the Labour movement. Many young nationalist feminists were socialists. The Irish Women Workers’ Union (IWWU) was founded in 1911 under the auspices of the ITGWU with feminist support, and during the 1913 Lockout nationalist feminists were actively involved in aid for the workers and their families. While 19th-century feminists believed middle-class women had a responsibility to help and lead their poorer sisters, now middle-class socialists argued that working-class women should lead themselves and decide their own priorities.

In 1914 the first World War made suffrage campaigning difficult. Unionist suffragists tended to suspend activity and engage in war work, hoping to strengthen the claim for the vote. In 1916, the close links between nationalist feminists and the leadership of the Easter Rising led to the Proclamation endorsing women’s citizenship. The Republic claimed “the allegiance of every Irishman and Irishwoman” and guaranteed “religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens”. This became nationalist feminists’ strongest argument in support of women’s full citizenship.

As Sinn Féin grew after 1916 as the republican party it became clear that the new leadership was not committed to gender equality. Nation First and Suffrage First feminists joined forces to press for representation of women on all republican bodies.

In 1918 UK legislation gave partial suffrage, to women over 30 with a property qualification, and eligibility for election as MPs. In the December general election Constance Markievicz, as a Sinn Féin candidate, was the only woman elected to the Westminster parliament. But nationalist feminists believed that Sinn Féin men had been less than enthusiastic in promoting women candidates. “eaction has not died out with the Irish Party,” commented The Irish Citizen.

The Sinn Féin elected members assembled in Dublin in January 1919, established Dáil Éireann and declared a Republic. The War of Independence from 1919-21 made suffrage campaigning impossible. But Cumann na mBan played a more active role than was possible in 1916 and the value of its contribution was recognised by male leaders. Nationalist feminists used this along with the 1916 Proclamation to insist that women’s citizenship be included when a final settlement was reached.

Before the war ended the 1920 Government of Ireland Act had partitioned Ireland. In 1921 a truce was followed by negotiations, the Treaty and divisions over the Treaty. Republican feminists took opposing sides on the Treaty itself and during the Civil War that followed.

During 1922 the Constitution of the Irish Free State was drawn up. Continued feminist pressure succeeded and the Constitution gave the vote and full citizenship to all men and women over 21. Women in Northern Ireland achieved full suffrage in 1928.

However, in the Free State citizenship had been achieved in circumstances of revolution and war and did not reflect a consensus among male nationalists. This became clear during the 1920s and 1930s as first Cumann na nGaedheal, and then Fianna Fáil, governments passed legislation clawing back various elements of that citizenship.

Feminist organisations sidelined during the war years were back in action and resistance continued right up to the emergence of the second wave of the women’s movement in Ireland around 1970.

At the same time feminists continued and developed their long-standing commitments to improving female education, employment opportunities and conditions, and to combatting sexual double standards. They also took on the new challenge of actively promoting women’s participation in politics and decision-making.


To sum up, the Irish women’s movement was created by unionists and nationalists, Home Rulers and republicans, liberals and socialists, Protestants of many denominations, Catholics and women of no religion. It is an integral part of human history and Irish history, addressing basic questions of what it means to be an autonomous human being. How history is written matters to everyone. Historians aim to identify significant patterns of continuity and change in the past and interpret them for the present. History tells us how we got to where we are now, providing the base from which we make decisions about where we go from here.

For both boys and girls, women and men, knowledge of the women’s movement, the gender relations that gave rise to it, its achievements and its failures, is important for understanding their past and for understanding themselves today. For most people, history is what is in the history books, and what is not there has not happened. We now have an impressive body of published research on the Irish women’s movement. Already some survey histories of Ireland are including aspects of this. The challenge to all of us is to develop our understanding of the movement itself and to achieve its full incorporation into “mainstream” history.