One of the most significant developments of the last century, the centenary of which will be commemorated next year, was the Representation of the People Act (RPA). It widened the franchise, extending the vote to men of 21 and granting it to women for the first time, but only those women aged over 30 who were either themselves homeowners or else married to householders. From 1918, women were also permitted to stand for election to parliament.
As a result of the RPA the Irish electorate increased dramatically from 698,000 to 1,931,000. Richard Sinnott has highlighted the historic significance of this; the 1884 Reform Act had widened the electorate from 8 to 31 per cent of the population aged 20 and over, but now the proportion was increased to 75 per cent.
Sinn Féin, in its successful quest to decimate the Irish Parliamentary Party and achieve its own emphatic mandate, was careful to petition the new female voters. One of its 1918 general election publications was An Appeal to the Women of Ireland: "Not without reason did the old time poets in Éirinn call the country they loved by a woman's name. To them Ireland, for whose liberation they strove so heroically was a mystical woman in captivity, at the mercy of a brutish enemy.
“Their devotion to Dark Rosaleen and their love of her were both boundless because in women the ancient Gael saw the great glory of his race. To the same bearers of the spiritual heritage of the mystical Rosaleen this appeal is today directed…the women of Ireland have for seven centuries preserved to the Gael the idea of independence”.
Through the penal laws and famine horrors “it was the lonely heartbroken women who crooned the old song of Irish independence to the children left fatherless” and “the nation which all through its history was renowned for the nobility of its womankind and which stood out from all other nations in Europe by the honoured position women held in the Irish state can now be freed by the sex made reverent by the Gaelic tradition”.
The appeal concluded with one of the greatest lies in modern Irish history: “as in the past, so in the future, the women folk of the Gael shall have high place in the councils of a freed Gaelic nation”.
Of course there was no encouragement for women to become politicians themselves. It was apparent at the time of the 1918 election that the preference was for women to remain abstract, mystic and unsullied by direct political activism. When Constance Markievicz was elected – the first woman elected to the House of Commons – an Irish Independent editorial thundered, "she has proved herself to be lacking the mental balance necessary for the position". That tone and attitude was to endure. Since 1918, just 114 women have been elected to the Dáil, an assembly that has never been less than 78 per cent male, and politicised women have frequently been dehumanised and dismissed.
In 1977, almost 60 years after Markievicz's election, the Women's Political Association sent a questionnaire on women's issues to serving TDs. The reply of Fianna Fáil TD Tim O'Connor encapsulated a prevalent view: "In my own county the women are doing a great job of work in keeping their homes going and bringing up their families. This I think is just what Almighty God intended them to do".
During the following decade a number of groups emerged whose campaigns to halt the perceived tide of liberalisation involved invective and wild and unsubstantiated allegations being made against and about women. Many of the tensions boiled to the surface during the referendums of the 1980s, partly because, as the late gynaecologist and family planning campaigner Dr Michael Solomons pointed out, “with the ability to control their fertility. Women came out of the house and many men didn’t like losing their authority”.
When Gemma Hussey demanded in the Senate that the law on rape be radically changed, one senator said that many women "upset the biological balance of a man and then claim they were raped", while Fianna Fáil senator Martin O'Toole was happy to become a spokesperson for the women of Ireland during a debate about contraception: "I come from a part of the country where we have our own natural family planning methods and they have worked reasonably well up to now. I have eight children- I know something about the subject".
Nell McCafferty was thoroughly justified in referring bitingly to the “pig ignorant slurry of woman hating that did us temporarily down”.
The centenary of the first enfranchisement of women in Ireland will also be the year of another referendum on abortion. It is women who should dominate that debate and it is to be hoped that on this, and other subjects, a century on from the promise, women will be afforded “high place in the councils” of a free Ireland.