Tuesday 25 October 2016

Young women can forget what Ireland was like before feminism

As British women protest at the film Suffragettes, Carol Hunt asks what happened to our Irish ones?

Published 11/10/2015 | 02:30

RED CARPET MOMENT: British feminists at the premiere of the ‘Suffragettes’ in London
RED CARPET MOMENT: British feminists at the premiere of the ‘Suffragettes’ in London

So what did the revolution ever do for you? If that question is directed to Irish women, the depressing answer would have to be - not a lot. Tomorrow, the film Suffragette opens in Dublin and I'm wondering if we'll be treated to scenes similar to those which occurred at the London premiere last week.

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"Dead women can't vote" was the cry of the hundred-plus women from the organisation Sisters Uncut (who campaign against domestic violence) as they broke through the barriers to the delight of fellow feminists Helena Bonham Carter, Romola Garai and Carey Mulligan.

"I'm happy to see that the suffrage movement is alive and happening," said Garai, while Bonham Carter said the protest was the "perfect" response to the film.

In London last week, the feminist cry was that the "struggle for women's liberation is far from over". And what of their sisters on the other side of the Irish sea?

While Emmeline Pankhurst (played in the film by Meryl Streep) and her hunger-striking supporters were destroying private property and tying themselves to railings, what was happening in Ireland?

You may be surprised to hear it but many Irish women were front and centre in the fight for the franchise.

In 1866, Cork woman Hannah Haslam signed the first women's suffrage petition on these islands.

About 20 years later Hannah and her husband Thomas founded the Irish Suffrage Society. And no, there are no statutes of her anywhere in Ireland, just an inscription on a park bench in St Stephen's Green.

No statues either of any of the other women who fought for women's rights - Helen Chenevix, Eva Gore-Booth, Aine Ceannt, Helena Molony, Louie Bennett and Hannah-Sheehy Skeffington. Why?

Why is there no street named after the brilliant Anna Parnell, leader of the Ladies Land League? Why have we forgotten that it was the Irish Parliamentary Party which used its balance of power in Westminster to defeat the Conciliation Bill, which would have given limited suffrage to women in the British Isles?

Why do we not remember that Sinn Fein's Arthur Griffith had little time for "women's causes"? Why? Because of nationalism.

In 1914, those who decided not to support the Home Rule Bill - because the franchise for women was not included - were accused of putting their feminist principles before their nationalist ones. When Constance Markievicz was elected Minister for Labour, the men decided that the aim of gender equality - as enshrined in the 1916 Proclamation - had been achieved.

The women disagreed. As the Irish Citizen newspaper wrote on the day following this "historic achievement": "Under the new dispensation, the majority sex in Ireland has secured one representative. This is the measure of our boasted sex equality."

Many women would have been forgiven for thinking that the extension of the franchise to all women over the age of 21 in 1923 would have heralded a new age of equality - but this being the new Catholic Ireland, they thought wrong.

Women were stopped from serving on juries, divorce was banned and women were prevented from working in the senior ranks of the civil service - they were relegated instead to their "proper sphere", the home.

In 1939 Eamon de Valera emulated the German mantra of Kinder, Kuche, Kirche (children, kitchen, church) when he included a constitutional article which maintained that a woman's legal place was within the home.

When I was born, women were not allowed to collect their own children's allowance, drink in a pub, buy contraception, own their own home outright, get a barring order against a violent partner or legally refuse to have sex with her husband.

We have to admit that we've come a long way since then, which is perhaps why so many young women don't like to describe themselves as feminists. To which, all I can say is: "Are you female? Do you like to vote? Control your own fertility? Get paid the same wage as men? Walk the streets in safety?"

If the answer is "yes" to any of the above, then you're a feminist. And you have a lot in common with the feminists who protested last week.

They wanted to highlight the fact that the British government were removing funding to services for victims of domestic violence.

In Ireland we currently face the same cuts. Our Rape Crisis Centres saw up to 30pc cuts being administered since 2009 while at the same time seeing an average increase in demand of 30pc on services.

The cost of childcare in Ireland remains the highest in the OECD, effectively preventing many women from involving themselves in public life.

Perhaps if we had a higher representation of women in Leinster House making decisions, so-called "women's issues" (which affect all of society) wouldn't be so neglected?

Years ago, Dr Noel Browne told me: "If you don't like the political system, get involved. Change it."

Many of the rights fought for by the suffragettes still have to be achieved.

Sometimes we have to feel the fear and do it anyway. Our suffragettes did.

We should remember them.


Sunday Independent

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