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Tuesday 17 September 2019

A hundred years on, the poll when women won the right to vote and scored a triumph

The general election of December 1918 was a turning point for Irish politics - and for women, writes Lindie Naughton

From left, Kathleen Clarke, Constance Markievicz, Kate O’Callaghan and Margaret Pearse in 1921. (Reproduced courtesy of the National Library of Ireland)
From left, Kathleen Clarke, Constance Markievicz, Kate O’Callaghan and Margaret Pearse in 1921. (Reproduced courtesy of the National Library of Ireland)

Lindie Naughton

One hundred years ago this weekend saw the first general election in which women over the age of 30, and all men over the age of 21, could vote. Previously, all women and many poor men had been excluded from voting. The bill had been passed into law on November 21 after the ending of World War I.

Of the 17 women who stood as candidates in December 1918, only nine were adopted by the Liberal, Labour and Conservative parties, with a further two representing Sinn Fein. The remaining six stood as independent candidates backed either by existing organisations such as the Women's Freedom League or by the new Women's Party which had emerged from the remains of the Women's Social and Political Union.

Although then detained in Holloway Prison, London, Constance Markievicz stood for Sinn Fein in St Patrick's Ward, Dublin, and was the only one elected. Before the election, she had written to her sister Eva: ''By the way, shall you 'stand' for Parliament? I wouldn't mind doing it as a 'Shinner' as an election sport, and one does not have to go to Parliament if one wins, but oh! to have to sit there and listen to all that blather!''

Other Irish women who stood for election were Winifrid Carney in Belfast and Charlotte Despard in London. On Sunday, December 29, the day after the results were announced, Markievicz was told that she had been elected: ''Madame got so excited she went yelling and dancing all over the place,'' said her sister detainee, Kathleen Clarke. In the St Patrick's Division, Constance polled 7,835 votes; William Field of the Irish Parliamentary Party, who had held the seat for 26 years, got 3,741 and Alderman JJ Kelly 312 votes.

Outside the Sinn Fein headquarters on Dublin's Harcourt Street, an excited crowd had watched as the figures from the counting centres were displayed on a giant notice board in a second floor window. From the 102 seats they contested, Sinn Fein won 73; the Irish Parliamentary Party was wiped out, winning just seven from 57 seats contested.

That Sinn Fein could win by such a huge margin was the stuff of dreams. ''The humbug was now over,'' as Joseph Cleary said when speaking on behalf of a triumphant Markievicz. Not everyone was pleased with her election. A leader in the Irish Independent questioned her ''mental balance''; this ''mean and unjustified attack'' provoked angry letters to the paper from Maud Gonne MacBride and Jennie Wyse Power. Markievicz would become a member of the first Irish Dail in 1919 and only the second woman in Europe to take up a ministerial seat after Alexandra Kollontai in Russia.

In her letters, Markievicz's response to her election is muted; she was all too aware of the censor's prying eyes. This comes from a letter dated December 21 - two days before the election was called: ''I think the censor is an evil person. One of my letters re election was stopped and he just pinched it. Evidence, I suppose, of a new 'plot'! I was actually allowed a big bit of paper to write an Election Address on! I wrote one in such a hurry that it's probably not sense.''

That same day, she wrote to Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington, who was managing her election campaign in Dublin: ''One cannot help but laugh at the delightfully fair way this election is being managed, our opponents are making full use of the opportunities that are being lavished on them to misrepresent us in the press and we are gagged and cannot answer them. Luckily, our people have no delusions with regard to the truthfulness and honour of the subsidised daily press. With this long delay between the voting and counting, any villainy may be tried. Also the 'absent' voters seem to me to give unlimited scope for trickery. It would look very funny if Sinn Feiners only won when unopposed!... I see that you and yours have been doing splendid work for me. One reason I'd love to win is that we could make St Pat's a rallying ground for women and a splendid centre for constructive work by women. I am full of schemes and ideas.''

Always happy for an excuse to goad the censor, she began signing her letters ''M.P.'' and then a made-up Irish version of her new title after she was elected. She finally settled on T.D. after the first sitting of Dail Eireann in January 1919. Markievicz was finally released from Holloway on March 10, 1919 as part of a general amnesty and was greeted by ''howling crowds everywhere'' after she arrived back in Ireland.

In the years following, political parties remained reluctant to select women as candidates. Nancy Astor at Plymouth in 1919, the first woman to sit in the House of Commons, as well as Margaret Wintringham at Louth in 1921 and Mabel Philipson at Berwick upon Tweed in 1923, were all elected at by-elections and all took over seats previously occupied by their husbands.

In the constitution for the Irish Free State which was set up in 1922, all Irish women over the age of 21 were given the vote.

For the second Irish government of 1921, five women, including Markievicz, were elected. That figure had dwindled to one by 1944. In the meantime, successive Irish administrations, dominated by a right-wing and repressive Catholic clergy, had clawed back the hard-earned rights won by women such as Markievicz. Women had to retire from their jobs when they married, or would not be accepted for certain jobs in the first place. They could not sit on juries. Divorce and contraception were taboo subjects. Books and films were censored.

The tide only began to turn in the 1970s when women again took to the streets, not just in Ireland but all over the world. In 1979, Maire Geoghegan-Quinn became the first woman to hold a cabinet position since Markievicz 60 years earlier. In 1990, Mary Robinson was appointed Ireland's first female president and was followed by Mary McAleese. In 1997, Mary Harney became Ireland's first deputy prime minister.

In 2016, the centenary of the Easter Rising, 35 women were elected to parliament with 25 of 40 constituencies having at least one female representative. Even if the institutions of the State remain male dominated and overwhelmingly conservative, some progress has been made.

Lindie Naughton is the editor of Markievicz: Prison Letters and Rebel Writings and the biography Markievicz - A Most Outrageous Rebel, both published by Merrion Press.

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