News Irish News

Thursday 27 June 2019

Granting limited suffrage to women seen as expression of gratitude for their role in war

The long-time leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party, John Redmond, died in March 1918, nine months before the December elections
The long-time leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party, John Redmond, died in March 1918, nine months before the December elections

Fionnuala Walsh

In 1918 the vote was finally granted to women in Britain and Ireland. The Representation of the People Act was passed into law on February 6, 1918. While not enfranchising all women on the same terms as men, it nevertheless gave the parliamentary vote to all women over 30 who were householders, the wives of householders, occupiers of property of a yearly value of not less than £5, or university graduates.

Going beyond women's role in the war effort

The granting of the limited suffrage to women was seen by contemporary observers as an expression of gratitude for women's role in the war effort. There was a shift in popular opinion towards women's suffrage in Ireland during the war. Initially the suffrage societies continued to face suspicion and hostility. This gradually altered as the more conciliatory approach of the majority of suffragists and their voluntary work for the war effort gained publicity.

The decline in the power of the Irish Parliamentary Party after the Easter Rising benefited the suffragist cause. Describing the party leader as their "arch enemy", the 'Irish Citizen', Ireland's suffrage newspaper, dismissed the party in April 1917 as "no longer a force to be seriously reckoned with". Mary Hayden, the UCD historian, asserted at a meeting of the Irishwomen's Suffrage Federation in January 1917 that suffrage prospects had improved in the last year owing to the war and that she anticipated "victory" within the year. The 'Northern Whig' claimed in 1917 that the war had caused "the great majority" of the nation to realise that the extension of the vote to women was not only inevitable but desirable.

Many Irish suffragists were, however, frustrated by the fact that the Bill was widely seen as a reward for women's work for the war effort rather than an acknowledgement of the validity of the suffrage cause. Interviewed in the Irish Independent as the Bill was passed by parliament in 1917, Mary Hayden and Helen Chenevix, both prominent Irish suffragists, were careful to emphasise the long history of the suffrage movement in Ireland. Ms Chenevix emphasised that the "work suffragists had always been doing was quite as important as the new war work so that the proposals should be passed on its own merits not because of the new feeling brought about by the war services of women".

Votes for men over 21 and some women over 30

The age qualification was also responsible for the muted response to the Bill. The 'Irish Citizen', Ireland's suffrage newspaper, promised to actively oppose the "offensive sex barrier" for women under 30 years of age while the Irish Women's Franchise League made clear its dissatisfaction with the Bill as passed. Many of the women most actively involved in the war effort remained disenfranchised, thus revealing the lie behind the concept of suffrage as a reward for war work. The different age qualifications were intended to ensure men would still form the majority of the electorate despite the loss of so many men in the war.

Women's votes courted by nationalists and unionists

Nevertheless, the granting of even limited female franchise gave new confidence and recognition to the nationalist and unionist women's organisations. The "role of women in the Irish Nation" was given priority in Cumann na mBan's manifesto for 1918 while the previous year the rights of women had been relegated to third place behind raising money for arms and gaining Irish recognition at the Peace Conference. Cumann na mBan mobilised to support Sinn Féin in the 1918 election. It put significant effort into directing women to vote for Sinn Féin and in ensuring that women likely to vote Sinn Féin had the opportunity to cast their votes.

The Representation of the People Act also had a significant effect on the Ulster Women's Unionist Council. Although many prominent individuals in the unionist cause were opposed to women's suffrage, they recognised that the enfranchisement of women could be used to their advantage. Women were now accepted as members of the Ulster Unionist Council on the same footing as men, rather than being isolated in specifically women's auxiliary organisations. The UWUC strove to bring as many of the enfranchised women as possible into its organisation and sought to instruct women to vote for unionist candidates.

The 'Irish Citizen', which was editorially openly nationalist by 1918, was very critical of this manipulation of women's suffrage and denounced the unionist's methods in the strongest terms:

"We surely did not work and suffer and go to prison and endure all the horror of forcible feeding in order to be taken by the hand in this high and mighty fashion and told in commanding tones how to vote and for whom to vote!"

Only two women stood for election

The December 1918 election was the first opportunity for Irish women to exercise their right to vote in a general election.

There were two female candidates in the 1918 election, both representing Sinn Féin. These were Winifred Carney, the trade unionist and Cumann na mBan member who stood for the Victoria constituency in Belfast and Constance Markievicz in Dublin.

Ms Carney received 539 votes and was defeated. She had been nominated in a predominately unionist constituency which was never likely to elect a republican, regardless of their gender.

Ms Markievicz had more success: she was elected in the St Patrick's constituency in Dublin. She was in prison in England at the time of the election in England for her role in the Easter Rising. Kathleen Clarke, a fellow republican prisoner, described in her memoir the joyful response of Ms Markievicz to the news of her election: "Madame got so excited she went yelling and dancing all over the place".

Markievicz elected first female MP to Westminster

Ms Markievicz was not only the first female Member of Parliament for Ireland - she was the first female MP in Westminster for the UK. Following the established Sinn Féin abstentionist policy, she declined to take her seat in Westminster but became minister for labour in the first Dáil in 1919. Her election encouraged female republican aspirations. In 1922, women in Ireland received the vote on equal terms with men, with the Free State Constitution granting suffrage to all men and women aged over 21.

Dr Fionnuala Walsh is lecturer at the School of History, UCD

Irish Independent

Editor's Choice

Also in Irish News