Tuesday 18 December 2018

Smashing the windows 100 years on...but the glass ceiling remains far too resistant

Government ministers Regina Doherty, Josepha Madigan and Heather Humphreys at the launch of the book ‘Mná 1916’ and the Centenary Programme for 2018.
Government ministers Regina Doherty, Josepha Madigan and Heather Humphreys at the launch of the book ‘Mná 1916’ and the Centenary Programme for 2018.
Breda Heffernan

Breda Heffernan

It was all very different in 1912. Due to the modern preoccupation with health and safety, the crowds gathered outside Dublin Castle's Ship Street entrance yesterday were asked to move back a safe distance.

Then the granddaughter of Hanna Sheehy Skeffington re-enacted the smashing of windows, in the name of women's suffrage.

As she raised a gnarled walking stick to strike the replica window, and mark 100 years since women got the vote, Micheline Sheehy Skeffington made a modern day call-to-arms - saying women are still unequal when it comes to pay, and representation in Government and other institutions.

It was altogether more dangerous - and not just due to the flying glass - when Hanna took her stand at 5am on June 13, 1912.

She managed to shatter 19 panes of glass before she was arrested. Elsewhere across Dublin, her fellow militant suffragettes were carrying out their own protests with more windows smashed at the Custom House.

"She chose Dublin Castle because it was the seat of British power, so she wanted to have a go at them while she was at it. And she was here at five o'clock in the morning, imagine, and Dublin Castle full of military, the British were there, and it took some courage to just go and do that, smash the windows, get yourself arrested and be taken away," said Micheline.

Hanna spent two months in Mountjoy, where she also took part in a hunger strike.

More than a century later, Micheline says her grandmother would have been delighted to see Ireland has since had two women Presidents, although she would also be surprised at just how little advancement there has been elsewhere.

"But have we got equality? I think she'd be surprised just actually how little we have got. We haven't got parity, we haven't got equal pay, we're not equal in the Government, we're not equal in the universities, dare I say. And we don't command the respect I think that we should," said Micheline.

The retired academic knows this only too well. She won an Equality Tribunal case in 2014 against her university, NUI Galway, for discrimination on the grounds of gender in the institution's 2009 round of promotions to senior lecturer.

She pointed to 2016's 'Waking the Feminists' campaign to show there is a sea-change afoot.

"But it takes a lot of courage to stick with it."

Micheline also lamented the lack of gender balance in the Dáil. "Women are perfectly capable of being in Government so yes, of course we should have 50/50. I think my grandmother would be surprised that after 100 years there isn't 50/50. So yes, we're well capable. We're not saying about putting women in who aren't capable, but there are a lot of men who get in who might not be capable either, so I think it's important to aim towards that."

However, she said the process towards gender equality is "very, very slow".

Hanna died in 1946, and while Micheline never got to meet her, she grew up hearing stories of her exploits as well as those of her grandfather, Francis Sheehy Skeffington, who was killed in 1916.

"She died before I was born. My father would have told me (about her). I was told to be proud of the fact I'm left-handed like her, as she smashed the windows with her left hand."

As the UK government considers pardoning suffragettes convicted more than a century ago, Micheline said her grandmother wouldn't be keen on being pardoned by the Irish Government.

Meanwhile, An Post will celebrate Hanna with a special stamp later this year. Part of a collection of two stamps marking 'Popular Democracy', Hanna and Éamon de Valera will each be shown with an "X" signifying a ballot paper.

Irish Independent

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