Militant women who stepped up vote battle
According to a new book, the role of Irish suffragettes has been virtually written out of history
As the recent movie Suffragette illustrates, by the early 20th century, the refusal of parliament to legislate for votes for women had sparked the emergence of a determined group who began to pursue militant tactics. Soon these women were labelled suffragettes, distinguishing them from moderate suffragists who had for almost half a century, and indeed continued to, pursue a strategy of persuasion. Among the new militants were a small but committed body of Irish women.
In Britain, this change in approach was led by the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU), established in 1903 in Manchester, under the leadership of the Pankhursts, Emmeline and her daughters Christabel and Sylvia. From 1905, the WSPU was at the forefront of the steadily escalating campaign of militancy.
Initially, Irish suffragism did not respond to these developments, continuing to be comparatively moderate. In November 1908 however, the Dublin-centred Irish Women's Franchise League (IWFL) emerged to pursue a more assertive suffrage policy, while in Belfast in the same year, a group influenced by more militantly-minded women and called the Irish Women's Suffrage Society (IWSS) was founded.
But it would be November 1910 before six members of the IWFL went to prison in England when they travelled to London to participate in protests against the failure of parliament to pass the Conciliation Bill, which would have provided for a limited female franchise.
In 1911, the once-a-decade census of Ireland generated unusual levels of press interest. The reason was an attempt by some of Ireland's suffragettes to organise a boycott under the slogan 'No Vote, No Census'. This census boycott, which took place in parallel to a similar boycott in Britain, was a significant, yet genteel, advance on the moderate methods employed in Ireland to that point. A census form was not a ballot paper, but a message could be delivered to government through it.
Some suffragettes avoided making a return by absenting themselves from their homes on the census night. A few confronted the census enumerator when he called to collect their form, making clear their refusal to fill it out.
Others filled in the form but used it to identify with the cause by describing their occupation or religion as 'suffragette' or 'suffragist'. Still more protested by writing slogans on the form or using the section provided to register specific illnesses or disabilities to diagnose themselves as 'voteless' or 'unenfranchised'.
The numbers who acted were small and the protest did not significantly affect the accuracy of the census, but it achieved considerable attention.
Then, in June 1912, after the Irish Party failed to insist that the Home Rule Bill include provision for the female franchise in Ireland, eight members of the IWFL, including Margaret Cousins and Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington, smashed the windows of various government offices in Dublin, were arrested, and sent to prison at Mountjoy.
Between June 1912 and the outbreak of war in the summer of 1914, 27 suffragettes would go to prison in Ireland on 35 separate occasions. Not only did campaigners smash windows, they also attempted to blow up or burn down various properties.
In July 1912, for example, three members of the WSPU followed the Prime Minister Herbert Asquith to Dublin where he was due to address a Home Rule meeting at the Theatre Royal. They succeeded in throwing a hatchet at Asquith and John Redmond, and attempted to set the venue on fire.
The first group of prisoners was afforded a privileged status and special treatment at Mountjoy, and did not hunger strike, at least not at first. The women who attacked Asquith were not afforded privileged treatment, they did hunger strike and they were forcibly fed. This prompted a sympathetic strike from some of the prisoners. These were the first hunger strikes in modern Irish prisons.
Others followed at Tullamore and Belfast prisons, but these Irish suffragettes were not forcibly fed. Indeed, from 1913, the authorities had an alternative approach. They could release the women under the Cat and Mouse Act of that year, which provided that prisoners could be freed for a period due to ill health but should return upon their recovery to resume their sentences. The Irish prison authorities tended not to insist upon the suffragettes' return, using the Act to rid themselves of these troublesome dissidents.
The suffragettes, however, continued to offend or re-offend until they suspended their campaign at the outbreak of war. With the establishment of the Irish Free State, all women over the age of 21 could vote.
The struggle for the female franchise and its political affects were an important element of the turbulence of the period. Between now and 2023, much attention will be afforded to the process by which some Irish nationalists moved from pursuing their aims through conventional politics to the adoption of militant tactics.
Far less attention has been, or will be paid, to how Irish women fought to make their voices heard and to contribute to the shaping of Irish politics and society.
William Murphy is a DCU historian. This is an abridged version of his essay in Years of Turbulence - The Irish Revolution And Its Aftermath, published by UCD Press