Saturday 19 October 2019

Martina Devlin: 'Women have achieved so much in the 100 years in which we've had a say in our country - but there remain plenty of battles ahead for our progress'

'Copies of Countess Markievicz’s election posters currently adorn the capital’s lamp posts, a visual reminder of her triumph, and well done to Dublin City Council.'
'Copies of Countess Markievicz’s election posters currently adorn the capital’s lamp posts, a visual reminder of her triumph, and well done to Dublin City Council.'
Martina Devlin

Martina Devlin

This has been an important year in Ireland - one in which women asserted themselves, stood up and were counted. And how appropriate for it to happen in the centenary of when some women were first eligible to vote or run for parliament.

A hundred years ago yesterday, following six decades of activism to overturn the law excluding them, Irish and British women finally were able both to go to the polls in a general election and offer themselves as candidates. A "watershed for women" is how Arts Minister Josepha Madigan described it this week.

That December 14 election produced no visible result for our larger neighbour but what happened in Ireland was truly revolutionary: a woman was voted into parliament. She was Countess Markievicz, born Constance Gore-Booth of Lissadell House in Co Sligo, the first woman elected to Westminster but who took her seat in the inaugural Dáil Éireann in line with Sinn Féin's abstentionism policy.

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The Countess was locked up in London's Holloway Prison during her campaign and election, which she heard about two weeks later after counting ended and the result was publicised, on December 28.

Change can happen suddenly and what is regarded as radical one day may appear unexceptional the next. A century on from that turning point era, the question of 32-county sovereignty is now on the table, just as it was 100 years ago - the issue of whether the link with Britain ought to be severed. Earlier this week, Theresa May mentioned it in the House of Commons and reunification was also raised in Leinster House.

Also noticeable today is a sense of purpose on the part of Irishwomen to reshape their world - mirroring efforts by that earlier generation of determined and persistent women in the years leading up to 1918. In this past year, women - along with men who recognised the injustice - campaigned, marched and voted to repeal the Eighth Amendment. These women said their bodies were their own business and not the State's, the people agreed with them in a plebiscite, and political representatives helped to steer legislation honouring their wishes through the Oireachtas only this week. Safe, legal abortions will be offered in Ireland in a matter of weeks.

This is also the year when women spoke truth to power: women such as Catherine Corless, who unearthed and shared the story of the Tuam babies, and Vicky Phelan and Emma Mhic Mhathúna, who forced the cervical cancer scandal into the public arena.

Little changed, however, and there is ongoing resistance in some quarters to women's full participation in public life. Only 22pc of the Dáil is female - and that as a result of quotas. Women in Ireland earn 14pc less than men on average in the workplace, according to EU statistics. Women hold fewer than 16pc of board seats in 31 publicly quoted Irish companies. And women are disproportionately affected by the punitive cost of childcare which militates against them holding down jobs. The hopes of activists such as Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington, Dr Kathleen Lynn, Madeleine ffrench-Mullen and Helena Molony have not been realised.

This generation of women collaborated, often across ideological lines, to deliver change. Thanks to direct action, since 1898 women could vote or stand in local elections. A decade later, women aged over 30 who met property qualifications or had a university degree won the right to vote in a general election. The bar was set relatively high, deliberately so - only 40pc of women at most were eligible because it was feared too many women streaming to the polls would be destabilising. In fact, women tended to vote along the same lines as men. However, it was a start.

Two women stood in Ireland: Winifred Carney, the first woman into the GPO in 1916 as James Connolly's loyal adjutant, who ran in east Belfast's Victoria ward; and Countess Markievicz in St Patrick's constituency, Dublin. Madame Markievicz (a designation some women used at that time in a nod to the French Revolution) won her race with two-thirds of the vote and became one of 73 TDs in a Sinn Féin landslide which didn't extend North. By comparison, Carney polled just over 4pc of the vote.

Markievicz was still in Holloway when the Dáil assembled, locked up on an unfounded allegation of an insurrection plot between Sinn Féin and the Germans, put forward by the Dublin Castle administration to justify internment of anti-conscription figures. Sheehy-Skeffington, Maud Gonne and 1916 leader Tom Clarke's widow, Kathleen, were jailed in the same wing.

Copies of Markievicz's election posters currently adorn the capital's lamp posts, a visual reminder of her triumph, and well done to the 1916 Relatives Association for their imagination and initiative in erecting them. But Carney's election manifesto is worth quoting. In it, she insisted on the Irish people's right to sovereign independence and said, "…For the first time in election history, there is but one clean and clear-cut issue before the electors: Whether the people of Ireland are to have their own free choice, without the interference of any power, people, or parliament, of the sovereignty and form of government under which they shall live." It could be written specifically for 2018's Brexit dilemma.

Speaking at the Political Voices conference in Dublin this week, Dr Margaret Ward, honorary senior lecturer in history at Queen's University Belfast, said of Carney: "Her platform was defiantly socialist, calling for a workers' republic."

At the same conference, Dr Ailbhe Smyth, co-founder of the Together for Yes grassroots feminist movement, said: "There is a massive amount that still needs doing." Honest and energetic women "broke through a wall of silence" in the Repeal the Eighth campaign and "moved Ireland to a very different place", she told the audience.

Dr Smyth categorised the struggle for women's rights as "truly revolutionary" but identified class, ethnicity, disability and geographical divides keeping women apart. (And indeed the same applies to men.) "Feminism is the radical notion that women are people, no means no, don't call me girl. It's not all big ticket issues. It's a hard, slow, slog," she said.

But this week we celebrate achievements and remember a time when the Irish Free State was a place of firsts. Markievicz was named Labour Minister in April 1919, the first female minister in Europe and second in the world. And the State extended equal voting rights to women and men in 1922 - Markievicz made a rousing speech in its favour in the Dáil - a landmark which predated equivalent representation in Britain by six years.

So, a lot done, more to do. Or as the Countess says in her election poster: "Keep straight and do not shirk the fight."

Martina Devlin's latest book dealing with some of these ground-breaking women is 'Truth & Dare: Short Stories About Women Who Shaped Ireland'

Irish Independent

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