Giving Voice to Women
Sorcha Crowley reports from the launch by Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin last week of a new exhibition on 'The Voice of Women' at Lissadell
Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin may have officially opened a new exhibition dedicated to Irish women at Lissadell but it was a woman who stole the show last Wednesday.
In a hard-hitting speech, the co-owner of Lissadell Constance Cassidy demanded equal pay and equal political representation for women.
"We have to ask ourselves, how can a country be truly democratic if there is not equal political representation? That is a question we must ask ourselves," she told guests in the exhibition hall, as the leader of the opposition Micheál Martin, local TDs Eamon Scanlon and Marc MacSharry, Cathaoirleach of Sligo County Council Councillor Seamus Kilgannon, Councillors Tom MacSharry, Rosaleen O'Grady, Mayo TD Lisa Chambers and other Fianna Fáil councillors from the West looked on.
"We have to ask ourselves, how is it that there is such a disparity in the public and private sector between pay for men and women? As my husband said to me this morning, are women always going to be the foot-soldiers rather than the General?" said Constance to rousing applause in the new exhibition hall upstairs in the Coach House.
The red carpet had been rolled out last Wednesday for the Open Day of 'The Voice of Women - 100 Years of Achievement?' exhibition celebrating the centenary of women's suffrage. There was free admission to women on the day and over a hundred women attended a celebratory luncheon in their new café.
The exhibition includes a selection of 100 inspirational Irish women who have shaped Ireland, past and present, from Queen Maeve up to the present day. The list, chosen by Lissadell owner Constance Cassidy and her four daughters, includes her own mother, Eileen Cassidy who served as Fianna Fáil senator in 1977.
"Today we celebrate Lissadell's effort to mark 100 years since the right of women to vote," Constance told guests at the opening ceremony.
"Secondly, we celebrate the women who fought hard to make Ireland the modern country it is today," she said, adding that she intended to add more women to her list in the future.
Constance paid tribute to the (extra)ordinary women of Ireland, the life-givers, the home-makers: "Please do not scorn the word 'home'. Home is central to what each and every one of us today. I'd like to celebrate those women who nurtured us from birth, who trained us, prepared us for life, who have loved us and not judged us, who have guided us and who made us what we are today - our mothers," and she urging the (few) men present to applaud the female guests.
The fight for the right of women in the British Empire - of which Ireland was then still a part - could trace its origins to Sligo, guests heard.
On 31 December 1896, 22 years before women were granted the right to vote, Vanity Fair magazine published an article about a meeting held in a school in Drumcliffe attended by sisters Eva and Constance Gore-Booth.
The article sneered at the sisters for their efforts:
"In the far-away regions of County Sligo, the three pretty daughters of Sir Hery Gore-Booth are creating a little excitement (not to say amusement) by their efforts for the emancipation of their sex.
"Miss Gore-Booth and her sisters, supported by a few devoted yokels, have been holding a series of meetings in connection with the Women's Suffrage movement.
"Their speeches are eloquent, (un-)conventional, and (non-)convincing. They are given to striking out a line for themselves, in more senses than on: for Miss Gore-booth has already distinguished herself as a lady-steeplechaser, and public oratory is their newest toy. The sisters make a pretty picture on the platform; but it is not women of their type who need to assert themselves over Man. However, it amuses them - and others; and I doubt if the tyrant has much to fear from their little arrows."
"The fight to get women the vote started here in county Sligo," said Constance. "In 1918 Ireland became a truly democratic country by giving the remaining 50 per cent of its citizens, the women, the right to vote," she said to applause.
"Thereafter Constance Markievicz became the first female Minister in a European democracy and this historic achievement all from a girl who grew up in the shadow of Benbulben.
"Strange to think it took another sixty years, until 1979 to replicate that achievement, when Charlie Haughey appointed Máire Geoghan-Quinn as Minister to his cabinet," she said.
Constance included on her list the women of the Lock-Out in 1913 and the women who fought alongside men in 1916 such as Hannah Sheehy-Skeffington, Kathleen Clarke and Bean na hEireann.
"What happened thereafter? A long silence. Where were we? I think we know where we were. It took until 1973 for the marriage ban and the right to contraception. It took Máirín de Búrca in the '70's to fight for the right of women to sit on juries (achieved 1975). Until recently married women didn't have the right to work," said Constance, referring to the marriage ban which was lifted in 1973.
After her call for equal political representation and equal pay, Constance passed the mic to Micheál Martin who had a hard act to follow.
Pointing to Deputies Marc MacSharry and Eamon Scanlon on his right, Deputy Martin said: "I just want to say to you Constance, there are a number of potential generals here on my right and in my parliamentary party as well so watch that space in the coming years."
"The extraordinary beauty of this area remains as powerful as ever. However we should never forget that Lissadell is a magical name in Irish history because of the spirit of the people associated with this house.
"It reminds us not just of great personalities, but also the timeless ideals which they served.
"The cause of the rights of women to be heard and to lead is one of the most important of these ideals and this is why this exhibition is so welcome.
"If you look back at the writing of most history - and not just Irish history - there is a tendency to present strong women as somehow eccentric and out of place. This confuses the exceptional for the eccentric.
"It takes a truly exceptional personality to look at something like the systematic exclusion of women from social, economic and political rights and to decide to fight for the principle of equality.
"In the years when Lissadell was being constructed the debate was as basic as whether women had the right to be educated beyond basic literacy or should express opinions about anything of substance.
"The story of Eva and Constance trying to spark women's suffrage agitation in the local community is a wonderful demonstration of their spirit.
"Equally the dismissive attitude of the establishment is exposed in the words of Vanity Fair as quoted by Constance earlier - "if it amuses them and others I doubt if the tyrant has much to fear from their little arrows."
"These 'little arrows', combined with the arrows of hundreds of thousands of other women throughout these islands ensured that twenty years later the right of many women to vote was finally enacted.
"We should not forget that the radicalism of our successful Irish Revolution was very much driven forward by women.
"The founding document of our modern republicanism, the Proclamation of 1916, began with a statement that rights within the new state were to be enjoyed equally by both men and women.
"At this very difficult moment in modern history, where there are many places which look to narrow debate and the voices which can be heard, we should use this 100th anniversary of female suffrage to remind ourselves and important point.
"To be a real republic, to be true to the spirit which overcame great odds to win independence, we must be willing to give a voice to all parts of our society and to listen to those whose interests and experiences differ from ours," he concluded.