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Women Won't Wait

In 1913 a Women’s Franchise Bill went before parliament. The Irish Parliamentary Party, led by John Redmond and John Dillon, refused to support it, arguing that the matter would be addressed by a home rule parliament and that the Irish people could decide for themselves whether they wished to permit women’s suffrage. The support of the IPP would have ensured that the bill passed, a fact which earned the party’s leadership the visceral hostility of many suffragettes in England and Ireland.

There were elements in the IPP, particularly but by no means exclusively around the Ancient Order of Hibernians, who were socially conservative and hostile to the idea of political rights for women. However, this was not the case for most of the advanced nationalists who took part in the Easter Rising. Women’s voting rights were endorsed in the proclamation and before the rising there were numerous expressions of support, such as that from James Connolly, who travelled from Belfast to speak at an Irish Women’s Franchise League meeting.

The suffragette movement saw the politicisation of a significant cohort of mostly educated middle class women in Dublin and elsewhere in Ireland some years before the upsurge in militant separatist politics. The support for women’s franchise in advanced nationalist circles perhaps helps explain the remarkably high level of participation among politically minded women in support of the separatist cause throughout the revolutionary period. (It might have been a different story had male advanced nationalists followed the IPP deferment line on women’s suffrage.)

Conservatives within the IPP who were hostile to women’s voting rights were exercised by ideas of the natural “sphere” of women in society. One such was a Fr Gwynn, an ardent supporter of John Redmond who was quite happy to denounce the idea of women moving beyond their traditional roles. In response suffragettes drew attention to progressive priests such as the Australian cardinal Patrick Francis Moran, who supported voting rights for women.

The Dublin suffragettes who campaigned against Redmond and the IPP stance on women’s franchise held numerous meetings around Dublin, including a regular Saturday afternoon meeting in Phoenix Park. At one Hannah Sheehy Skeffington ridiculed the idea of a women’s sphere, saying that some men thought that women were born with a needle in one hand and a rolling pin in the other but that no one talked of men’s sphere and that men were allowed to be free to make what they could of themselves in the world.

Suffragette meetings were generally rowdy as they were attended by disruptive and sometimes violent supporters of the IPP, especially from the AOH. The suffragettes themselves targeted and disrupted Redmond in public whenever possible. At one IWFL meeting in Phoenix Park a voice cried out “what about the hatchet?” This was a reference to an incident which had occurred on Sackville Street as Redmond, the lord mayor and the prime minister, Herbert Asquith, and his wife were making their way by carriage to the Gresham Hotel during an official visit. A Mrs Mary Leigh, a militant London-based suffragette, threw a hatchet into the carriage, striking Redmond. It was reported that his Redmond’s ear was cut and that if it had struck a little higher it might indeed have been sliced off. Curiously the case against Mrs Leigh was dropped. It was said that Redmond did not wish to be called as a witness in court. It was also suggested that the weapon was in fact a toy. This was not the only time Redmond was physically assaulted. Travelling on a train with his wife to Newcastle upon Tyne he was assaulted by an Irish suffragette who struck him in the face and poured flour over both him and his wife, exclaiming: “You’re a nice man being leader of the Irish Party.” She also attempted to throw his umbrella out the window. Once again Redmond declined to press charges.

The suffragettes, including their male supporters – the most prominent of whom was probably Francis Sheehy Skeffington,who dubbed the AOH “The Ancient Order of Hooligans” ‑ used all sorts of tricks and ruses to gain admission to IPP meetings, which they then disrupted.

Other forms of protest were also adopted. Geraldine Manning of 2 Winton Road, Leeson Park, Dublin took a tin of green paint into the Royal Hibernian Academy on Abbey Street and daubed a bust of John Redmond. She also left a note at the scene which said “Why can’t you get us votes for women Mr Redmond? A Traitor’s face is no adornment to our picture gallery.” She was fined twenty shillings, which she refused to pay.

The 1916 proclamation stated:

Until our arms have brought the opportune moment for the establishment of a permanent National Government, representative of the whole people of Ireland and elected by the suffrages of all her men and women, the Provisional Government, hereby constituted, will administer the civil and military affairs of the Republic in trust for the people.

The rebellion, of course, was successfully suppressed by the military. In 1918 Westminster introduced votes for women over thirty years who satisfied a property qualification. In 1928 all British women over the age of twenty-one were granted voting rights. In Ireland matters moved more swiftly. In 1923 the Free State extended the vote to all women over twenty-one and eliminated property qualifications.

6/5/2016