By Ivana Bacik.
In a recent short video, filmed by director Lenny Abrahamson, Mrs Brown – comedian Brendan O’Carroll, explains why she will be supporting the marriage equality referendum. She wants her gay son Rory to have the same opportunity for happiness as everyone else’s son. It’s a simple but effective statement that sums up the core message of this referendum. Mrs Brown notes that there was once a time when Catholics could not marry Protestants and when women were not allowed to vote, and concludes: “Every generation gets a chance to make a big change, and you’re getting your chance on May 22nd”.
As we head to the polls in May for this historic vote on the civil liberties issue for our generation, marriage equality for gay couples, it is timely to reflect on the vital civil liberties campaign for a previous generation to which Mrs Brown refers – the campaign seeking votes for women. As we head into the Easter 1916 centenary commemorations next year, it is important to also commemorate and celebrate the achievements of the suffrage movement.
In Ireland, the moderate wing of the suffrage campaign was represented by activists like the Quaker couple Anna and Thomas Haslam, described by Carmel Quinlan as “genteel revolutionaries”, who set up the Dublin Suffrage Association in 1876. A more radical approach was adopted by many women who were also prominent in the struggle for Irish independence, with strong female icons like Constance Markievicz involved in both the suffrage and nationalist campaigns. A well-known feminist contemporary of Markievicz’s was Hannah Sheehy-Skeffington, who along with her husband Francis, set up the Irish Women’s Franchise League. The Sheehy-Skeffingtons were nationalists but, unlike Markievicz, took a pacifist position in the Easter Rising.
For activists like Markievicz and the Sheehy-Skeffingtons, even where they disagreed on the particular tactics of the nationalist campaign, the causes of Irish independence and women’s suffrage were closely linked by the same motivating force. Some years later Markievicz, then a TD, described in a Dáil speech how the women’s suffrage movement had led to her embracing of other campaigns:
“My first realisation of tyranny came from some chance words spoken in favour of women’s suffrage and it raised a question of the tyranny it was intended to prevent – women voicing their opinions publicly in the ordinary and simple manner of registering their votes at the polling booth. That was my first bite, you may say, at the apple of freedom and soon I got on to the other freedom, freedom to the nation, freedom to the workers”.
The campaign for women’s suffrage achieved partial success when the right to vote was extended to some women across the then United Kingdom in February 1918 through the Representation of the People Act. This Act however applied more restrictive conditions to women than to men, extending the franchise to almost all men over 21, but only to women over 30, subject to property qualifications. This was followed by the Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act, passed in November 1918, which allowed women to become MPs.
In the December 1918 UK election, Constance Markievicz was the only woman elected, and she became the first woman MP and TD, choosing to sit in the first Dáil Eireann. She also became one of the first women Government Ministers in the world, as Minister for Labour in the 1919-1922 Sinn Féin government formed following that election.
In 1922, women in Ireland obtained the right to vote on an equal basis to men through the Electoral Act 1923, an important assertion of equal rights for the nascent Irish Free State. This Act extended the vote to all women over 21 and abolished any remaining property qualifications, some years before women in Britain obtained equal voting rights.
After the creation of the Irish Free State in 1922 and ensuing Civil War, Irish women like Markievicz, and many other of Margaret Ward’s “unmanageable revolutionaries”, became much less visible publicly, their voices suppressed by the dominant deeply conservative nationalism. Few women were involved at a policy-making level in the new state, and women’s groups were generally organised around women’s domestic roles as wives and mothers. It would be several decades before a second-wave feminist movement began to seek more substantive change for women’s rights.
The extension of the equal right to vote for women in 1923 was the last feminist law to be passed for a generation. Only a tiny number of pioneering women stood for election or became TDs during the first decades of the new state. It is perhaps no coincidence that one of those early pioneers, elected to the Dáil in 1954, was Brendan O’Carroll’s own mother, then Labour TD Maureen O’Carroll. •