The Irish Votes for Women Movement and the tricky relationship with British Suffragists

Today a picture of the first woman elected to the House of Commons, Constance Markievicz, was gifted to the UK Parliament by the Irish Parliament (Houses of the Oireachtas). To mark this occasion we are delighted to publish this guest post by Professor Louise Ryan.

While there was much that united Irish and British suffragists, not least their shared campaign for the vote from the Westminster parliament, it would be wrong to underestimate the important differences between these two movements.

British women were fighting for enfranchisement from their own parliament, even though the government did not represent the voices of women, however, for women in Ireland the situation was more complex.

At the height of the Home Rule campaign, Irish suffragists had to negotiate a tricky path between women’s rights to citizenship and the nation’s right to self-determination. This situation was further complicated by the presence of significant numbers of unionist suffragists, in both the North and South of the country, who opposed Irish separation from the United Kingdom.

For suffragists in Ireland, whether unionist or nationalist, the vote represented a crucial opportunity to decide on the future of the country – be that inside or outside the union with Britain.

However, their demands for immediate enfranchisement usually met with condemnation or indeed ridicule from politicians who felt that women should leave decisions about the future of their country in the hands of men. Politicians, both unionist and nationalist, promised that once the future of the country had been secured then women would be granted the vote.  Understandably, many suffragists were sceptical about such promises.

Feminism and nationalism had a complex and multifaceted relationship. These were not two oppositional forces but had actually emerged around the same time and in the same discursive spaces.  Irish feminism had a long history going back to the pioneering writings of women like Anna Wheeler in the early 1800s.  Like feminism elsewhere, it drew on a blend of enlightenment and socialist thinking to demand rights, equality and citizenship for women.  But it is important to highlight the specificity of the Irish context where feminism also drew upon the influence of cultural nationalism.

The late 1800s and early 1900s saw a resurgence of interest in all things Celtic and Gaelic including the language, arts, literature, poetry and music. Through the work of people like WB Yeats and Augusta Gregory, there was a celebration of traditional Celtic folklore, myths and legends. This Cultural Revival movement proved to be a key influence on Irish feminism – as is clearly apparent in the writings of leading suffragists.

Copy of Portrait of Constance Countess Markievicz (1901) by Boleslaw von Szankowski (1873-1953), Collection Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane. Permission to reproduce granted by the Estate of Boleslaw von Szankowski
Copy of Portrait of Constance Countess Markievicz (1901) by Boleslaw von Szankowski (1873-1953), Collection Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane. Permission to reproduce granted by the Estate of Boleslaw von Szankowski

‘Ancient Ireland bred warrior women, and women played a heroic part in those days. To-day we are in danger of being civilised by men out of existence. What distinguished Ireland chiefly of old was the number of fighting women who held their own against the world, who owed no allegiance to any man, who were super-women – the Maeves, the Machas, the warrior-queens’ (Markievicz, 23 October, 1915)

In this quote, Constance Markievicz, who of course would go on to become the first woman elected to Westminster in 1918, clearly invokes Celtic images of strong women such as Queen Maeve as a role model for modern day women. This kind of rhetoric was very prevalent among Irish suffragists.

In 1912, Sydney Gifford, writing under her pen name ‘John Brennan’, declared that:

‘In the Gaelic civilisation, which was never quite cast down and trampled out, and which the Gaelic League and Sinn Fein organisation are attempting to rebuild, the woman was the equal of the man in all things; she was never the woman of the harem, but the proud and independent comrade of her mate’ (Irish Citizen, 14 September 1912).

Gifford went on to argue that this ‘fine old’ Gaelic Civilisation ‘peeps out through the worn particles of English influence’. Hence, far from civilizing Irish savages, as the English colonial narrative usually asserted, Gifford argued that colonialism had instead attempted to suppress a sophisticated Irish civilization.

This argument was repeated many times including in editorials of the suffrage newspaper, the Irish Citizen. An editorial in that newspaper in September 1916 says of Ireland: ‘as of old her civilization was based on feminism’.  These sentiments are again reflected in another Irish Citizen editorial in November 1917 when the principles of inequality are rejected as ‘the teaching of an alien civilization’, i.e. Britain.

But this begs several important questions – why did Irish suffragists make this argument? Why did they assert that women had equality with men in ancient Ireland? Did they actually believe that this was true? In my opinion, this celebration of a great Celtic tradition may equally have been a clever feminist strategy.

Irish suffragists were often accused by opponents, including politicians, journalists and church leaders, of merely aping British suffragists. Hence, suffragism was de-legitimised as a foreign import and not a genuinely Irish movement. For example, this was the regular criticism made by staunch anti-suffragist, D.P. Moran, editor of the Limerick Leader newspaper.

Suffragists in Ireland sought to challenge these criticisms. Writing in the Irish Citizen newspaper in April 1914, in an article entitled ‘Women in Ancient Ireland’, Dora Mellone asserted that far from being a foreign import, feminism was much in evidence in ancient Ireland through the example of Queen Maeve and the warrior Scathach. By tracing a direct lineage from these female figures to modern day feminists, suffragists sought to underline their legitimacy and dispel their critics.

This rhetoric was also reflected in many cartoons published in the Irish Citizen:

Image courtesy of Louise Ryan
Image courtesy of Louise Ryan

This cartoon is typical of many published in the Irish Citizen paper and uses an interesting blend of Celtic symbolism including the sunburst, the old round tower, the ancient stone building, the Celtic designs on the cloak and brooch. The woman clad in traditional Irish dress proudly carries a scroll demanding ‘The Vote’. The darkness of ‘ignorance’ will be overcome by bright sunlight and the rebirth of female equality. Thus, far from being a new, imported idea, feminism is clearly situated amid the Celtic symbolism as rooted in Ireland’s heritage.  These images were also used as a mechanism to distance Irish suffragism from the British movement. Far from being merely an off-shoot of British suffragism, the Irish campaigners sought to underline their unique Irish identity.

This use of Gaelic iconography to underline an Irish feminist heritage also served another important function. Suffragists drew on this ancient heritage to criticise contemporary nationalists, as in April 1917 when the editor of the Irish Citizen demanded of Sinn Fein: ‘Will it be true to the fine traditions of Ireland’s past, when Ireland’s men and women were equally honoured and equally free?’

Thus, despite their close cooperation and often shared campaigning, it is important to appreciate the differences between the suffrage movements in Ireland and Britain. The specificity of the Irish political context cannot be ignored and seriously complicated the enfranchisement campaign on the entire island of Ireland.  Demanding immediate enfranchisement from Westminster, suffragists in Ireland were determined to have their say about the political future of their own country.

Louise Ryan

Louise Ryan is Professor of Sociology at the University of Sheffield and author of the book Winning the Vote for Women: the Irish Citizen newspaper and suffrage movement in Ireland (Four Courts Press, 2018).

The picture of Constance Markievicz will be displayed to the public in Parliament’s free public exhibition Voice and Vote: Women’s Place in Parliament until 6 October 2018, and then in Portcullis House until the end of 2018 as part of Parliament’s Vote100 programme of events and activities.
Find out more about UK Parliament’s Vote100 activities
Find out more about the Irish Parliament’s Vótáil100 activities.