1750 - 1937

Violence Ridicule and Silence

The Library of Trinity College Dublin

An inter-institutional exhibition plotting Irish women's road to the vote in 1918

The recent interest in the history of female suffrage in Ireland is welcome, although much delayed. In this centenary year the Library of Trinity College Dublin is delighted to have contributed to the work of the Houses of the Oireachtas Vótáil 100 programme, in curating this exhibition, in collaboration with several sister institutions. The exhibition seeks to highlight a number of aspects to the story; its origins in the eighteenth century; the fact that the suffrage movement was an all-island activity and very much influenced by activities in England; the use of violence and ridicule to prevent women from making their voices heard in public spaces, a form of silencing which continues today; and the difficulty there exists in retrieving women's voices from the archives due to the destruction of their records. The exhibition ends with the deep disappointment occasioned by the misogynistic 1937 Constitution which reneged on the equality ideals of the early political activists.
Origins
Suffrage activity did not start in the twentieth century, or even the nineteenth. Women's path to equality goes back to the emergence of women into the public eye in the eighteenth century. Today's gender-equality advocates teach the message that 'if you can't see it, you can't be it'; young girls are less likely to have high ambitions if they do not witness these ambitions being embodied by women. These early pioneers were the role models for the young women who followed in their footsteps.

During the lifetime of philanthropist Lady Arabella Denny (1707-1792), women were for the first time permitted to act in a public manner, outside their homes. Concern for children, or the poor, were considered to be issues which suited the feminine nature. Women became increasingly motivated to either educate their own daughters, or become vocal on political and moral issues. This set the scene for great changes in the nineteenth century.

Courtesy the Representative Church Body Library

Increasing awareness that children needed a specific kind of education was a significant development in eighteenth-century thought. As the earliest educators of their children, women began to realise that they themselves needed access to better education. Honora Sneyd (1751-1780) designed educational materials for her children, observed their reactions, but died before she could publish the guides she devised, based on her experience, with her step-daughter Maria Edgeworth.

Courtesy NLI EP EDGE-HO (2)

The Haslams are early heroes of the feminist movement. Every aspect of their private lives expressed their commitment to public actions inspired by private morality. Anna Fisher (1829 -1922) and Thomas Haslam (1825-1917) were Quakers who believed that gender equality would improve public morals. Anna's major success was the repeal of the Contagious Diseases Act of 1864 which sought to prevent the spread of venereal disease by placing the blame on female sex workers. She and Thomas founded the Dublin Women's Suffrage Association in 1874; in 1918, at almost ninety years old, Anna cast her first vote surrounded by well-wishers.

Courtesy Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane

In 1824 historian James Mill (the father of first person in the history of Parliament to call for women to be given the right to vote) wrote that the political interests of women did not need to be represented in government since they were the same as those of their fathers or husbands. Clearly this was a man who never considered the experiences of women who had no right to divorce. William Thompson and Anna Wheeler published this reply based on the writings of Mary Wollstonecraft. Tipperary-born Wheeler (c. 1780-1848) was the first woman to publicly protest against the absence of women's rights in England.

TCD 186.q.73

All through the nineteenth century the call for female access to education grew stronger, and it led many women to become more politicised. This is a picture, from 1906, of the first female honours graduates who had studied as undergraduates in the Trinity College.
E.F. McCutchan (the first woman to graduate in Ethics and Logic); E. Burkitt Craig; M.L. Bennett (the sister of suffragist Louie Bennett); E. Beck Douglas; E.M. O'Shaughnessy, A.J. Sanderson; M. Stuart Baker, one of the earliest female medical graduates of the College. Brigid Stafford was a suffragist and a pioneer member of the Irish Federation of University Women.

TCD MUN/WOMEN/7

Helen Waddell (1889-1965) was a gifted historian and author, who was prevented from having an academic career by the misogynistic G.Gregory Smith, professor of English at Queen's University Belfast.

Courtesy Louise Anson

In Waddell’s unpublished work ‘Discipline’ the main character Elizabeth is married to an anti-feminist academic and, becoming resentful of him, joins the suffragette movement. Elizabeth has been argued to be a mirror of Waddell, with Elizabeth’s anti-feminist husband being paralleled with G.Gregory Smith. Waddell’s friend and literary critic George Saintsbury claimed that Wadell's failure to get the work published was because editors ‘didn’t want to wake the sleeping dogs of Suffraget[t]ism.’

Special Collections Queen’s University Belfast

The gloves come off
After half a century of ineffective constitutional activism, including petitioning government and holding public lectures, the twentieth-century suffragists decided that direct action was the only way to achieve success.                                                            Hannah and Francis Sheehy Skeffington.                                    NMI EW.336 (Loan) (14)

Although in some ways the nation-wide suffrage movement was politically inexperienced, those who were at the forefront of the action quickly became slick activists and effective propagandists. A portable lectern allowed for stealth interventions at public occasions. Not permitted to be on the platform, women brought their own.

Courtesy NMI HE.EW.Temp. 60
On loan from the Sheehy Skeffington family

Women fought a guerrilla campaign using every method available. From bombs and hunger strikes, to humour and heckling, they did whatever it took. The 1911 Census was also an occasion for civil disobedience.

1911 Census return for the Tickell family. Courtesy NAI

Disrupting the census was one means of protesting against injustice. In the column for recording 'disability' in the 1911 Census, Adeline Tickell simply wrote 'Voteless'. (Adelaide Hill Tickell was the author of an article on the Dun Emer press in 'The Book Lover's Magazine', VII, I, 1908).

1911 Census return for the Tickell family. Courtesy NAI

Opposing the census was considered to be an 'eminently ladylike' form of activism. In this instance Mabel Small's family refused to answer the questions.

Dr William Murphy, Suffragettes and the 1911 census of Ireland

1911 Census return for Mabel Small. Courtesy NAI

Mabel Small was a member of the Belfast Suffrage Society, and a sewing teacher in the Municipal Technical Institute. She had been hospitalised when attacked by mill-workers for protesting against Edward Carson in 1914. In 1911 she refused to give information to the Census enumerator as an act of disobedience and the enumerator himself had to do the honours.

1911 Census return of Mabel Small. Courtesy NAI

One of the characteristics of the women's suffrage movement was the proliferation of support groups reflecting the issues which brought women to activism. This also reflected the complexities of Irish society. Authors Edith Somerville (1858-1949) and Violet Martin (1862-1915) were members of the non-militant Munster Women's Franchise League. Martin took a much stronger Unionist position whereas Somerville was more sympathetic to nationalist ideals. Both of them attended the London suffrage parade in June 1911.

TCD MS 11373/2

A symptom of the diversity of views which brought individuals together as suffragists is that Mary MacSwiney (1872-1942), was a founder member of the non-militant, politically inclusive Munster Women's Franchise League. MacSwiney was a republican with 'intensely separatist' ideals; she later left this group as she became more militant and more focused on national independence.

Courtesy Special Collections Queen’s University Belfast

One aspect of the official reaction to female activists, which has not been addressed in much detail, is the violent and sexual nature of the assaults carried out on women at public rallies. This, like force-feeding, was meant to discourage attendance. This report by Mary Earl, refers to a concerted official assault on women on 'Black Friday' 18 November 1910.

OLS X-2-133 no.1 A

A deputation of suffragists were brutally attacked when they went to present a petition at the House of Commons. Despite a number of deaths the Government refused to hold an inquiry into the conduct of the police. Mary Earl wrote 'the policemen were most ... indecent. They deliberately tore my undergarments using the most foul language … they seized me by the hair and forced me up the steps on my knees'. She further wrote 'I was struck ... with a banner pole [and] flung heavily to the ground and walked on.’

TCD OLS X-2-133 no.1 A

Forced feeding was the ‘a barbarous piece of cruelty without parallel’ used against the suffragists, with the intention of demoralising them. Englishwoman Helen Gordon Liddle, secretary of the Women's Social and Political Union in London, hated the indignity which resulted from the lack of privacy when enduring the experience. Although the word 'rape' was not used until the forced feeding of political prisoners in the later twentieth century, victims of the torture in the 1900s referred to 'outrage' and 'violation'.

TCD 83.t.53

The Irish authorities kept an eye on the propaganda impact of forced feeding in England and were loath to embark upon the process in relation to Irish prisoners. The public reaction to them force feeding English women Dorothy Evans and Mary Leigh in 1912 was immediate. This telegram to Chief Secretary Augustine Birrell begs him to ‘for God’s sake stop the brutal force feeding ...'. In a letter to his private secretary, however, he seemed quite sanguine about the prospect of 'killing these ladies by continued torture'.

Courtesy NAI GPB/SFRG/1/27.

Silence and Ridicule
Mockery has long been a weapon with which to silence women who seek to inform public opinion. It ranged in virulence from portraying women suffragists as infants and kittens to suggesting that they were hideous mutants who wished to destroy family life. Many women were prevented from speaking by this activity. Today ridicule is understood to be more revelatory of the anxieties of the attacker. Silence in the archives supports a continuing effacement of women's historical roles. The failure, by families and institutions, to preserve evidence of female activism has created a void in the national record .             TCD MS 4425

One kind of ridicule attacked women's femininity. It quoted 'medical scientists' who said that women who spoke in public, or who wanted the vote, were biological mutants, and included men dressing up as women to highlight what it was believed suffragists were - ugly - and what they wanted to be - men.

Courtesy Public Record Office Northern Ireland D1422/B/19/1

This cartoon gives an idea of how besieged some men felt. The suffragist women, dressed in suffrage colours, ring bells and shout through loudhailers, and avoid capture by attacking from the air. A pyjamaed Herbert Asquith looks out from the bedroom of No. 10 Downing Street. The woman on the far right bears an uncanny resemblance to a well-known photo of suffragist Charlotte Despard.

Photograph of Charlotte Despard

TCD OLS CARI-ROB-0853

Much of the ridicule aimed at suffragists attacked women's femininity. Both women and men are being mocked in this turn-of-the-century stereoscopic view. The 'new' woman, wears the trousers (literally), smokes, and adopts an immodest manly pose before heading out into public spaces on a bicycle. The man who permits this to happen is an aproned laundry-maid, so embarrassed by his circumstances as to hide his face.

TCD MS 4657

This image of a student 'prank' in TCD in 1913 shows male students dressed up as College officers and one at the far right side dressed as a suffragist.

TCD MS 4747/77

The classic way to silence someone is to prevent their voice being heard. Here is an account of a visit of suffragist Dorothy Evans to address the student body at Queen's in Belfast. The male students did everything in their power to prevent her being heard including shouting, setting off a stink bomb and producing a half-female half-male effigy of a suffragist. This 'good humoured "rag"' went on for an hour.

Queen's College Belfast journal. vol 15, no 2, January 1914, pp 1-4

Courtesy Special Collections Library, Queen's University Belfast.

Silence affects women's history, not alone in that their voices were not permitted to be heard but their records don't always make it to the archives and so their stories get lost. Here is a little-known image, still in private hands, of Kathleen Emerson (c.1890-1970) and Margaret 'Meg' Connery in Green Street Court for breaking windows in Dublin in 1912. Emerson (née Kathleen Maud Holmes, (c.1890-1970), assistant secretary of the Irish Women's Franchise League, served two months hard labour (where she embarked on a hunger strike) in Holloway prison for her part in the mass window-breaking campaign in London on 1 March 1912. As a result of the press-induced hatred of suffragettes, she was attacked in Dublin, and viciously beaten, by thugs who then endeavored to throw her into the Liffey.
Meg Connery (1879-1956), 'small, courageous and witty', was a champion speaker and heckler. In 1914 she organised a lecture tour of Longford, Leitrim, and Roscommon, which were the last remaining counties who, until then, had not been addressed by a pro-suffragist speaker.

Private collection.

Article in Studia Hibernica

An excellent example of how difficult it can be to find historical sources for all suffragists. Lillian Metge (c. 1880-1954) remains a somewhat enigmatic figure, despite being, arguably, Ireland’s most militant suffragette. Metge bombed Lisburn Cathedral in 1914.

Courtesy NLI NPA SHE35

Article in History Ireland

This little booklet is an example of the loss of historic evidence for women's activities. It accompanied an exhibition about female suffrage held in TCD in 1975, curated by Andrée Sheehy Skeffington and Rosemary Cullen Owens. Several of the items, listed in the exhibition catalogue, have been lost to public sight. Even the figurine, which adorns the cover, has not made it into a public repository. Permitting public access to any records of female endeavour is a vital act to prevent further erosion of 'herstory'.

TCD OLS L-4-412 mo. 12

Every county in the island of Ireland was represented in the struggle for gender-equal suffrage, but in so many cases the stories of those women and men are difficult to discern in the archives. This fragment of a promotional flyer for a suffrage meeting is very eloquent of this problem. The statue book in which it was used as a bookmark came from the local RIC barracks. It’s possible that the promotional flyers may have been confiscated by police and then used in the station as scrap paper.

Courtesy of Meath County Archive

Success and Disappointment
Almost immediately after the vote was granted to women the Free State Government betrayed their stated gender-equality promises.                                                    IWFL banner courtesy of NMI. On loan from the Sheehy Skeffington family. The banner probably dates from 1908, when the IWFL was founded by Hanna Sheehy Skeffington and Margaret Cousins, and was commissioned from the Dun Emer Guild. As the traditional suffrage colour scheme, of green, white and purple, had been designed in the UK in the same year, the green and gold colours were chosen to distinguish the Irish movement.   

The reading of the Proclamation of the Irish Republic, outside the General Post Office, by Padraig Pearse, marked the beginning of the Easter Rebellion 1916. Its guarantee of 'religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens' represented a strong gender-equality statement that reflected the ethos of the Volunteers and the involvement of many women in the armed struggle for Irish independence. These ideals were reneged on by the first Free State government causing Hanna Sheehy Skeffington to refer to the Easter Rebellion 'the revolution that missed'.

TCD Papyrus Case 16 no. 1

The Free State Constitution enacted by the victorious pro-Treaty side in the Civil War guaranteed the rights of women citizens in the Irish Free State. Women over 21 would have the right to vote and Article 3 of the new Constitution promised that the privileges and responsibilities of citizenship would be unaffected by gender. Optimism among suffrage campaigners was understandably high; they believed that their campaign had been successful and that the contribution of women in the cause of national independence was being recognised and repaid. This was far from being the case.

TCD Samuels Collection Box 1 no. 17

The original egalitarian Article 3 of the 1923 Constitution was swiftly mutilated by men such as Minister Kevin O’Higgins who dismissed the its guarantee of equality by saying that ‘a few words in a constitution do not wipe out the difference between the sexes, either physical or mental, temperamental, or emotional'. He further delivered himself of the opinion that ‘the normal and natural function of women was to have children’ and that this was more important than any civic duty or privilege. This letter, in objecting to the falling away from promised equality, shows the kind of language behind which misogyny lurked. Protesters were assured that permitting equal rights would limit the Government's ability 'to legislate in regard to moral contraventions'.

TCD Samuels Collection Box 1 no. 17

The Representation of the People Act in 1918 permitted certain women to vote and to stand for election. Revolutionary Anna O'Rahilly (1873-1958) registered to stand. She was a sister of Micheal 'the O'Rahilly' who had been killed in 1916 and of Cumann na mBan leader Nell Humphreys. Anna, a founder member of Cumann na mBan, was a veteran of imprisonment and hunger striking in the nationalist cause.

A further insult to the history of suffrage activism is the frequent statement that the right to vote was eventually conceded not due to any act on their part, but that it arose spontaneously due to the Government's recognition of the role women played in the First World War.

Courtesy UCD. P106/215(2)

The Gore Booths were a remarkable family and excellent exemplars of the complexity of Irish society. Constance (1868-1927) one of five children, born to a life of cultured privilege, turned to socialism and trade unionism in later life and advocated armed rebellion against British authority. One of a tiny number of women to reach iconic status in Irish history, Countess Markievicz was the first woman to be elected to the British parliament, but like all Sinn Féin MPs she refused to take her seat at Westminster.

TCD MS 2074

The fact that Eva Gore Booth (1870-1926) is so very much less well-known than her sister Constance Markievicz is a damnining indictment of the exclusion of important female activists from the Irish historical record. Eva was a poet, a suffragist, and a social and labour activist and 'far more radical' than her famous sibling. Her statement that 'sex is an accident' gets to the heart of the injustice of denying human rights, on any grounds, to an individual citizen.

TCD 69.f.194

Women everywhere experienced abuse - physical and verbal - when they spoke in public on any platform. This was, as it continues to be for example on Twitter, an effort to make public spaces unsafe and uncongenial for women; it is an attempt to frighten them into silence. Eithne Coyle O'Donnell (1897-1985) was from a Donegal family politicised through poverty and suffering. Her memoir includes an account of an assault she experienced during the 1918 campaign and an even more serious attack on Mary MacSwiney at Cookstown, county Tyrone a few years later.

Courtesy UCD P61/2 (1)

O'Donnell recalled that she was called on one occasion to go to the aid of Mary MacSwiney who was in a 'state of collapse' having been 'savagely beaten' by a mob who had dragged her off the platform in Cookstown.

Courtesy UCD P61/2 (1)

Republican Mary MacSwiney (1872-1942), was a teacher and a graduate of University College Cork. She was a founder member of the Munster Women's Franchise League but, at her brother's request, withdrew from it and threw her energies into the national separatist movement, founding a Cork branch of Cumannn na mBan in 1914. Her raised political profile, as a result of her activities during and after her brother's hunger strike and death, meant that in June 1921 she was elected to the dáil for Cork city.

Courtesy NLI

After 1923 women's rights to equal citizenship were deliberately and systematically undermined by restrictive anti-female legislation. The 1926 Civil Service Act legalised a gender barrier in competitions for posts; Juries Service Act 1927 effectively barred them from jury service; from 1932 female civil servants and teachers had to leave work on marriage; in 1934 there was a complete ban on the importation of contraceptives; in 1936 the Conditions of Employment Act empowered the minister to restrict the employment of women in Industry; and the 1937 Constitution signified the home as the rightful place of women. Complaints flooded in, including from international observers such as the Six-Point Group a feminist movement founded in 1921 for legislative reform.

Courtesy NAI TAOIS/S9880

Author Dorothy Macardle (1889-1958) is an important figure in the history of Irish liberalism. She was dismissed from her teaching post in Alexandra College for her republican activism and a hunger strike in Mountjoy undermined her health. She was a founder member of Fianna Fáil and considered to be an apologist for de Valera but became disillusioned by his treatment of women as the century progressed.

Courtesy NAI TAOIS/S9880

The Open Door Council, founded in 1926, was particularly opposed to restrictions on female economic freedom, which tended to be justified under the guise of 'protecting' women from unsuitable (and well-paid) work. One can only hope that Éamon de Valera was alive to the irony of being lectured on the meaning of the Proclamation by a London-based women's organisation.

Courtesy NAI TAOIS/S9880

This is the badge which radical pacifist Francis Sheehy Skeffington (1878-1916) was wearing when he was murdered by Captain John Bowen-Colthurst, a mentally unstable British Army officer.

Courtesy NMI HE: EWL:336.2

The official repression of female citizens, since Independence, is not the only way in which the success of 1918 turned to dust. High-minded moralists like the Haslams, Isabella Tod, and the Sheehy Skeffingtons sincerely believed that women's suffrage would revolutionise society. They believed that women would not vote merely along party lines, but would always use their voice against oppression, poverty, injustice and exploitation of the vulnerable. Female voting patterns in the most recent American presidential campaign, for example, would have been unimaginable to them.

Detail of portrait of Anna Haslam. Courtesy of Dublin City Gallery the Hugh Lane.

Dr Jane Maxwell, the Library of Trinity College Dublin
Credits: Story

The Library is delighted to have contributed to the work of the Houses of the Oireachtas Votáil 100 programme commemorating the centenary of women’s suffrage: see Vótáil 100.

This has been a collaboration among the following who are gratefully acknowledged:

Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane

The National Archives of Ireland

The National Library of Ireland

The National Museum of Ireland

Public Record Office of Northern Ireland

Queen's University Belfast

The Representative Church Body Library

UCD Archives

With thanks to the copyright holders for Sheehy Skeffington, Edith Somerville, Dorothy Macardle, Kathleen Emerson and Helen Waddell and to all county and local historians and archivists who responded to our queries.

Grateful thanks to colleagues in TCD: Caoimhe Ni Lochlainn, Estelle Gittins, Gill Whelan, Greg Sheaf, Helen McGinley, and Leanne Harrington.

Curator: Dr Jane Maxwell

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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