The story of the women’s suffrage movement in the UK and Ireland: how has feminism evolved?

The fight for women’s suffrage was arguably one of the most influential revolutions of our time, not just for the monumental progress made in terms of women’s independence, but for the truly interminable battle women have faced throughout history to achieve it. The grueling economic and legal constraints women had to endure were in place until as recent as the twentieth century in Britain and Ireland and included the prohibition of women to vote in local or parliamentary elections, a woman’s property becoming her husband’s property upon marriage, as well as women having legal custody of their children only up to seven years of age. The campaigns began from the mid-1850s to gain equal rights in a dominantly patriarchal society.

Campaigns for education

Around the 1870s was when campaigns for better access to education and property were raised, and what is particularly surprising about the early women’s rights campaigns is that activists did not shy away from the traditionally separate spheres and gender roles that had long been established in society between women and men, with women upholding passive domestic roles and men the sole providers. 

Instead, the common discourse among these activists was that the future stability of society – i.e., children emerging as fully functioning adults – rested entirely with women, and so these early campaigners actually built their arguments upon the consolidation of these separate gender spheres, on the grounds that a woman’s role and societal duty as wife and mother would be strengthened and greater fulfilled by a better quality of academic education. 

And so, taking inspiration from England’s campaign work on the matter, collaborations between Belfast and Dublin saw increasing efforts made to incorporate young girls into the university system alongside their male counterparts who had enjoyed this freedom since the establishment of university-level education in Ireland.

The movement builds momentum 

The advancement of women to education towards the end of the nineteenth century was extremely significant for the women’s suffrage movement, which had been picking up momentum gradually since the mid-1850s. With the Married Women’s Property Act passed in 1870, married women now had the right to own their own property and money. The extension of women’s property rights was influential in the fight for gender equality and women’s suffrage, straying away from the perception that married women could only be represented by their husbands, and in turn, providing women with a greater level of autonomy.

By the beginning of the twentieth century, a number of suffrage societies and organisations were beginning to take hold; the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) was formed in 1897, uniting 17 different societies, and the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) was formed in 1903, with the Irish equivalent, the Irish Women’s Franchise League (IWFL) set up by Hanna Sheehy Skeffington and her husband, Francis, in 1908. 

Suffragists and suffragettes

This was a time when political unrest was rife regarding British rule in Ireland, and with the Home Rule bill passed in 1913, both unionist and nationalist women struggled with how to approach the suffrage campaign. As noted by feminist historian Margaret Ward in An Account of the Irish Suffrage Movement, women’s suffrage activists debated whether to campaign specifically to either the political side they aligned with – nationalist or unionist – or to wholeheartedly campaign for the unionist or nationalist side and hope that their “victorious allies would reward their zeal.” The divide in the women’s suffrage movement was becoming increasingly apparent, namely between “suffragists” and “suffragettes.”

Suffragists were women’s activists in groups such as the NUWSS, led by Millicent Garrett Fawcett, who wanted to lobby for women’s suffrage by peaceful and law-abiding methods. Suffragists also did not believe in aligning the suffrage movement to any political side, believing that, as Ward reported, “the suffrage banner was powerful enough to unite women of different political persuasions.”

On the other hand, suffragettes were activists who were members of militant groups such as the WSPU and the IWFL in Ireland, and were openly militant in their tactics, believing “ladylike” methods – which had been tried and failed over the years – were completely ineffective in the movement for women’s suffrage. Suffragettes wanted to draw attention to their demands by carrying out crimes and putting increased pressure on members of the government to take action.

Violent resistance campaigns

The WSPU went by the motto “deeds not words” and, led by Mancunian activist Emmeline Pankhurst, undertook various forms of protest, including demonstrations at which they would chain themselves to the gates of government buildings, as well as a fully-fledged bombing and arson campaign of notable buildings and landmarks such as Westminster Abbey.

Two of Pankhurst’s daughters, Christabel and Sylvia, also became actively involved in the cause, and Christabel wrote in 1913 of one of the reasons behind the nationwide bombing campaign; “If men use explosives and bombs for their own purpose they call it war […] Why should a woman not make use of the same weapons as men. It is not only war we have declared. We are fighting for a revolution!”

In Ireland, a campaign of violent resistance also took hold at the hands of the IWFL, including a window-smashing campaign of government buildings including Dublin Castle. These campaigners were imprisoned, where they went on hunger strikes in an attempt to evoke a response from the authorities. While British hunger-striking suffragettes were force-fed, there was reluctance in Ireland to follow suit, with authorities maintaining that the situation was contained, as well as not wanting any deaths of suffragettes to become a “major propaganda victory” for the suffragette movement. 

To prevent deaths, the Cat and Mouse Act was used against hunger-strikers. The idea was that prisoners whose health had significantly deteriorated on hunger strike would be released on a temporary basis to receive medical attention, then rearrested and sent back to prison once the individual’s strength had returned. The National Archives note that this end result did not actually end up transpiring, but was consistently used as a method of undermining and threatening those campaigning through active resistance. 

The war effort and winning the vote

With the outbreak of World War I in August 1914, the prominence and visibility of the suffragette movement was significantly diminished. The WSPU committed entirely to the war effort, making the decision to suspend any militant action and encouraging recruitment to the war effort; in turn, a relationship was built with soon-to-be Prime Minister David Lloyd George, with the implication that while women prevented the collapse of the nation while the men were away, a reward in the form of female franchise was expected. 

On the other hand, Ireland’s equivalent to the WSPU, the IWFL, headed by anti-war nationalist Hanna Sheehy Skeffington, rejected the Pankhurst approach entirely, continuing to campaign for the vote. However, there were also those in Ireland maintaining loyalty to Britain and the war effort, helping to contribute to the workforce by entering the industries of the men who were fighting in the war.

The work of women during the war momentously changed the perception of women in society. Between 1914 and 1918 an estimated two million women replaced men in employment in Britain. The value of women to the workforce and general stability of the country was aided significantly by the war effort and with the Representation of the People Act 1918, women over the age of 30 were finally granted the right to vote, provided that they were householders or wives of householders, owners of property over £5, or university graduates.

This Act, although momentous progress, largely catered to middle-class women, and it was ten years before the Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Act was instated in 1928, where all women over the age of 21 finally gained the right to vote. In Ireland, the separation of Ireland from Britain was an ongoing battle, and in 1922 the Irish Free State was formed, with its constitution promising full equal voting rights to all Irish women.

Women’s suffrage ≠ equality in Ireland

The granting of women’s suffrage at a state level in Ireland did not mean immediate equality for Irish women. In fact, with the Irish Free State newly formed and a strong influence from the Catholic Church, the discourse surrounding women shifted to become a predominantly domestic one, with a marriage bar introduced in 1932 – which remained in place until as recent as 1977 – requiring women to resign from their job once they got married. 

Under Éamon de Valera’s leadership as Taoiseach, contraception was made illegal in 1935 and divorce was also banned in 1937. Resistance was rife by groups such as the Irish Women’s Citizens Association to male-centric legislation such as the Conditions of Employment Act, which proposed to restrict where women could work, and in 1937 this group noted the position of women within the Irish State had deteriorated from the ideal implicit in the Proclamation.

Promises of an equal Free State fell short for the thousands of hopeful Irish women who had fought for their rights, as it became more and more apparent that an Irishwoman’s place in society was predestined to be that of a mother and wife, nothing more, despite the leaps and bounds in progress made over the previous decades. Article 41.2 of the Irish Constitution makes reference to this very fact, stating that mothers “shall not be obliged by economic necessity to engage in labour to the neglect of their duties in their home”. This article remains in the Constitution today, despite much public support to have it removed in recent years.

Ireland’s Catholic influences as a nation have ensured that dated legislation has remained in place for many years. It wasn’t until 1996 that divorce became legal in Ireland, and Church officials at the time ran a fiercely anti-divorce campaign, with warnings that divorce was “un-Catholic” and would lead to instability in Irish society

Although the Catholicism of the Irish nation is often viewed as a matter of tradition embedded into our culture or a part of our national identity, the connection of Church and State has had dire consequences for the female population of this country, with the Mother and Baby Homes scandal and the lack of justice for families affected emphasising this hugely. Minister for Children Roderic O’Gorman commented last month on the “stifling, oppressive and brutally misogynistic culture, where a pervasive stigmatisation of unmarried mothers and their children robbed those individuals of their agency” which was brought to light through the Mother and Baby Homes report.

A far cry from the suffragettes of the 1910s, Ireland is certainly a different place than it was one hundred years ago. As society evolves, we learn more and more about the horrific treatment of women in twentieth-century Ireland and also learn more about issues affecting women today, like the gender pay gap, period poverty and image-based sexual abuse. It is clear that the valiant suffragettes of the past have paved the way for the progressive feminists of our current society, but in an Ireland shrouded in the shames of its past, it is also clear that the quest for equality for women did not stop with gaining the right to vote.

women's suffrage
Photo by Giacomo Ferroni on Unsplash
Rachel McLoughlin
Rachel McLoughlin

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