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On this day 100 years ago, Irish women got the vote

We take a look at the important moments leading up to the momentous event.

Image: National Library of Ireland

100 YEARS AGO today, Irish women were given the right to vote. But not every woman – just women over 30, who had property rights or a university education.

The law that changed things was called the Representation of the People Act, 1918.

The act also gave the vote to all men over the age of 21. When it was passed, because of the criteria around a ‘property qualification’, this meant that just 40% of all the women in the UK could vote. Meanwhile, property and other restrictions for men were actually abolished, and men in the armed forces were allowed to vote from the age of 21.

The act includes the details:

A woman shall be entitled to be registered as a parliamentary elector for a constituency… if she:(a) has attained the age of thirty years; and
(b) is not subject to any legal incapacity; and(c) is entitled to be registered as a local government elector in respect of the occupation in that constituency of land or premises (not being a dwelling-house) of a yearly value of not less than five pounds or of a dwelling house, or is the wife of a husband entitled to be so registered.

Women over the age of 21 had to wait until the Constitution was drawn up to ensure full and equal voting rights. This happened in 1922. The Constitution of the Irish Free State Act, 1922 Article 14 read:

All citizens of the Irish Free State (Saorstát Eireann) without distinction of sex, who have reached the age of twenty-one years and who comply with the provisions of the prevailing electoral laws, shall have the right to vote for members of Dáil Eireann, and to take part in the Referendum and Initiative. All citizens of the Irish Free State (Saorstát Eireann) without distinction of sex who have reached the age of 30 years and who comply with the provisions of the prevailing electoral laws, shall have the right to vote for members of Seanad Eireann. No voter may exercise more than one vote at an election to either House, and the voting shall be by secret ballot. The mode and place of exercising this right shall be determined by law.

PastedImage-16576 Source: National Library of Ireland

The Great Reform Act of 1832 had restricted the parliamentary vote to ‘male persons’. In response to being unable to vote, women in Ireland and the UK began to campaign for suffrage.

Timeline

1847

The first leaflet advocating for votes for women appears.

1866

The MP – and Liberal philosopher – John Stuart Mill presents a petition to the British Parliament that asks for votes for women. According to the British parliament history of his work, Mill was influenced by his wife, Harriet Taylor Hill, in his thinking.

He even wrote an essay, The Subjection of Women, on the topic. (It has to be noted, he wasn’t particularly nice to the Irish in the essay, saying they had “not as a race achieved anything great” and are “a naturally excitable people”.)

In his essay, he writes:

To have a voice in choosing those by whom one is to be governed is a means of self-protection that everyone should have, even ones who are for ever excluded from the function of governing; and that includes women.
They must be thought fit to have such a choice, because the law already gives to a woman the most important choice of all—the choice of the man who is to govern her throughout her life, which is always supposed to be voluntarily made by herself. . . . There’s not a shadow of justification for not allowing women the vote under whatever conditions, and within whatever limits, men are allowed it.

Mill’s petition comes about after a meeting of the Kensington Society (a group of middle-class, educated women). They decide to draft the petition, and Mill agrees to present it to Parliament.

1867

Lily Maxwell becomes one of the first woman to cast a vote – illegally. She is a Scottish suffragist and shop owner, and being a businesswoman, would have been able to vote were been a man. Her name appears on the list of Manchester voters, and she is allowed vote by the returning officer in her local area. But after the case goes to court, her vote is disallowed.

The Belfast Ladies’ Institute is established by Isabella Tod this year. Tod organises the first suffrage society in the north of Ireland in 1871 and leads the first campaign in Ireland for votes for women. Her meeting in Dublin leads to the formation of the Dublin Women’s Suffrage Society.

1868

Richard Pankhurst, an MP, makes a new attempt at getting votes for women. He is married to Emmeline Pankhurst, and father to Christabel Pankhurst, who become prominent suffragettes.

1872

Isabella Tod is among those who set up the North of Ireland Society for Women’s Suffrage.

1876

The Dublin Women’s Suffrage Association is set up by Thomas and Anna Haslam.

1889

The Women’s Franchise League is formed by Emmeline and Richard Pankhurst.

1893 

Women are given the vote in New Zealand, which spurs on the push for suffrage in the UK.

1897

The National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies is founded – it merges the National Central Society for Women’s Suffrage and the Central Committee, National Society for Women’s Suffrage.

It is led by Millicent Fawcett, and aims to achieve the vote through peaceful and legal means. (The Women’s Social and Political Union – WSPU – later splits from this group as they want to undertake direct action).

1898

The Local Government (Ireland) Act allows women not just to vote in, but also to run in district council elections.

1903

In 1903 the real militant campaign in Ireland begins, with the setting up of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). Its members began being called the suffragettes.

You might think of suffragettes as being all the same – but in fact there were two types of women campaigners: suffragettes, who were militant and believed in direct action, and suffragists, who did not believe in militant acts.

Militant meant that the women were happy to use physical force and break laws to get their voice heard. Hanna Sheehy Skeffington, for example, was jailed for smashing a window at Dublin Castle.

Centenary of the Representation of the People Act A crowd watches suffragettes following their release from Holloway Prison. Source: PA Wire/PA Images

1908

Emmeline Pankhurst (of the WSPU) is arrested for the first time in February of this year, after trying to enter Parliament. She spends six weeks in prison, but sees imprisonment as a way of publicising the fight for suffrage. She gets arrested another six times over the next 10 years.

Herbert Asquith is elected Prime Minister In the UK. (It emerged in 2006 that there were fears of a suffragette plot to assassinate him. Two women were seen practicing their shooting skills – and an informant said that the women were suffragettes.)

Suffragettes smash windows at 10 Downing Street.

The Irish Women’s Franchise League is set up by Hanna Sheehy Skeffington, Francis Sheehy Skeffington and Margaret Cousins in 1908 – this organisation wants suffrage to be achieved within Home Rule, and it also embraced militant ideals.

However, when the Home Rule Bill was introduced, it doesn’t include the vote for women.

1909

Suffragettes in Britain begin embracing tactics such as hunger strikes, leading to the infamous ‘cat and mouse act’, otherwise known as the Prisoners (Temporary Discharge for Ill-health) act.

North of Ireland Women’s Suffrage Society changes its name to Irish Women’s Suffrage Society.

1910

In the UK, on Black Friday women march on the UK parliament, and hundreds of them are injured when police attack.

1911

Emily Wilding Davison hides at a crypt at Westminster in order to give her place of residence as the House of Commons so she can cast a vote.

1912

The Irish Women’s Suffrage Society – which is based in Belfast and founded in 1909 – begins its militant campaign this year by smashing the windows of the GPO in Belfast’s Donegall Square.

Members of the Women’s Suffrage Political Union (WSPU) are involved in an incident where a hatchet is thrown at the Prime Minister, Herbert Asquith, when he visits Dublin.

1913

The WSPU establishes its own branch in Belfast, which leads to stepping up of militant suffragettes activity, such as setting fire to post boxes.

Emmeline Pankhurst is arrested for blowing up unoccupied house belonging to chancellor of the Exchequer.

Emily Wilding Davison dies after stepping out in front of King George V’s horse

1914

The First World War begins, and Cumann na mBan is also established this year.

On 3 July, suffragettes based in the north are involved in the bombing of  the Church of Ireland cathedral in Lisburn, which leads to four women being arrested and subsequently jailed.

According to the Belfast History Project:

Further opposition to the suffrage movement came when the government raised the rates to pay for the damage caused. The tide was turning for the suffragettes in Ulster. After years of gaining support for their cause, a few months of militant action threatened to destroy their voice and any chance that they may attain their objectives.

Arms and explosives are found during a police search of a house where two suffragettes lived in Belfast, and they were brought to court. After their arrest, they went on hunger strike.

1916

PastedImage-6645 Countess Markievicz Source: National Library of Ireland

The 1916 Rising takes place – people involved in this include Hanna and Francis Sheehy Skeffington. Francis is shot dead during the Rising, and Hanna goes on later to tour America speaking about suffrage and what happened to her husband (who was a pacifist).

WWI has a huge impact on the push for women to be given the vote, as women went to work in helping the war effort. Direct action by suffragettes decreases somewhat at this time due to the war.

1918

The Representation of the People Act is passed on 6 February.

Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act allows women to stand for election.

In December, Sinn Féin’s Countess Markievicz becomes the first woman elected to House of Commons.

She is in jail in Holloway Prison when elected.

For more information, see this Oireachtas timeline of the ‘road to the vote’.

Read: What the National Library archives tell us about the ‘incredibly dramatic year’ of 1918>

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