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History: As our election looms, spare a thought for the women of 1920

Women stood for election for the first time in 1920, in considerable numbers, writes Dr Margaret Ward.

Members of the Galway Feminist Collective read aloud the names of imprisoned Irish Suffragettes at a ceremony in 2018.
Members of the Galway Feminist Collective read aloud the names of imprisoned Irish Suffragettes at a ceremony in 2018.
Image: PA Archive/PA Images

ON 15 JANUARY 1920, in the first proportional representation election in Ireland, considerable numbers of women stood for seats on borough and urban district councils.

Republican women had organised themselves into Cumann na d’Teachtaire, determined to ensure that women would be adequately represented in political and public life, while feminists associated with the suffrage paper the Irish Citizen also encouraged women to come forward as candidates.

The Irish Women’s Franchise League held a model election in order to explain the new voting system.

They refused to work for any party that did not select women candidates and urged women ‘not to help any group that has not at least one woman on its ticket.’

They felt that women voters had a ‘special duty to their sex and ought to give their first vote to the woman of their choice, for women, being a new feature as candidates, may otherwise not get the necessary preference from male voters.’

national library women vote

A total of 42 women were elected, but this was hardly the ‘fair proportion’ claimed by the Irish Independent, given there were over 1,800 seats available, with Sinn Féin alone winning 550.

How the votes landed in 1920

In considering the record of the different parties the feminists concluded ‘Sinn Fein set a good example, nationalists and unionists follow very tardily and labour ignored women on their ticket and where women ran as independent labour they were not well supported.’

Women did best in Dublin and the surrounding constituencies. 13 women stood for election in Dublin and 5 were elected.

Kathleen Clarke, listed as Mrs T. Clarke (widow of Tom Clarke), topped the poll in Wood Quay and was also elected in the Mountjoy ward.

The other successful women were Hanna Sheehy Skeffington, Jennie Wyse-Power, Anne Ashton and Margaret McGarry. All were Sinn Féin members and all had been active campaigners for women’s suffrage.

hanna ucd Image: UCD Press

The Irish Citizen, referring to Sheehy Skeffington, Ireland’s best-known suffragette, was delighted that ‘the women of Dublin have secured so notable a champion of their cause.’ Six women were returned to Rathmines Council: Mary Sheehy Kettle (sister of Hanna and widow of Lieutenant Tom Kettle who had been killed at the Somme) won for her husband’s former party as a Nationalist, while Dr Kathleen Lynn, her partner Madeleine ffrench-Mullen, Mrs Mulcahy and Aine Ceannt (widow of 1916 leader Eamon) won for Sinn Féin, with Mrs Margaret Dixon for the Unionists.

Lady Margaret Dockrell, a unionist and former member of the Irishwomen’s Suffrage and Local Government Association had been a member of the Blackrock Urban District Council since women first won the right to stand for local government in 1898.

She was now elected to the Monkstown constituency of Dublin County Council, topping the poll. Altogether there were 30 female candidates in Dublin and the surrounding townships, with 14 elected. Mrs Humphreys in Pembroke and Josephine Cantwell in Kingstown were the other successful candidates.

Louie Bennett, the organiser for the Irish Women Workers Union, ran as an independent labour candidate but, despite her high profile, was defeated in her home constituency of Killiney.

Other women who stood on a labour platform included Helen Chenevix, also a worker for the IWWU, who was defeated in Pembroke. Her ‘A Woman Candidate’s Programme’ had included demands for more and better housing, for cooked meals in schools and for playgrounds and municipal nurseries ‘where an overworked mother can leave her young children for a few hours a day’.

women vote Image: JOHN CARROLL PHOTOGRAPHY

Mrs M. Kelly, who stood for labour in Kilmainham, received a bare 14 votes. Two other women, Mrs Foley and Mrs O’Shea, who were district nurses in Waterford, stood on a similar labour ticket and were also defeated.

All had run as ‘Independent labour’ as the labour party candidate selection was the responsibility of local trades councils and labour bodies and women were excluded from consideration. Louie Bennett wrote defiantly, ‘we do not regret the effort we made to bring Labour women into power. Better luck next time!’

In Galway the Irish Independent and the Freeman’s Journal both reported that the poll ‘was considerable’, with women comprising almost half of those who voted.

There, Mrs Mary Nicolls and Miss Hardiman were elected. Mrs Ryan and Mrs A.M. Carney were elected in Castlebar. In Carlow Mrs R. McDonnell, Miss B. Laffan and Miss R.M. Bolger were elected in a ward with nine seats. One woman, Miss Sutton, was elected in Cork; Catherine Breen in Killarney; Miss M. O’Cleary in Clonakilty; Miss Curran and Mrs Hoyne in Arklow West; Margaret McCall and Mrs Rickard in Howth; Margaret Desmond in Macroom.

In Limerick Mrs Crowe was returned; she was the aunt of Robert Byrne who had died from injuries received in Limerick Workhouse Hospital where he had been under guard following a hunger strike. They were all candidates for Sinn Féin.

Two other women, Mrs Gibbings in Killiney and Miss Alice Fennell in Wexford, were elected for the Ratepayers.

Florence Clarke and Julia McMordie in Belfast and Mrs Kydd in Coleraine seem to have been the only unionist women returned in the north-east. Julia McMordie topped the poll in the Pottinger ward.

The two other women elected in the north – Florence O’Sullivan and Margaret Morris – were in Derry, where an election pact between Sinn Féin and the Nationalists ensured that the Nationalists returned.

women in 2016 In the 2016 general election, more women were elected to the lower house than ever before. In all, 35 women were elected to Dáil Éireann – taking 22.3% of the seats.

In June 1920 there were further elections to county councils, rural district councils and for Poor Law Guardians. Fewer women stood for election even though these were to less powerful bodies. As in January, some of the women selected by Sinn Féin were relatives of the men of 1916.

Lillie Connolly and Margaret Pearse were both elected. When Mrs Pearse was asked to take the role of chair of Dublin Board of Guardians she refused, saying she was ‘not equal to the duties’, but women were selected in a number of constituencies, prompting the Independent to remark that the number of women chairmen was a ‘marked feature of the elections.’ While this was some overstatement, women acted as chair or vice-chair in Listowel, Rathdrum, Clifton and Strokestown.

Margaret Buckley, proposed as a candidate by the Domestic Workers’ Union and Mary Clark standing on behalf of the Irish Nurses Union were both unsuccessful, but Miss C. O’Connor, a former suffragette and member of the IWWU was elected as a Poor Law Guardian, the first on a labour ticket.

It was not, however, until 1925 that the Labour Party officially selected a female candidate with the election to Rathmines and Rathgar Urban District Council of Marie Johnson, wife of the Labour party leader.

At the conclusion of that campaign, the Irish Citizen criticised the tendency of republicans to select women ‘because they happen to be relatives of those who have been or are foremost in the fight.’

They made it clear that while the women often had ‘outstanding qualities that justify that selection’ they believed the principle to be ‘a bad one and a poor specimen of male logic.

How would men like it if we reversed and chose those whose sisters, or aunts or sweethearts had distinguished themselves?’

This question was ignored by the politicians, who would soon exclude many capable and active women when it came to choosing candidates for the Second Dáil.

In so doing they would establish a practice whereby Irish women’s best chance of political office was to be related to a male relative who died while in office.

Dr Margaret Ward is Honorary Senior Lecturer in History at Queen’s University, Belfast. Her latest book is Fearless Woman: Hanna Sheehy Skeffington, Feminism and the Irish Revolution, 2019, UCD Press.

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