Women and elections 1918-23
- 1918 General Election. Women over 30 with certain property qualifications could vote for the first time. Sinn Féin were urged to put forward women candidates. Only two were selected to go forward: Winifred Carney who was defeated in Belfast and Constance Markievicz who gained 7,835 votes in a Dublin constituency and became the first woman elected MP to the Westminster Parliament. She did not take her seat in Westminster and became Minister for Labour in the First Dáil.
- 1920 Local Government Elections. 43 women were elected. Women could sit on all Local Government Boards since 1911.
- 1921 'Pact Election'. Six women, all members of Sinn Féin, were elected to the Second Dáil: Kathleen Clarke, Ada English, Constance Markievicz, Kate O'Callaghan, Margaret Pearse and Mary MacSwiney. Four were relatives of men who had died in the Republican cause. Constance Markievicz became Minister for Labour, but without Cabinet status this time.
- 1922 General Election. It was preceded by a dispute about the franchise. The new Irish Free State Constitution gave the vote to women over 21 but the government refused to update the register. This meant that younger women and some younger men were unable to vote. Only two women were elected to the Third Dáil: Kate O'Callaghan, widow of the murdered Mayor of Limerick and Mary MacSwiney, sister of Terence MacSwiney the lord mayor of Cork, who had died on hunger strike in 1920. Kathleen Clarke, Ada English, Constance Markievicz, and Margaret Pearse were all defeated. There were four women senators: Eileen Costello, the Countess of Desart, Alice Stopford-Green and Jennie Wyse Power.
- 1923 General Election. This was the first general election in which women aged between 21 and 30 could vote on the same basis as men. Five women were elected to the Fourth Dáil but Caitlín Brugha, Kathleen Lynn, Mary MacSwiney and Constance Markievicz were elected as Sinn Féin Abstentionists and did not take their seats. Margaret Collins-O'Driscoll, sister of Michael Collins, was the only woman member to take her seat.
Women had full political rights in theory in 1922 but in practice the use they made of them was disappointing. Women were slow to come forward as candidates, they were not encouraged to do so and most women voters evidently put national issues first. The women TDs and Cumann na mBan members who had taken up extreme republican positions antagonised many people. This may have influenced Arthur Griffith who had been a supporter of women's suffrage when he refused to arrange the franchise for women over 21 in the 1922 general election. He may have feared they would vote against the Treaty.
The traditional role model of the modest, retiring, obedient woman preferred by male politicians and by the Catholic and other churches would not give way so easily. Women were advised to return to their knitting, their pots and pans, their fashions. Much of the bitterness and hatred resulting from the Civil War was directed at republican women, together with the blame.
P.S. O'Hegarty, pro-Treaty historian devoted a chapter in The victory of Sinn Féin to the role of women in the Civil War. It was headed 'The Furies - Hell hath no fury like a woman ...'
|Left to himself, man is comparatively harmless. He will always exchange smokes and drinks and jokes with his enemy and he will always pity the 'poor devil' and wish that the whole business was over. The thought of his parents, or of his wife or his children, is always with him to make him consider a friendly arrangement rather than a duel, to make him think of life rather than of death ... It is woman adrift with her white feathers ... with her implacability, her bitterness, her hysteria, that makes a devil of him.
P.S. O'Hegarty, The victory of Sinn Féin, Dublin, 1924, p.104.
The promises of equality enshrined in the Easter Week Proclamation and the Constitution of the Irish Free State were not kept and women were marginalised in the Irish Free State. A more recent historian suggested,
|In retrospect, the opposition of the majority of politically active women to the Treaty can be seen as the first step towards their gradual exclusion from public life in the new Ireland. In the atomisation of the movement which followed, some fell out of active politics altogether, some threw their lot in with the Labour Party, others with Sinn Féin after the foundation of Fianna Fáil by de Valera in 1926, while others like Kathleen Clarke, went with Fianna Fáil, at least for the time being. She and Jennie Wyse Power, veteran of the Ladies' Land League, the Gaelic League, Sinn Féin and Cumann na mBan, were the only two women senators to consistently raise their voices for women's equality within the corridors of power.
Carol Coulter, The hidden tradition, Cork, 1993, p.24.
- Trace the election careers during 1918-1923 of any four of the following: Constance Markievicz; Kathleen Clarke; Kate O'Callaghan; Margaret Pearse; Mary MacSwiney; Ada English.
- 'Women made disappointing use of their full political rights in 1922.' Discuss.
- How does P.S. O'Hegarty try to support his statement 'Left to himself, man is completely harmless'? Does he convince you in his attempt? Give reasons for your answer.
- Discuss briefly the analysis given above by Carol Coulter for the history of women during this period.
- 'The opposition of the majority of politically active women to the Treaty would have serious consequences for Irish women.' Discuss.
- Discuss the roles of politically active women and of women who were not politically active in the period 1918-1923.
- What do you think historians of the 22nd century will write about the contribution of the present generation of Irish girls and women to Irish Society?
- What do you think historians of the 22nd century will write about the contribution of the present generation of Irish boys and men to Irish Society?
- Identify the two most important political or social problems your generation needs to tackle first and give reasons for your choice.
- Write a letter to a newspaper agreeing or disagreeing with the opinions of P.S. O'Hegarty.
- Write an essay on 'Women and elections, 1918-1923.'
- 'Women were naïve and politically inexperienced in 1918-1923.' Discuss.
- Study Jennie Wyse Power and Cumann na mBan in Documents at the end of this section.
- Research the Constitution of the Irish Free State.