Book Review: Irish Women and the Vote: Becoming Citizens

Edited by Louise Ryan and Margaret Ward

Published by: Irish Academic Press, 2018 (Revised edition)

Reviewer: Timothy Ellis

The current ‘decade of centenaries’ has greatly enlivened and stimulated Irish historiography. Commendably there has been much recent research on the role of women in the Irish revolution. This is also partly due to the centenary of women’s suffrage in Britain and Ireland this year, and the appearance of a ‘fourth wave’ of the feminist movement as seen, for instance, in the campaign to repeal the eighth amendment of the Irish Constitution.

It is entirely appropriate, therefore, that Louise Ryan’s and Margaret Ward’s edited collection should be republished this year, a decade after its original release. Linda Connolly offers an insightful foreword to the new edition.

She situates the work in a new context, reminding us that the ‘decade of centenaries’ must include ‘critical reflection’ on ‘gender issues, equal citizenship and the kind of society Ireland is and has become.’ The essays in collection cover many different themes: suffragist ideology, tactics employed and tensions within the movement.



The first essay, by Mary Cullen, a respected and experienced scholar of Irish women’s history, traces the concept of ‘citizenship’ in Irish feminist political thought from the eighteenth century, to the early twentieth. ‘Citizenship’ within classical republican thought entails active, free participation of citizens in society, exercising their “rights” and  carrying out their “duties”.

It was a central concept in enlightenment political thought, and influenced the writings of the early feminist, Mary Wollstonecraft, which were read by Martha McTier and Mary Ann McCracken (sisters of prominent members of the United Irishmen). Over the nineteenth century, women increasingly participated in public life, through philanthropy.

By the twentieth century, the  suffragist Irish Citizen newspaper spoke in several ‘languages’, such as feminism, socialism, nationalism and pacifism.

The vote became desirable for women, as Isabella Tod argued, because it was “‘a necessary means for performing duties.” By the twentieth century, the  suffragist Irish Citizen newspaper spoke in several ‘languages’, such as feminism, socialism, nationalism and pacifism. Nonetheless, its masthead also referred to the ‘rights and duties’ of citizenship, thus drawing on the classically republican language of ‘citizenship.’

As Louise Ryan argues, ‘citizenship,’ for suffragist women entailed participation actively in what Jurgen Habermas terms the ‘public sphere’. By participating in the ‘public sphere’, suffragists sought to problematise the Victorian notion of separate ‘male’ and ‘female’ spheres.

Feminist campaigners against sexual and domestic violence, for instance, contended that the notion of ‘privacy’ in the home, only protected male abusers, who were often either acquitted, or given excessively lenient sentences. Suffragists contended that this inequity in sentencing for sexual crime, stemmed from a ‘double standard.’

Whilst men supposedly had ‘natural’ biological urges that could be explained away, women with a ‘purer’ moral disposition were supposed to know better. If then, women indeed had a “purer” moral disposition, they could purify and enrich public life. They should therefore be allowed to scrutinise the legal process, and even act as attorneys and judges, in order to promote fairer sentences of perpetrators of sexual abuse and violence.

For Margaret Cousins, her public duties included celibacy and vegetarianism. She tied these commitments closely to her suffragism. Holding esoteric, mystical beliefs, she believed that humankind could transcend its ‘animal’ existence and reach a higher, spiritual form. Abstention from sexual intercourse and consuming meat, would allow women to shake off their animalistic, slave-like status.

Whilst men supposedly had ‘natural’ biological urges that could be explained away, women with a ‘purer’ moral disposition were supposed to know better.

As Catherine Candy argues, however, Cousins’ beliefs were somewhat elitist. She believed that the spiritual reform of humanity could only be spearheaded by the middle classes. Her vegetarianism drew on a Hindu tradition which associated vegetarianism with social discrimination in favour of the brahmin caste (the top layer of the traditional Indian social order).

The ‘duties’ of citizenship remained central to suffragist discourse well beyond 1922, as Catriona Beaumont demonstrates. After the creation of the Irish Free State in 1922, discrimination against women was institutionalised in various forms, most notably in the 1937 Irish Constitution which prescribed the ‘proper’ place of women to be the home.

This discrimination was nonetheless resisted by Irish veterans of the suffrage movement. In their resistance, Irish feminists utilised the same language as the earlier suffragist movement. They resisted the 1924 Juries Act (which sought to make jury service voluntary for women), for example, by arguing that “women had no right to evade any duties and responsibilities involved in citizenship.” 



As Carmel Quinlan notes, the early Irish suffragist movement was predominately Protestant and middle-class. The Quakers, in particular, dominated the movement. Although there was sporadic activism in Dublin from 1861 onwards, it was not until 1876 that a permanent organisation, the Dublin Women’s Suffrage Association (DWSA) was formed.

The early Irish suffragist movement was predominately Protestant and middle-class. The Quakers, in particular, dominated the movement. Later suffragists were more radical.

It cultivated close links to the British National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies and its leader Millicent Fawcett. Its chief methods were constitutional, law-abiding and ‘respectable,’ namely parliamentary lobbying, petitioning public meetings and disseminating publications. Its progress was slow, but not without results.

When women were allowed to stand as Poor Law Guardians and Rural district councillors in 1896 and 1898, respectively, the DWSA worked to persuade the public of the need for women to serve in these roles, and to publicise the achievements of women in these roles, thus lessening fears about female participation in public life. As Quinlan argues, the DWSA ‘worked within the existing power structures’ but also challenged ‘the very fundamental tenet that political life was the prerogative of a male government.’ 

Lobbying, public meetings and petitioning were not the only tactics employed by suffragists. In December 1913, ’Dublin suffrage week’ offered a conference, debates, music, lunches, teas, a Christmas fair and a performance of Henrik Ibsen’s play Rosmersholm. As Paige Reynolds argues, the week was dominated by ‘theatricality.’

The most popular event of the week was a debate between a supporter and an opponent of women’s suffrage, a lively, colourful and emotive event. The fact that the debate was the best attended event of the week suggests, as Reynolds argues that ‘the fusion of drama and information remained the suffragists most effective tool.’

Clíona Murphy argues that humour was also a useful tool for suffragists. It made suffragist arguments memorable, communicated points succinctly and allowed suffragists to negotiate difficult subjects. It countered anti-suffragists who themselves humorously mocked the “shrieking sisterhood” and “howling viragoes.”

Suffragist journals published caricatures of their opponents. Humorous suffragist writing deconstructed the absurdities of gendered roles. The Irish Citizen, published a sketch in 1914 which mocked the notion of the “womanly woman.” Suffragette public meetings often entailed much ‘banter,’ which both speakers and audiences enjoyed.

Over time, imprisonment and hunger strikes became a useful political tactic for both Irish suffragettes, and, then later, male Irish republicans. Initially, members of the Irish Women’s Franchise League (IWFL), who were imprisoned for misdemeanours, had a conciliatory relationship with prison authorities.

They treated imprisonment as an inconvenience to be negotiated with in good nature. However, the imprisonment of members of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) in 1912 in Ireland shifted Irish suffragist perceptions of prison.

Some IWFL women consequently joined them in solidarity. The situation escalated over 1913, as the WSPU focussed more of its efforts on Ireland as the Home Rule continued. The unpopular ‘Cat and Mouse act’ was introduced, which allowed suffragettes to be temporarily released when on hunger strike, and then to be returned to prison to complete their sentences. Irish prison authorities introduced a tougher prison regime, seeking to make suffragettes more isolated whilst in prison.

Unsurprisingly, relations between suffragettes and prison authorities deteriorated; and protests and hunger strikes continued, and as Murphy notes ‘the polite, if determined approach of the IWFL had receded.’ This, however, gave the suffragettes a bigger public profile, and they increasingly regarded imprisonment as a desirable political tool. Some republican men recognised the political capital of imprisonment and hunger-strikes, yet they were initially

reluctant to copy suffragette tactics too closely, due to their association with a British organisation, the WSPU. This highlights the tensions between ‘British’ suffragism and Irish republicanism.


In examining the career of Rosamund Jacobs, Lane suggests we should avoid viewing disagreements as ‘divisions’, but rather as ‘tensions.’ Whilst some sources, such as journalism, speeches and autobiography, are more likely to highlight apparently stark divisions, other, more private sources, such as diaries are more likely to bring up a more complex picture.

Suffragists could maintain respectful friendships with those they disagreed with. These friendships could be sustained and nurtured by ‘other’ areas of activism, such as cultural revival. For example, although Jacobs did not join the IWFL because it “did nothing but import English speakers,” she remained a friend of Hanna Sheehy Skeffington, and both shared a commitment to Irish republicanism.

Equally, whilst Jacobs was an ardent republican, she critiqued nationalist organisations such as Cumann na mBan, for merely relegating women to a ‘subordinate’, ‘auxiliary’ role. 

Whilst some Irish republicans supported suffragism, others opposed it, or felt that the national struggle had to take precedence. Provincial Ireland had a similarly ambivalent relationship with the suffrage question. Provincial suffragists, still, nonetheless, found ways to negotiate these difficulties. As Mary Clancy shows, Galway city, despite its relative isolation did develop a suffrage organisation.

Whilst some Irish republicans supported suffragism, others opposed it, or felt that the national struggle had to take precedence.

The Connacht Women’s Franchise League (CWFL) operated in the city and was successful in the small towns of the county. It built a suffrage library and distributed suffragist arguments to the press. Its public meetings were also well-attended.

Less success was achieved with visiting public speakers from Great Britain, however, who did not tailor their arguments to an Irish context. Indeed, Clancy argues that these arguments were better ‘suited to industrial and urban environments than a small town in the west of Ireland.’

As Margaret Ward notes, the First World War further intensified divisions within the British and Irish suffragist movement. In Ireland, although some continued the fight for the vote, many, like their British comrades, threw themselves into supporting the war effort. Others, such as Charlotte Despard and Hanna Sheehy Skeffington, combined their pacifism and Irish republicanism in their critiques of the war.

Significantly, Irish pacifist suffragists were allowed separate representation at a women’s anti-war conference in the Hague; a great propaganda coup for nationalist suffragists. Interestingly, although Hanna Sheehy Skeffington was a pacifist, she drew a distinction between pacifism and the notion that “resistance to all violence is wrong,” supporting the Irish volunteers. The Easter Rising challenged existing attitudes further, and lead to the rise of “a new generation of female activists who argued that women’s rights could only be achieved with national independence.”

Suffragists in Ulster encountered the most tensions. Here, the suffrage issue was complicated by both two competing ‘nationalisms’ and the issue of class, in what was Ireland’s only true industrial, working class city: Belfast. As Myrtle Hill notes, suffragist women in Ulster, were initially, not unlike their middle-class, Protestant, social reformer contemporaries in Dublin. Yet their Presbyterianism gave their ideology a distinct colouring.

Many opposed Home Rule, arguing that ‘Catholic’ rule from Dublin would spell, in the words of Isabella Tod, “the stoppage of the whole of the work of social reform for which we had laboured so hard.” By the 1910s, suffrage activism in Ulster became particularly contentious. The Home Rule crisis stimulated both militant and non-militant activism.

In 1913 one senior unionist politician indicated that he would possibly support women’s suffrage under an Ulster Provisional Government. This naturally excited Irish suffragists, and the WSPU began to focus its efforts on the region. Militant suffragettes also drew strength from parallels between their movement and armed resistance to Home Rule in Ulster, and some Ulster suffragists closely tied their national  and gender identities together.  As Hill notes, however, ‘in accepting the principle of self-governance for Ulster, such a move could not fail to exacerbate the underlying political divisions.’

Denise Kleinrichert examines how class contributed another layer of tension into the Ulster suffrage movement. Middle-class suffragists were not adept at couching their arguments in a way which would have resonated with working-class women, and had little to say of wages and working conditions. Indeed, the campaign for a limited female franchise on a propertied basis, offered almost nothing to working-class women.

Moreover, many of the female workers in Belfast’s mills were extremely young and lacked life-experience, making them less receptive to arguments about the vote. Sectarian differences prevented the political solidarity between Protestants and Catholics that might have underpinned a united movement for suffrage and labour rights. Nonetheless, Winnifred Carney made a valiant effort to organise the working women of Belfast.

Carney was committed to republicanism, suffrage and labour. She participated in the Easter Rising, and was the only woman present at the initial occupation of the GPO. She was not rewarded handsomely for her efforts however, and contested the Belfast Victoria Seat in 1918, with limited support from her party, Sinn Féin; a fact which highlights republicanism’s broader ambivalence about feminism.


Commendably, this book adopts a multitude of perspectives on women’s suffrage in Ireland. The research spans from the end of the eighteenth century, to the middle of the twentieth. There is also a range of geographical perspectives.

This book adopts a multitude of perspectives on women’s suffrage in Ireland. The research spans from the end of the eighteenth century, to the middle of the twentieth.

Although Dublin, was very much the centre of Irish suffragism, perspectives from Waterford, Galway and Belfast in this collection. Catherine Candy and Margaret Ward also consider Irish suffragism in a wider international context. The focus on the subtitle ‘Becoming citizens,’ nonetheless remains consistent. Each essay explores how ‘the vote’ was conceptualised not simply as an end in itself, but rather a means to an ultimate end of ‘citizenship’ which would benefit  both individual women and society as a whole.

This collection engages with a wide body of sources in great detail. Its editors schools are clearly apparent. Margaret Ward, both an experienced historian of women in modern Irish politics and feminist activist, brings much research expertise to this work. Louise Ryan, meanwhile,  uses her background as a sociologist to give this work considerable inter-disciplinary  reach and theoretical reach.

With an edited collection, there will always be topics which are left out and this work is no exception. Although suffragism’s difficult relationship with Irish nationalism features prominently in this work, there, perhaps, might have been more on the complex relationship between women’s nationalist organisations, such as the Ladies Land League, Inghinidhe na hEireann and Cumann mBan, and women’s suffrage.

Whilst these organisations were indeed ‘nationalist before suffragist,’ they represented an important entry point for women into the public sphere, allowing them opportunities to demonstrate that they were capable of exercising the franchise. As the ‘decade of centenaries’ draws on, we shall hopefully see more research on these complex and contested, yet vital connections.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *