The history of women in Ulster is often studied by looking back to the nineteenth century, seeing it as a time when women had specific goals relating to social concerns, campaigns for education, in particular higher education, property rights, moral issues such as controls on prostitution, and employment issues. In Ulster, women were concerned with many more issues, trade unionism, suffrage and land reform. As representatives of these concerns they campaigned in many of the public debates of the day and were often involved in more than one of these objectives. In the second half of the nineteenth century many of the women were socialists as well as suffragists and although most of these campaigners were middle class they came from both Nationalist and Unionist backgrounds, holding strong views in these contexts. It was only as the new century approached that the forces of British and Irish politics began to force splits in these women’s allegiances, ensuring that their united aims were temporarily dissipated.
The suffrage movement was active across Europe and the USA but these women all had different experiences but the same objective of getting the vote for women. In Ulster the experiences of these women were different both north and south, in the country and in the city, nationalist and unionist, rich and poor. They found it difficult to get anyone to listen to their aims as the concerns in Ireland at the time were mainly to do with the formation of the Land League, formed by Charles Stewart Parnell and the home rule question; the future of Ireland was foremost in the minds of both men and women on the island. These issues dominated the lives of many women and they spent much of their energies concentrating on the issue of the future of Ireland rather than the single issue of suffrage.
Though women in Ireland were not granted the vote until 1918 they were very active in the previous 100 years. In Ulster their activism can be linked to the influence of Mary Ann McCracken who is better known as the sister of Henry Joy McCracken, the famous northern leader of the 1798 rebellion, but who was herself active in seeking equality and reform. Mary Ann McCracken worked tirelessly for the women and girls in the Belfast Poor House, a middle class liberal she was influenced by two great European movements, the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution and her activism began in the heyday of Belfast, the ‘golden age’, at the close of the eighteenth century. As early as 1797 when she was only 26, she wrote to her brother in Dublin prison;
I hope the present era will produce some women of sufficient talent to inspire the rest with a genuine love of Liberty and a just sense of its value…..I therefore hope it is reserved for the Irish nation to strike out something new and to show an example of candour, generosity and justice superior to any that have gone before.
Mary Ann McCracken died in 1866 when the role of women in Ulster politics became both public and pivotal. They took part in public riots and disturbances when there were any elections and when food was scare they were involved in organising food riots. In the household the upper and middle class women influenced their husbands, brothers and fathers to vote in ways which would increase their influence. For the first time women were beginning to have an unofficial voice and they strove for a more public and influential role. Anna Wheeler a great friend of Daniel O’Connell, and William Thompson published in 1825 a ground breaking pamphlet, Appeal of one half of the human race, Women, against the pretensions of the other half, Men, to retain them in political and thence in civil and domestic slavery, which would become influential for all women of Ireland and became a blueprint for gender equality.
The first Reform Act of 1832 excluded women from voting but there was much discussion of the issue, driven in part by the MP Henry Hunt who argued that a woman who was single, a tax payer and had sufficient property should be allowed to vote. Twenty five Irish women signed the famous John Stuart Mill suffrage petition in 1866 which was presented to the House of Commons in London. In 1867 the second Reform Act used the term ‘man’ to determine electoral eligibility, increasing the male vote to 2.5 million, and the campaign for a vote for women took on a new energy. Lily Maxwell became the first woman to vote in Britain in 1867 but her vote was later declared illegal. Lily Maxwell’s name had been placed on the election register in error as she owned a shop and met all the qualifications required to vote under the 1832 act, her only disqualification was that she was a woman. As she was on the register she went along to vote and she succeeded in voting in a by election. Her case and the subsequent publicity gave the woman’s suffrage movement throughout Britain and Ireland a boost. Despite the majority feeling from women in Ulster that this new suffrage movement was a bit avant garde for them a minority of Irish women promoted suffrage from the 1860s onwards spurred on by feminist issues in general. In 1857 women were given the right to sue an ex husband after divorce and married women were allowed to own property from 1882 onwards.
In 1865 the Ladies Discussion Society was formed to debate the issue of a woman’s right to vote along with a woman’s role in public affairs but a society for suffrage was still a few months away for England. Leigh Smith Bodichon formed the first Women’s Suffrage Committee in late 1865 followed by the Manchester Suffrage Committee in 1867 but a suffrage committee was still many years away for the women in Ulster. The 1878 Intermediate Act opened up educational opportunities for young girls and led to the possibility of entrance to University lectures and of taking degrees in medicine, science and the arts. The invention of the typewriter gave women more work opportunities which in turn gave them confidence and a public platform to airs their views outside the home. Women became a presence in society and they began to use the rights that they had so far gained, criticising the various acts of Parliament which excluded them. While Charles Stewart Parnell was in prison the Ladies Land League came to prominence in Ireland. The 1898 Local Government Act gave women the right of election to local and county councils, but still no vote.
Behind all of these achievements up to 1900 were a group of Irish women who in Ulster came from a mainly Protestant background, often they were Quakers who had long recognised equality, but Presbyterians, Methodists, Roman Catholic and Church of Ireland women were all involved.
In Ulster the demand for suffrage was a complicated and multi stranded issue. Irish politics were dominated by the issue of Home Rule and the suffragists found it very difficult to attract attention from the public for their cause. In many cases these women were seen as a hindrance to the progression of Ulster and its opposition to Home Rule. It was the opinion of most men in Ulster was that when women became actively involved in political issues that the result was disruption. Women were mocked in public by the anti suffragist movement as ill informed and with no knowledge of politics. Many opponents suggested that only a very small minority of women wanted a vote and the general consensus in Ulster was that women did not deserve the vote. Women were seen as having a role within their family only, they should have no public function and that their interest in suffrage would bring disruption to the home; household duties would be ignored and that the femininity of women would be reduced. In the case of the Ulster suffrage movement disruption and militancy became widespread when some women who called themselves suffragettes used militant action to further their cause. Ulster suffrage also became entangled in the nationalist and unionist issues of the day. Some Irish women however were determined to promote the suffrage cause without distraction by other political concerns and as early as the 1870’s Isabella Tod established the first suffrage society in Belfast.
At this early stage in the suffrage movement most of the suffragists did not fight for suffrage for all, but were happy to settle for the same rights as men, who were limited by property status. Initially the suffrage movement was supported actively by the upper and middle classes in Belfast, Armagh and Lisburn, these areas being initially the most active. Campaigning usually took place in the form of social gatherings; the women would meet in each other’s homes, over afternoon tea, and discuss their concerns and plans. They also were active letter writers to newspapers and members of parliament who they believed may be interested or sympathetic to their cause. They also gained support through petitions which were sent to parliament in London. Their action was still conducted in a socially correct way; the strictness, morality and politeness of Victorian society were adhered to.
In 1872 Isabella Tod organised a suffrage tour of Ulster which was well supported, attracting audiences of up to 500 at meetings. Spurred on by this support she established the North of Ireland Women’s Suffrage Society, acting on her reputation as a well known and educated proponent for the rights of women. Tod was a prolific writer and the strength of her convictions can best be expressed through her own words at this time;
You know how deep is the conviction of the best women in Ulster….this claim has reached all parts of the province, all grades of society, all creeds and classes, that the possession of the franchise…is an absolute necessity….it is impossible for women to do their duty, and to protect their interests and dignity, without the same weapon men find essential for the same purposes.
By 1896 Isabella Tod was dead but her early ground work inspired many other women in Ulster to take up the call for Irish Suffrage. The Dublin Women’s Suffrage Society was established in 1876 by Anna Haslem and Tod and Haslem worked closely in the years before Tod’s death.
As suffrage became more accessible it also changed, no more so than in Ulster where over 20 suffrage societies had been formed by the early twentieth century. Communication and transportation revolutions brought about by the postal service, telegraph, railroads and steamships carried ideas and people further and faster than ever before. Suffragists in Ulster used these new forms of communication to liaise with suffrage groups across Europe and the USA with remarkable effects.
In the early years of the 20th century the women’s suffrage movement in Ulster gained momentum, but the message from each of the suffrage groups were diverse and complex. Each association had a different focus, from the militant to religious, constitutional to feminist. The North of Ireland Women’s Suffrage Society changed its name in 1909 to the Irish Women’s Suffrage Society (IWSS). It was based in Belfast but had many branches outside the city in Bangor, Whitehead, Antrim and Derry and was the militant side of the movement but was not associated with any political party. The only Irish all male suffrage group, the Men’s Political Union, was also established in Belfast in 1914 which was affiliated with the London association formed in 1910 by Victor Duval. In 1911 the Lisburn Suffrage Society was pivotal in forming the Irish Women’s Suffrage Federation (IWSF) which was an attempt to bring together the many suffrage groups, to campaign with one voice. This federation did bring together some of the suffrage groups with 14 societies in Ulster joining the all Ireland federation but the IWSS remained independent. The IWSF campaigned under the concept of an organisation which was neutral to the Irish political system, they did not consider themselves to be sympathetic to the nationalist or unionist cause, it had no opinions on the issue of Home Rule and it refused to take part in any militant action. Dora Mellone of the northern committee of the IWSF spoke in Hyde Park in London in 1913 and told the huge crowd that Irish suffrage societies were;
Of all shades of political opinion, we have nationalists and unionists, orange and green, extremist and moderate. These women agreeing in nothing else agree on this one point… no one else has ever done this; the IWSF is the only political organisation which has ever held the north and south together…
In theory this was a noble aim but the reality was very different. Many women in the IWSF came under pressure to align themselves to either the unionist or nationalist groups. One such example was the Whitehead Suffrage Society who closed its meetings by the singing of the British National Anthem, instantly aligning them with the issue of Home Rule and unionist politics.
By 1914 there were over 1000 women in Ulster involved in the suffrage movement, and the numbers were growing, encouraged by visits to Belfast by Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) based in London, Charlotte Despard, founder of the Women’s Freedom League, and Mrs Colby who travelled from America and represented the American Women’s Equality Association. It was claimed after one such visit that the IWSF membership grew by 83 and that three further local societies were formed. The societies grew rapidly between 1910 and 1914 but the numbers joining slowed up considerably and there was great effort put in to attracting more working class women to the societies. These women had been largely ignored and even though large meetings were held in Belfast and Derry outside mills and factories, on street corners and in public spaces, the response from these working women was limited. In Ulster, as in Scotland, England and throughout Europe it was the middle and upper class women who were most active. The difference in Ulster was however that the local suffragists liked to join local and not national associations; such was the political and social nature of the province. All Ireland suffrage groups had a fragile relationship with each other, they worked together and suffragists from the north and south visited each other to speak to groups but the northern women always wanted to have a separate identity. The largely rural nature of the country also meant that most of the societies were based in the urban areas of Ulster, Donegal had little suffrage activity and Monaghan and Cavan had little contact with the rest of Ulster suffragists.
No political party was prepared to take on women’s suffrage as a policy and the result of this indecision by the male politicians resulted in militant tendencies growing throughout Europe. The Labour Party supported suffrage but along with Irish nationalist voters was worried about the vote linked to property rights. The Liberal Party under Asquith opposed suffrage despite many of the liberal voter’s approval of votes for women.
In November 1911 Margaret Robinson and Dr Elizabeth Bell of the IWSS were arrested during protests in London and were sent to Holloway Prison. The first recorded militant act by the Irish suffragists was in 1912 in Ulster. The IWSS carried out the first attack by smashing the windows of the GPO in Donegall Square in Belfast. During the summer of the same year two WSPU members caused public outrage when during a protest at Asquith’s visit to Dublin a hatchet was thrown at him. This was a direct reaction to the defeat of the suffrage amendment to the Home Rule Bill. The Belfast suffragettes continued their violent protest throughout 1913, setting fires in post boxes and cutting wires in Belfast telephone boxes. After the WSPU established a Belfast branch in September 1913 the militant level took on a new level. At first the WPSU protested at the lack of support for their cause by the Irish nationalists but they also had cause for disappointment in the Unionist reactions to their cause.
Between 1912 and 1914 thirty five Irish women were arrested and convicted in connection with these militant acts. Hanna Sheehy Skeffington was one of the first women to protest at her imprisonment by hunger striking.
The actions of the WSPU caused deep division in the Ulster suffrage societies as many members, in particular, from the unionist family refused to bring pressure on Edward Carson who in 1913 had pledged support for the suffrage issue. The majority of Ulster suffragists did not welcome the setting up of societies franchised from England as they believed in Ulster had its own particular aims and constraints. In September 1913 the IWSS issued a statement claiming that it was a solely militant organisation, mirrored by the actions of the WSPU in Belfast. Self sacrifice and revolution they believed was in their Irish blood and many of the leading suffragists from Ulster justified their action as being part of their Irish experience of using violence as a political weapon The Ulster suffragists rose to this challenge. Margaret McCoubrey of the Belfast IWSS stated that ‘suffragettes were continuing an Irish tradition of violent protest’ and Mary Baker claimed the ‘spirit of revolt was in Irish blood’.
The suffragists in Belfast when imprisoned refused food in protest at the lack of recognition of their political status. The authorities were worried that if the suffragists died in prison that the public support for them would gain ground and so they began to release the women prisoners. Soon all suffragists took up hunger strikes in prison and the prison authorities started to force feed the women instead of releasing them. This involved shoving a feeding tube down the throat or nose of the prisoner and then introducing liquid into the tube. The procedure was very violent and often caused extreme pain and violent sickness. This practice of force feeding brought about public outcry and in 1913 the Cat and Mouse Act was introduced by the British Government to try and prevent suffragists from getting public support for their hunger strikes. The act allowed the prison authorities to release suffragettes on hunger strike who became ill, and then re imprison them once they had recovered. The Cat and Mouse Act (officially, the Prisoners Temporary Discharge for Ill Health Act) was supposed to break the spirit of the suffragettes but it failed on every level. Suffragettes released under the act often went into hiding to recuperate and then carried out more militant acts, but the support from the general public increased fourfold.
In 1914 the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), which had been founded in England in 1903, decided to begin a militant campaign in Belfast after they established an Ulster branch in September 1913, which would coincide with a rise in militancy in England.
At the start of 1914 the IWSS and WSPU began to have joint meetings but by 1914 so many women from the IWSS had also joined the WSPU that the IWSS disbanded.
Dorothy Evans was the organiser of the WSPU in Ulster and she wrote many letters to Carson asking him to fulfil his suffrage pledge and when it became increasingly obvious that this was not going to happen members of the Belfast branch held a siege on the doorstep of his London home which lasted for nearly five days before he agreed to meet with them. A truce was declared by the protesters but it was short lived when Carson refused to guarantee the rights of Ulster women in the British political system. On the 13th April 1914 Evans ended the truce by stating that.
Carson was no friend of women…they…declared war on …Carson. The civil war that was absolutely certain was the one between the women and the powers that be’
In the days that followed 20 post boxes were attacked and Belfast was in the middle of a ‘genuine revolution’.
Abbeylands, the Whiteabbey mansion of Sir Hugh McCalmont was attacked, (see previous page) Orlands, another large house at Kilroot near Carrickfergus was destroyed by a fire set by the suffragettes (facing page). Many of the attacks were aimed at property associated with unionism. Windows were smashed at unionist headquarters and members of the WSPU broke into the home of James Craig, the unionist deputy leader, and the home of the Lord Mayor of Belfast was also targeted.
Public property also came under attack. Newtownards Race Stand in Co Down, Ballylesson Church in Lisburn were targeted outside the city. Golf greens was destroyed, Cavehill Bowling and Tennis Club in north Belfast was extensively damaged after an early form of petrol bomb attack, the Tea House at Bellevue and the Annadale Hall in south Belfast were destroyed by incendiary devices.
One suffragette even forced her way into the offices of Ulster’s most prominent newspapers offices to slap the faces of their editors who disagreed publically with the suffragette militancy.
On the 3rd July 1914 the suffragettes bombed the Church of Ireland cathedral in Lisburn. The small explosion blew out one of the oldest stain glass windows and caused outrage in the town. The four women arrested after that attack at the home of a Mrs Metge had to receive police protection when they were taken into custody. All the windows of Mrs Metges home were broken by residents opposed to the actions of these women. 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.
Suffragettes in Ulster who were arrested were housed in ‘A’ wing of Crumlin Road Gaol in Belfast. During 1914 the prison was filled sporadically with these women and two of the most high profile prisoners were Dorothy Evans and Madge Muir who famously were arrested for possession of explosive substances after arson attacks. The local police had kept the women under surveillance during 1914 and when they were sure that they would find a weapon cache they raided their residence in University Street in Belfast. There they found arms and explosives and the women were charged and brought to court. During their court hearing Miss Evans was so noisy and aggressive that she had to be restrained by a number of constables. The magistrate cleared the court and decided that the proceedings could not continue in the court house and moved the whole court to a desk in the corridor outside Miss Evan’s open cell door. The magistrate then remanded the women in custody where they promptly began a hunger strike and when they were released under the Cat and Mouse Act they hired a car, festooned it with Suffragette flags and paraphernalia and drove it around Belfast city centre and past the court where they had caused so much outrage. They were soon rearrested.
As World War 1 raged women were asked to take on many of the traditional male roles as there was a serious shortage of manpower and it was this along with the suffrage movement which changed public perception on what a woman was capable of doing. In 1917 the women’s suffrage bill was debated in the House of Commons and finally in January 1918 the Representation of Peoples Act gave votes to women, provided that they were aged over thirty and that they or their husband met a property qualification. The suffrage movement at this point lost impetus both in Ulster and across Europe and USA. After the partition of Ireland in 1921 there seemed to be little appetite in Ulster for a continued fight for equal suffrage and the various local suffrage organisations either disbanded or simply petered out.
In 1928 the Equal Franchise Act was passed giving women in Ulster equal voting rights with men allowing all women aged over 21 to vote in elections.