Shining a light on hidden abuses in Irish society

As we celebrate International Women’s Day, the suffrage newspaper the ‘Irish Citizen’ still holds many lessons today, writes Professor Louise Ryan.

In recent months newspaper headlines have been dominated by stories of sexual abuse, harassment in the workplace, the gender pay gap, and so on.

It is great that these stories are receiving the coverage they justly deserve, but amid all the shock and surprise at the extent of these secret abuses, one wonders if this is really the first time these issues have ever come to light.

In the days before Facebook and when tweeting was something only done by birds, there were courageous voices speaking out about the abuse of women and girls in homes, in the workplace, and in society at large.

Here in this country, plucky suffragists used their newspaper, the Irish Citizen (1912-1920) to expose a raft of abuses, discrimination, and exploitation taking place within society.

To mark the centenary of women getting the vote in Ireland, Micheline Sheehy Skeffington, the granddaughter of Irish suffragette Hanna Sheehy Skeffington, re-enacted her grandmother smashing the windows of OPW’s Dublin Castle over 100 years ago to highlight women’s disenfranchisement.

It is said that if we do not know our history, we are destined to keep repeating it. So, it is crucial that we learn lessons from the history of campaigning against inequality and discrimination.

Perhaps if we had paid more attention in the past the current wave of abuses being exposed on social media could have been prevented from happening in the first place.

This year there are many celebrations of the centenary of women’s suffrage. The campaign for the vote was long and arduous. However, while winning even limited enfranchisement in 1918 was a huge achievement, it is important to remember that the vote was only one plank of the early women’s movement.

Although suffragists saw the vote was the key to unlocking power and influence in political decision making, they were not naïve enough to assume that simply winning the vote would solve all the problems in society.

Reading suffragists’ speeches and writings from the period, it is striking how many of their concerns still have resonance today. The issue of unequal pay between men and women, doing similar jobs, is one such example.

In August 1917, the Irish Citizen newspaper reported on pay inequality among teachers. At that time while a male teacher on grade 3 earned 78 pounds per year, a woman on the same grade, with similar qualifications and experience, was earning 64 pounds per year.

The Irish Citizen declared: “The determined blankness of the social mind on the subject of equal pay for equal work standard is amazing.

"The new scheme for increases of National School teachers’ salaries has directed some questions to us: Has there been some recent order, overlooked among the multiplicity of such decrees, by which the price of food varies according to the sex of the purchaser?” (August 2017).

It would be all too easy to dismiss the suffragists as educated, middle class women who were concerned primarily with improving the conditions of women from their own class. It would be wrong to ignore the genuine commitment of many suffrage campaigners to tackle the severe poverty and deprivation that existed throughout society at that time.

In Cork, for example, the well-known suffrage activist and writer Susanne R Day entered public life as a poor law guardian. She was one of the first women to hold that elected post in the city and was a courageous advocate of social reform.

In Dublin, Cissie Cahalan was a working class woman, a suffrage campaigner, and a trade union leader. Winifred Carney, perhaps best known for her role in the 1916 Rising, was also a suffragist and trade union organiser among the women factory workers of Belfast.

In December 1912, Carney wrote to the Irish Citizen about the atrocious working conditions inside textile factories: “Many Belfast mills are slaughterhouses for the women and penitentiaries for the children… Spinning is a skilled trade, requiring a long apprenticeship, alert brains, and nimble fingers.

Suffragette Meg Connery with a copy of the ‘Irish Citizen’ newspaper.

Yet for all this skill, for all those weary years of learning, for all this toil in a super-heated atmosphere, with clothes drenched with water, and hands torn and lacerated as a consequence of the speeding up of the machinery, a qualified spinner in Belfast receives a wage less than some of our pious mill owners would spend weekly upon a dog.” (December 1912)

Suffragists sought to shine a light on hidden exploitation, abuse, and violence against women and children not just in the workplace but also in the private home as well.

Domestic servants were an especially vulnerable group. Often working alone, as a single servant, living in a family home and at the beck and call of their employers 24 hours a day, these women were at risk not only of exploitation but also, sometimes, of sexual abuse.

The Irish Citizen exposed many cases involving the so-called seduction of domestic servants. These cases frequently came to light only when the servants became pregnant. However, any woman who was brave enough to take her employers to court faced a daunting experience.

In the early 20th century, the legal profession was entirely male-dominated. Women could not practise as judges or lawyers and indeed were prohibited even from serving as jurors.

Thus any woman entering a courtroom found herself facing an all-male jury and and all-male judiciary. Suffragists were determined that this must change.

Men, they argued, neither understood nor fairly represented the best interests of women. In sexual abuse cases, for example, it was not uncommon for male lawyers to argue that men could not help responding to their ‘natural urges’.

Suffrage activist Marion Duggan wrote to the Irish Citizen in 1914 to express fury at Mr Justice Dodd. In a seduction case in Dublin, he had instructed the all-male jury to take into account “the natural and irresistible impulses animating the man”.

Suffragists like Duggan worked tirelessly to expose the extent of sexual abuse going on behind closed doors in society. She attended court hearings and wrote regular reports to the Irish Citizen.

Many of the cases she reported are shocking even by today’s standards. Incest cases, for example, were not uncommon but were veiled in secrecy.

The suffrage activist and writer Susanne R Day who entered public life as a poor law guardian.

Publicising these cases was important as a way of breaking the silence around such hidden abuses. In reference to a seduction case involving a wealthy businessman, the Irish Citizen editorial declared: “Not a word of this case was allowed to appear in any Dublin newspaper. This is how the press created the legend that there is no sexual viciousness, and no danger to young girls in Ireland.” (July 1913)

In 1912 the Irish Citizen reported a case from Rathcoole Petty Sessions in which a man was “charged with an aggravated assault on his wife by striking her on the neck with a knife, thereby inflicting a serious wound and placing her life in danger, the doctor certifying that she was in a serious condition and had to be detained in hospital for three weeks”.

The husband, despite being found guilty, was not sent to prison but instead was fined and bound to keep the peace for 12 months.

Suffragists were outraged by the leniency towards men who committed acts of violence and sexual assault against women and children. Clearly, the vote was regarded as crucial in giving women a voice in political life and influencing policy changes.

Votes alone were not enough. Suffragists wanted women to have a role at all levels of society. In the words of radical Anglo-Irish suffragist Etheldred Browning: “Factory inspectors — women factory inspectors — women law makers, women police, women on the jury, women lawyers, women everywhere that is the need of our country… rise! You must free all others to be free!” (Irish Citizen, August 1913)

One hundred years on and clearly somethings have changed, but we still have much to do on the road to equality and much to learn from our suffragist ancestors.

Louise Ryan is professor of sociology at the University of Sheffield. Originally from Cork, she is a graduate of University College Cork.

Her book Winning the Vote for Women: the Irish Citizen Newspaper and Suffrage Movement in Ireland (2018) is published by Four Courts Press and is available from bookshops and the Four Courts Press website

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