The vote was not an empty symbol but a transformative tool for women

Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington, right, established the militant Irish Women’s Franchise League in 1908, seen with fellow suffragettes.

Dr Mary Strangman, the first female councillor in the city, was vital in the organisation of Waterford suffrage, writes Leeann Lane.

In 1876, the Irish Women’s Suffrage and Local Government Association was founded as the Dublin Suffrage Association by Anna and Thomas Haslam.

The militant Irish Women’s Franchise League, established in 1908 by Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington and Margaret Cousins, also had its base in the capital.

Yet, the first suffrage society was formed in 1872 in Belfast by Isabella Tod, and suffrage organisations emerged in other areas outside Dublin as the campaign progressed.

Suffrage events in Waterford were organised under the auspices of the Irish Women’s Suffrage and Local Government Association until September 1911, when a Waterford branch of the Munster Women’s Franchise League (MWFL) was established following a talk by Suzanne Day, co-founder of the Cork branch.

During the early 20th Century, suffrage debates and talks in Waterford were held in diverse spaces such as the YMCA and in the Quaker meeting house.

Dr Mary Strangman, the first female doctor and first female county councillor in the city, was vital in the organisation of Waterford suffrage activities.

Dr Strangman regularly lectured at the Waterford Town Hall, exhorting her listeners to understand the manner in which society would be improved if women were granted the parliamentary suffrage.

For Strangman, the vote was not an empty symbol of equality; it was a transformative tool. She regularly discussed the manner in which the female vote would enhance rescue work in the area of prostitution and stem the tide of sexual immorality in Irish society.

At a meeting in November 1913, she was concerned to gather a party from within the MWFL to demand to be present at an impending infanticide trial. What influenced the treatment of the suffrage cause in the Waterford press and in the wider Waterford society was Redmond’s political relationship with the city dating back to 1891.

This is clear from an examination of newspaper reports of suffrage activities and the diary entries of the Waterford Quaker Rosamond Jacob.

To examine the beliefs and activities of individual suffrage activists such as Jacob allows the lens to be placed beyond the leaders of the Irish campaign and outside of Dublin, the latter the traditional focus of many historians working in the area of the Irish suffrage campaign.

Jacob maintained a detailed daily diary from 1897 until her death in 1960. She recorded attendance at suffrage meetings, while throughout 1909-14, her active work on behalf of the cause involved collecting signatures in respect of various suffrage demands.

Moreover, Jacob’s refusal to hide her views within her Quaker community and her willingness to debate on the issue of female suffrage at Waterford Gaelic League and Sinn Féin meetings was a form of activism by stealth. Her discussions gradually normalised, for example, the issue of the vote for women for many family friends and those within her political circle.

She noted in her diary on November 13, 1909, “a heated Suffragette argument after tea” and commented how Mr Orr “would give women votes the way he’d throw a bone to an importunate dog, and that is a good way for him to have got I think. He wouldn’t have gone so far 3 years ago.”

Jacob prioritised the nationalist cause over the issue of female suffrage believing, as many other female activists did in the period, that to ask for the vote from an English parliament was to legitimise the right of that assembly to make laws binding on Ireland. This was a view she expressed in a letter to the Freeman’s Journal on April 5, 1911. For that reason, Jacob never formally joined a suffrage society although she continued to attend meetings.

Suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst in a Polling Booth circa 1910.

She was highly critical of the fact that a number of the speakers invited onto Waterford suffrage platforms were English. In a letter in the Waterford News on October 25, she asked the MWFL why the principal speaker was “invariably a foreigner — English or otherwise”.

“I have grown tired of hearing from a Waterford platform such phrases as ‘Here in Great Britain’, ‘How we lost our colonies in America’, ‘This kingdom’ (meaning England).”

In late February 1914, Suzanne Day was criticised by Jacob for not speaking “more about sweated workers here and less about them in England”.

Strangman was forced to remind her that the suffrage cause was conceptualised by many activists as “a worldwide movement”.

The Waterford press records a form of grudging surface acceptance by men of the more visible presence of women in public life in the early 20th century consequent on expanding educational opportunities and the opening up of the local government franchises.

By 1911, Irish women had received the right to sit on and vote for county councils. A year later, Waterford Corporation had two women councillors, Strangman and Lily Poole.

However, at various pressure points, the acceptance of the greater presence of women in Waterford public life was shown to be superficial. And, crucially, the violence of the suffragettes was turned back as a weapon against women who sought to leave the private sphere.

Poole, elected a month after Strangman, in February 1912 declared that “now she had got in, she would do all in her power to show that a woman would be equal to a man”.

This was easier said than done as a very interesting argument at a corporation meeting in August of that year signified.

In a debate over the right of a woman to apply for the position of secretary to the City Insurance Committee, the incident of the hatchet thrown into the carriage in which Redmond and Asquith were travelling in July 1912 by activists from the English militant Women’s Social and Political Union made its presence felt in the chamber of the county council.

Women in the city, Cllr Hackett declared during the debate, “were, unfortunately, trying to drive men out of positions by accepting a lower wage”.

Hackett, who hoped that no woman in the chamber had a hatchet, stated that “the men of Waterford should take up the cudgels and keep Dr Mary Strangman from getting in a woman to the position”.

Women with hatchets are strenuously denounced. But Hackett, albeit probably unconsciously, employs the language and imagery of violence in an attempt to re-establish a gender hierarchy at the level of local politics and local jobs.

During the period of debate on the third Home Rule Bill of 1912, the issue of suffrage versus the nationalist cause crystallised. In 1910, a cross-party Conciliation Committee had been appointed to draft a women’s suffrage bill that would find favour with all parties.

Suffragette illustration from the ‘Irish Citizen’ newspaper

The following year, the new Conciliation Bill came before Parliament; 31 Irish Parliamentary Party MPs voted for the bill on its first reading, but on the second reading in 1912, not one did.

Home Rule was the priority and the actions of the Irish MPs can be explained in part in relation to fears of the fall of the government over the issue of women’s suffrage.

In his Bureau of Military History witness statement, Nicholas Whittle noted that even in cases where there was a Fenian tradition among Waterford families, support was often transferred to the Irish Parliamentary Party in the early 20th Century.

The Waterford News, while willing to report on suffrage meetings, was not willing to recognise or legitimatise any attempt by suffragists, local or otherwise, to have their demands recognised by the Irish Parliamentary Party.

An examination of the local press indicates that Strangman was to the fore in organising the MWFL to press their case to government, particularly on occasions when the leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party, John Redmond, visited Waterford.

In January 1914, she called on him, as she had on so many other occasions, to receive a deputation of women from the constituency when he visited on the 25th of the month.

Women had “a right”, she wrote to WM Fitzgerald, head of the reception committee, to expect from Redmond “some pronouncement” on the subject of their enfranchisement.

In February 1913, Redmond was in Waterford to open a new bridge and the Waterford News ridiculed and denounced the attempts by two Dublin suffrage campaigners to protest his refusal to include votes for women in the 1912 Home Rule Bill, making clear the lack of support for their demonstration.

Waterford’s first experience of militant suffrage “display”, declared the paper, was “a very tame and unexciting affair indeed”.

One of the women, Helen Hayes, asked Redmond “when he was going to open the bridge for the women of Ireland” and received, according to the paper, a “hostile” reception: “There were cries of ‘Suffragettes’, ‘put them out’, ‘kick ‘em out’.”

According to the report, the strength of feeling for Redmond and the cause of Home Rule was sufficient to neutralise the meagre suffrage demonstration.

Waterford, in fact, saw no militant activism in pursuit of the vote. Given the context of prescribed gender roles, the Waterford News may have described heckling as militant.

This tactic, however, was a staple feature of election campaigns and political meetings throughout the 19th century; this was only militant behaviour when engaged in by women.

Indeed, in pressing Redmond in January 1914 to receive members of the MWFL, Mary Strangman was clear that Waterford suffragists would use only “efforts of an orthodox and constitutional nature”.

Leeann Lane, School of History and Geography, Dublin City University

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