Women made to fight for their right to vote

In 1910, when the seeds of a movement were sown, women couldn’t vote. It was a decade-long fight, writes Sandra McAvoy

One night in October 1910, Emmeline Pankhurst, leader of the militant Women’s Social and Political Union, addressed a packed meeting in Cork’s City Hall.

Susanne Day, soon to play a leading role in the Munster campaign for the vote, remembered it as the moment a flame was put to the “unlit beacon of suffrage opinion in the South”.

Hanna Sheehy Skeffington’s Dublin-based Irish Women’s Franchise League (IWFL) had hosted the Pankhurst meeting and a Cork branch was formed after it.

In February 1911, leading members broke away, saying they needed to suit local tactics to local conditions. They renamed themselves the Munster Women’s Franchise League (MWFL).

Early meetings were in Mrs Connell’s Tea Rooms on St Patrick St but within months they had 200 members and an office at 83 Grand Parade.

Over time, branches in Queenstown (Cobh), Bandon, Skibbereen, Limerick, Waterford, Nenagh, Tralee, and Valentia joined them. Writer and artist Edith Somerville was headhunted to act as president.

However, they were not the only suffrage group in the city. There was also a branch of the Irish Women’s Suffrage and Local Government Association, a group founded in Dublin in the 1870s.

Activist Maud Gonne MacBride with the writer Barry Delany and Mary MacSwiney at Mountjoy Prison during a hunger strike in 1922. Picture: Topical Press Agency/Getty

Many in the women’s movement were non-Catholics. Many in the Catholic hierarchy opposed women’s suffrage and it was 1915 before a specifically Catholic Women’s Suffrage Association was formed in Dublin.

The MWFL rules stated that it was a non-party and non-sectarian group and, in 1912, the honourable secretary and chief spokeswoman Susanne Day explained that it was “formed on practical, non-political lines, and there where on the committee representatives of every shade of political opinions in the city of Cork… intense Unionists and Sinn Féiners”.

Electoral successes

MWFL members agreed to promote female candidates in those local elections in which women who met property qualifications already had a vote. These were elections of poor law guardians to the boards that ran the workhouses and elections to town councils.

They believed that by taking on electoral office, women would demonstrate that they were as capable as men. Also, there was a theory that women’s common sense, caring natures, and domestic skills would make them particularly effective poor law guardians.

In 1911, MWFL supported four local women in the poor law elections. Three were elected, including Day and her running-mate in the North East ward, Hanna Mary Barry, who was “mightily surprised” to win. She was a widowed mother of eight and “proprietress” of a plumbing business.

Day and Barry issued a statement saying they had stood “solely in the interest of the poor”.

Day in particular tried to improve food, clothing, and conditions in the workhouse and district hospital (now

St Finbarr’s hospital). There was mighty opposition. Workhouses were a charge on ratepayers and some board members rejected any changes that might increase rates and lose them votes.

Without electronic or social media, arguments had to be delivered face to face at regular public meetings and MWFL hosted both male and female speakers.

Opponents often heckled and harassed the female speakers — a gun was discharged at one event. On occasion, members tried to make common cause with working-class men who did not meet the property qualifications for male voters. They held open-air meetings for dockworkers in Passage West and at Queenstown but a Blackpool meeting ended with stones being thrown. Still, many events were highly successful and supported by men as well as women.

Militancy versus non-militancy

In March 1912, John Redmond’s Irish Parliamentary Party voted with Britain’s Liberal government to defeat a conciliation bill that would have allowed some women to vote in general elections.

There were hopes the Home Rule Bill, published soon after, would permit women who could vote in local elections to vote for a home rule parliament. It failed to deliver and English militants and the IWFL in Dublin increased militant pressure on the Liberal government and the Irish Party.

When English suffragettes attacked prime minister HH Asquith and Redmond in Dublin and tried to burn the Theatre Royal, the MWFL issued a statement condemning them. When Hanna Sheehy Skeffington was dismissed from her teaching job after the IWFL broke windows in Dublin, however, some MWFL members did sign a petition for her reinstatement.

The Corkwomen feared that militancy directed at the popular Irish Party and at a government that promised to deliver home rule for Ireland could be fatal for the women’s movement, associating suffragists, as Susanne Day put it, with “the worst phases of Carsonism in the North”.

In autumn 1913, a militant rival appeared in Cork City. An office of Pankhurst’s militant Women’s Social and Political Union was opened at 16 Cook St by Geraldine Lennox, a Corkwoman recently released from a British prison after a hunger strike.

Geraldine soon stood on the toes of the MWFL by getting in first to talk to local politicians. She brought prominent English militants and hunger strikers Dorothy Evans (arrested in Ulster with explosives months earlier) and Flora Drummond (‘the General’) to speak at City Hall meetings.

A Cork Examiner reporter observed that the students in the gallery were more respectful than was usual at suffrage meetings. By summer 1914, Geraldine Lennox was organising weekly meetings of the Women’s Social and Political Union on Thursday nights in Grand Parade, near the MWFL’s office.

1914: The Great War and the women’s movement

On the outbreak of war in 1914, pacifist Francis Sheehy Skeffington (husband of Hanna) declared that “war is necessarily bound up with the destruction of feminism… Feminism is necessarily bound up with the

abolition of war.”

Varying attitudes to the war fractured a movement in which party-political differences had been set aside when the focus was the vote.

The Women’s Social and Political Union backed the war effort and, by November 1914, Geraldine Lennox was with a nursing unit in France. The IWFL agreed with Skeffington that women should maintain their focus on the vote.

The Munster women split in several ways. The Nenagh branch organised nursing and field-cookery training — actions with alternative

interpretations of supporting the war effort or painfully picking up the pieces in a war of men’s making.

Cork members fundraised for a field ambulance, offered it first to Redmond’s National Volunteers, and then gave it to the British army for local use when they rejected it.

This sparked a bitter row that ended with Mary MacSwiney’s resignation and her accusing “the majority of the committee” of being “Britons first, suffragists second, and Irish women perhaps a bad third”.

There was a group within the Cork branch that opposed war. Susanne Day was one. Their perspective appears to have prevailed in meetings that followed MacSwiney’s resignation.

In January 1915, Geraldine Cummins, Day’s writing partner and fellow league member, joined pacifist-feminist Louie Bennett in signing an ‘Appeal to Suffragists’ to support the Women’s Movement for Constructive Peace, launched by British and US suffragists Emmeline Pethick Lawrence and Jane Adams.

Votes for women

The war was still being fought in 1918 when the Representation of the People Act extended the vote to all men aged over 21 and men in the armed services aged over 19.

Only some women got the vote. Politicians feared the effects of women’s votes on party politics. Only those aged over 30 who owned, or were married to a man who owned, property with a rateable value over £5 were permitted to vote in parliamentary elections.

In 1922, Irish women at last got the vote at 21 on the same terms as men. British women had to wait until 1928.

Dr Sandra McAvoy is a historian whose work has focused on Irish women and politics and on the history of contraception and abortion. She is a former co-ordinator of women’s studies in UCC.

Leading lights in the Munster Women’s Franchise League’s struggle 

Edith Somerville (1858-1949): President, Munster Women’s Franchise League


West Cork novelist Edith Somerville. Picture: Hulton Archive/Getty

Castletownshend writer Edith Somerville and her cousin Violet Martin are remembered as Somerville and Ross, co-authors of the Irish RM stories and The Real Charlotte but, as Edith’s biographer Gifford Lewis says, they were women who “spent so much of their lives trying to improve and alter the status of women”.

That is one reason why Edith, who was in her 50s in 1911, was invited to become president of the Munster Women’s Franchise League.

She was already an enthusiastic supporter of the suffrage movement and had attended a mass rally in London’s Hyde Park in 1908.

Estimated attendance varied between a quarter and half a million. She was impressed to find all social classes represented and that “decent-looking workmen” cheered speakers.

Edith contrasted this with “the revilings and jibings of most of the people we know”.

Edith and Violet were on the committee that organised the 1910 Pankhurst meeting in Cork, and both were stewards that night. In her speeches, Edith included arguments that reflected beliefs within the wider movement on why women should have the vote and hold political office.

They included that, because legislation applied to both women and men, both should be involved in law-making; that giving women equal status with men would have wider social and economic implications, including new job opportunities for women and, ultimately, equal pay for equal work; that introducing women’s perspectives to political discussions would broaden men’s understandings of political and social issues; and, simply, that it was unjust to tax women when their interests were not represented in decisions on budgets and tax rates.

That some of those arguments can still be made in 2018 as reasons why we need more women in politics, is an indicator of how disappointed suffragists must have been that giving women the vote brought little change in their status or political influence.

For Edith, there was a more profound sadness. Deeply affected by Violet’s death in 1915, she tried to contact her through séances and believed she still influenced her writing. Their literary achievements were recognised in 1932 when Trinity College awarded Edith a doctorate.

She died in 1949 and was buried at Violet’s side in Castletownshend.

Susanne Rouviere Day (1876-1964): Hon secretary, Munster Women’s Franchise League

Writer Susanne Day was the youngest of 11 children of prominent Cork businessman and antiquarian Robert Day and his wife, Rebecca Scott Day. Involvement in the women’s movement raised her consciousness of a range of inequalities. Reports of her 1913 play Toilers suggest it highlighted how low wages pushed women into prostitution.

In her pamphlet ‘Women in the New Ireland’, she hoped that, under home rule, women and men would work together to tackle slums, disease, and poor education.

Susanne has the distinction of being both the first woman to stand in a Cork municipal election (in 1914, when she lost by six votes) and one of three women elected as Cork Poor Law Guardians in 1911.

Her humorous and ironic 1916 novel The Amazing Philanthropists focuses on her struggle to persuade fellow guardians to agree to rebuild a children’s ward so overcrowded that it was the norm to have two to a bed.

It only slightly fictionalised her experience.

Theatre was Susanne’s great love. Her short play Out of the Deep Shadow was produced at Cork Opera House in 1912 and three plays she co-authored with friend and fellow MWFL committee member Geraldine Cummins were performed by the Abbey Theatre company. These were Broken Faith in 1913, The Way of the World in 1914, and Fox and Geese in 1917.

Susanne was one of the league members who spoke against war in 1914 and 1915. In mid-1915, she joined a Quaker relief unit in France as an aid worker assisting French refugees displaced when their towns and villages became battlefields. After the war, she settled in London and played no further part in Irish politics. She edited the respected feminist journal The Englishwoman until 1921.

As a journalist, she wrote for the Yorkshire Post and Daily Telegraph and she published two further books: Round About Bar-le-Duc in 1918 (an account of her war experience) and Where the Mistral Blows in 1933.

Susanne died in Cromer, Norfolk, in 1964.

Mary MacSwiney (1872–1942): Committee member, Munster Women’s Franchise League 

Mary MacSwiney

Mary was the one member of the Munster Women’s Franchise League to enter national politics, though in 1910 she could not have imagined what lay ahead.

She became a powerful public speaker but, writing in 1922, Susanne Day remembered her as shy and reluctant to speak in public a decade earlier. She overcame her nervousness and chaired meetings. In one 1914 speech, she was concerned that universal suffrage would extend the vote to “a large number of men and women who are not fitted to exercise the responsibility”.

Her solution was compulsory civics classes in schools, with emphasis on the “duties and responsibilities of citizenship” and the value and significance of the vote, but with the possibility of those who could not understand the concepts not qualifying to vote.

After co-founding Cork Cumann na mBan in May 1914, Mary clashed with Francis and Hanna Sheehy Skeffington in the pages of feminist journal the Irish Citizen when they criticised the Cumann na mBan women for not demanding equality with the men in the Irish Volunteers.

Biographer Charlotte Fallon noted that, for Mary, votes for women was “a matter of social justice” and she remained a member of the MWFL after war broke out until, in autumn 1914, unforgiveable things were said in a row about a field ambulance the group had fundraised for, being donated to the British Army.

Briefly arrested after the 1916 Rising, Mary lost her teaching job at St Angela’s Urusline Convent and that year she and her sister Annie founded the fondly-remembered Scoil Íta.

After the death of her brother Terence, lord mayor of Cork, on hunger strike in Brixton Prison in 1920, she undertook a months-long speaking tour across the US. As a TD from 1921, she was uncompromisingly anti-treaty and twice went on hunger strike when imprisoned during the Civil War. War in Ireland had made Mary a different woman from the one Susanne Day remembered.

It is tempting to imagine what women like her might have achieved if the New Ireland they had imagined had come about in 1922 and they had shared in shaping its future.

She died in Cork in 1942.

Geraldine Cummins (1890-1969): Committee member, Munster Women’s Franchise League 

Geraldine Cummins: A ‘speech-making suffragette’ until her 20s.

Geraldine Cummins was the fifth of the 11 children of Edward Ashley Cummins, professor of medicine at UCC, and his wife Jane.

In her autobiography, Unseen Adventures, Geraldine listed her occupations over the years as “librarian, secretary, novelist, playwright, short-story writer, athlete, agricultural labourer, a woodcutter who wielded an axe and pulled the double saw and in my teens a politician”.

The last was a reference to her days as a “speech-making suffragette until my twenty-first year”. In fact, she was involved until she was 23 or 24.

Geraldine also recalled the time the Munster Women’s Franchise League tried to highlight the exploitation of low-paid female workers, and their efforts to talk to the Sunbeam women ended with league members being stoned out of Blackpool.

During a 1914 ‘Votes for Women’ speaking tour of Kerry, Geraldine was with Susanne Day when young men armed with stones occupied the gallery at one event. She wrote about Susanne facing them down with a “plucky, witty speech” and bringing them onside with laughter.

Geraldine Cummins may have been the force behind the “petition from the citizens of Cork” opposing the re- arrest of Geraldine Lennox. A hand-drawn postcard that Geraldine sent to a friend has survived. Although she was a member of a non-militant group, it depicts a suffragette smashing the window of the Liberty shop in London. She may have sympathised.

In her final days in the suffrage movement, in early 1915, Geraldine supported the women’s peace movement. Two of her brothers died in the war, one at Gallipoli and one in France. Geraldine settled in London but returned frequently to Cork.

She became a successful writer. As well as having plays she co-wrote with Susanne Day performed by the Abbey Theatre company, she was a novelist and short-story writer.

She is best known as a medium who produced a number of books through ‘automatic writing’. She had enduring friendships with Edith Somerville and Susanne Day and was Somerville’s first biographer.

She died in 1969.

Geraldine Lennox (1883–1958): Women’s Social and Political Union Cork representative 

Born in Bantry, Geraldine Lennox grew up in Cork. The 1901 census showed she lived with her family at Mountview Terrace and worked as a cashier.

She joined the militant Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) in London in 1909.

By 1913, she was a sub-editor on the organisation’s newspaper, The Suffragette, at a salary of £2 per week, at a time when statements in the paper were considered incitements to violence. She appears to have been an important link between British and Irish suffragist groups and had spoken at an early Munster Women’s Franchise League meeting.

She was arrested when police raided the group’s headquarters. She and more senior WSPU staff were charged with conspiring with the Pankhursts and analytical chemist Edwyn Godwin Clayton to cause malicious damage to property in a campaign alleged to involve fire-bombing and more serious explosives attacks.

There was no evidence that Geraldine carried out violent acts but a note she had scribbled on a list of Piccadilly stores to be attacked brought laughter in court.

It read: “Not Jaegar’s, if you can avoid it.” She was sentenced to six months in prison.

Like other militant prisoners, Geraldine went on hunger strike, was released when her health deteriorated, and then rearrested when she recovered.

Members of the Munster Women’s Franchise League organised a “petition from the citizens of Cork” against her rearrest and opposing her being forced “to wear prison clothes, to have her hair cut off, and… to be subjected to every possible indignity”.

Later, Geraldine recalled how, while on release, she saw police at her London home and caught a train to the Cork boat. The WSPU paid her to set up an office in the city.

Geraldine served as an administrator in a nursing unit in France from 1914 and lost a brother in the war.

She worked in London after the war, established a successful employment agency, and continued her involvement in the women’s movement.

During the Second World War, she served in an Albert Hall area Civil Defence unit and, in 1942, was appointed to run the Shamrock Club, a recreational club for Irish servicemen and women.

Ironically, it occupied a building lent by Dublin-born Arthur du Cros, a politician whose house was burned to the ground by suffragette militants in 1912.

Geraldine died at home in Cork in 1958.

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