Written out of the narrative: Tracking down the Irish suffrage movement

When Donna Gilligan tried to track down surviving objects and images from the Irish suffrage movement, there was little to be found. It’s another example of women’s history being excluded from the national narrative, she tells Helen O’Callaghan.

Written out of the narrative: Tracking down the Irish suffrage movement

When Donna Gilligan tried to track down surviving objects and images from the Irish suffrage movement, there was little to be found. It’s another example of women’s history being excluded from the national narrative, she tells Helen O’Callaghan.

Why did we keep so little? It’s the question museum archaeologist Donna Gilligan asks about the 10 years of well-organised women’s activism represented by the Irish suffrage campaign 1908-1918.

In the lead-up to the 1918 centenary, Gilligan has been on the hunt for surviving objects and images that tie in directly with the Irish suffrage movement – items used by suffragists, objects invoking the campaign, images of the women involved. They’ve been surprisingly thin on the ground. Gilligan phoned museums and libraries across Ireland, the Museum of London and the keepers of the Alice Park collection – Park, a prominent American suffragist, travelled widely, collecting memorabilia.

“I did a public call out for items. I put notices in newspapers, magazines and public places, asking people with material to get in touch. In the end, I found suffrage material with quite a few private owners. Not including archives, I have about 70 3D objects – not huge considering we’re looking at a 10 year period. It’s [another example] of women’s history excluded from the national narrative, something we’re still trying to fix 100 years later.”

Donna Gilligan
Donna Gilligan

Gilligan is one of a broad range of academics, historians and writers set to speak at a major conference staged by the National Museum of Ireland this Saturday. ‘Deeds not Words? Assessing a Century of Change’ will ask what has changed for society – for better/worse – since 1918. A pivotal year for social upheaval in Ireland, 1918 saw World War 1 end, the passing of the Representation of People Act – granting some women the right to vote – and the 1918 elections. In December 1918 Countess Markievicz became the first woman ever elected as an MP to the British House of Commons – as a Sinn Féin member, she never took her seat.

Dr Mary McAuliffe, assistant professor in Gender Studies at UCD and co-author of We Were There, 77 Women of the Easter Rising, says if we were to time-travel back, we’d recognise the women of 1918. “They were women of their time but quite advanced in their thinking about the idea of full and equal citizenship for women in an imagined Irish State. They weren’t as informed about reproductive rights and sexuality as we are, but they were as concerned about domestic violence, sexual assault and rape.”

The Irish Citizen – newspaper of the Irish Women’s Franchise League (IWFL), the biggest suffrage organisation in Ireland – had a ‘watching the courts’ section. “Young women went to the courts to report on domestic violence and sexual assault cases. They were very perturbed and disturbed – no more than us in the era of #MeToo – that so many [men] got off with light sentences, that sexual assault wasn’t taken seriously,” says McAuliffe, who will chair the Rights panel of Saturday’s conference, asking what has changed in women’s roles in education, health, work, wealth, family and home.

McAuliffe says women in 1918 were living in a militarised society. “There were armed men all round the place – Irish men were part of the war effort, the Irish Volunteers were armed, as was the Irish Citizen Army. Cumann na mBan were associated with arms. There was this immediacy of an oncoming explosion into violence.” And yet, women were living in a very patriarchal, hierarchal and conservative culture. “Most women accepted their place in that society. Significant numbers of women were anti-suffrage. They believed in separate spheres – a God-dictated, natural way of the world with men in the public sphere and women in the private domestic one.”

Postcards and cartoons unearthed by Gilligan show society in uproar about women voting. “It was seen somewhere between a joke and a threat. There was a lot of fear about what would happen if women got the vote, this idea the natural order would be usurped.” Propaganda to put people off the idea of votes for women abounded, showing suffragists in the worst light – as ugly, angry, violent, dangerous women, with a suggestion of mental illness. “It was suggested it wasn’t ‘normal’ to be looking for the vote. These weren’t ‘normal’ ladies who could be trusted with the vote. This was a very popular caricature at the time, produced by commercial postcard companies,” says Gilligan, who also found pro-suffrage postcards, produced too by commercial companies and by suffrage organisations trying to combat negative propaganda.

Many of the anti-suffrage postcards come from an album kept by the Cadiz sisters who moved to Roscommon as young women. “These two were militant suffragettes, very ingrained in the Irish and English movements. They didn’t feel so threatened by [anti-suffrage postcards] because they kept them. I like to think they had a good sense of humour,” says Gilligan.

Gilligan has collected flags used at protest marches, suffrage organisation badges, a protest poster (‘Women can canvass, why can’t they vote? Votes for Women’) and a particularly treasured find: a wooden speaking platform created for the IWFL and used by women speaking in public to elevate themselves above the crowd. It was made by the husband of Dora Ryan, one of the suffragists.

While much has been done, we need feminism more than ever today, says McAuliffe. “We still have gender pay and pension gaps. Austerity impacted most on women. There’s a preponderance of single parents among the homeless – single parents are mostly women. We need men and women signed up to changing the culture so there’s inclusion – not just for middle-class educated women – but for women from minority groups, those stuck in homelessness, Traveller women.”

Rosaleen McDonagh, playwright, member of Aosdána and of the Traveller Community, says ‘waves of feminism’ only happen when change comes for a generation of women. “This hasn’t yet happened for Traveller women or for many other marginalised women. Chances may come for individual women – we must always celebrate these opportunities. [But] incremental change for the majority is slow. While settled women talk of a glass ceiling, Traveller women are outside looking in the window.”

McDonagh points to Traveller women statistics, adding it’s important they’re framed within the “gendered nature of racism”: Traveller women’s life expectancy at birth is 11.5 years less than for women in the general population; suicide rate for Traveller women is five times higher; seven in 10 Traveller children live in families where mother has no formal education or primary education only.

How do Traveller women see themselves? McDonagh says the presidential election was a reminder to struggle to challenge racism. “It’s the kids, the small ones, the teenagers, the vulnerable ones that get vilified. When the media moves onto a different story, we’re left with the debris of trying to instil a sense of pride in our children and young people.

“We see ourselves as bold and brilliant. We survived policies of assimilation. Our culture is fluid. We are proud and strong. We are diverse.”

The conference topics span a broad range: importance of physical body for ideas of Irish nationalism in post-Independence Ireland; how Irish women reacted to prevailing post-1922 view that their contribution to life was to marry/have children/keep house; how St Ultan’s Hospital – founded in 1919 by two women – originally intended to treat Irish soldiers returning from war with venereal diseases soon changed into innovative institution run by women for women.

- The conference is organised in conjunction with the exhibition Votes for Women: Suffrage and Citizenship on display at the Houses of the Oireachtas, Leinster House, until December 14. Book ‘Deeds not Words’ conference tickets, €20 (€15 concession), at Eventbrite - http://bit.ly/DeedsnotWordsNMI. Also visit www.museum.ie.

- Donna Gilligan is curator of Print, Protest, and The Polls: The Irish women’s suffrage campaign and the power of print media, 1908 – 1918, exhibition at National Print Museum until November 18

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