The Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act was passed by the British parliament in 1919 and carried into the statute book of the Free State three years later. It was designed to remove barriers to equality in professions like law and others, and the top flight of academia.
However, while the top legal posts in the State are today held by women, University College Cork (UCC) historian Clare O’Halloran has highlighted the fact that it took three decades for women to be admitted into the country’s top academic organisation.
The first female professor in Britain and Ireland was Mary Ryan, appointed professor of romance languages at UCC in 1910.
The Royal Irish Academy (RIA), to which members are elected by peers for being leading figures in their respective academic discipline, was slow to follow through on the spirit of the 1919 Act.
Dr O’Halloran will present a paper on how the RIA and the small numbers of other Irish learned societies responded, at a Women’s History Association of Ireland (WHAI) seminar in Cork later this month.
It does not present a very progressive picture.
“In 1906, Douglas Hyde and Eoin MacNeill put the cat among the pigeons when they put forward Mary Anne Hutton, translator of Irish poetry, for membership of the RIA,” said Dr O’Halloran. The proposal was refused, as the relevant statute did not allow women, especially married women, to be members.
It was not until 30 years after the 1919 Act that the first women were elected to the RIA: Sheila Power, Phyllis Clinch, Francoise Henry, and Eleanor Knott.
“It was a great piece of law, but it needed someone to go and see it through,” said Dr O’Halloran. “Nothing happened right through the 1920s, and nobody was going to push for women to become members,” she said.
Almost a century on, recent reports and discrimination cases highlight the continuing slow pace of promotion of women to senior posts in Irish universities. While university managers have promised changes and signed up to programmes aimed at improving gender equality, Dr O’Halloran said there needs to be more than just promises such as those that followed the 1919 Act.
“It took a barrier down, but if there isn’t a real desire to promote women, then things can just stay where they are,” said Dr O’Halloran, who is president of the Cork Historical and Archaeological Society.
“It’s not words that count, it’s actions,” she said. “There’s no point having policies in place, we need action pretty soon. We can’t be waiting three decades like it happened in the RIA.”
The WHAI’s free seminar at UCC’s Brookfield health sciences complex on Saturday, November 12, aims to raise awareness of the wider impact of the 1919 Act, far less well known than the 1918 extension of the vote to women over 30.
Mari Takayanagi, from the UK parliamentary archives. will discuss the act’s passage through Westminster and Sandra McAvoy of UCC women’s studies will talk about subsequent employment of women in the legal profession and civil service.
See www.womenshistory association.com/events.