In this Women’s Lives Women’s Voices feature Historian Dr Angela Byrne from Donegal highlights the historical struggles faced by women here in Ireland. And she pays tribute to Rose Brogan, Ethna Carbery, Máire de Paor, Maureen Wall, née MacGeehin, Kathleen ‘Kay’ McNulty and Margaret ‘Pearl’ Dunlevy, inspiring historical women with Donegal connections.
By Angela Byrne
This is a good time to reflect on women in Irish society in the past and in the present. The ‘Decade of Centenaries’ and its commemorations gave the people of Ireland an opportunity to re-examine the keystone moments in our national story. Remarkable figures emerged from the shadows as we heard new stories about the women and children of the 1913 Lockout and the Easter Rising. The volunteer-run Her story Project established a series of local and national events to provide a platform for telling Irish women’s stories. One of the great successes of the recent commemorations was the naming of Dublin’s newest bridge after the republican and labour activist, Rosie Hackett. This is the first of our capital’s twenty-one bridges to bear a woman’s name.
In 2018, we celebrated the centenary of what Catriona Crowe has called “the single greatest human rights achievement of the entire decade of centenaries” – the extension of voting rights to women on 6 February 1918. The Representation of the People Act enfranchised some 8.4 million women across Britain and Ireland – but only property-holders aged 30 and above. In 1922, the constitution of the Irish Free State extended the franchise to all Irish women and men aged 21 and over, but for a period of four years, younger and poorer women remained voiceless.
Women’s suffrage was won after decades of effort by campaigners like Anna and Thomas Haslam of the Women’s Suffrage Association, and the more “militant” Irish Women’s Franchise League (IWFL) established by Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington and Margaret Cousins. The IWFL brought much more public attention to the women’s movement because they refused to be confined by social expectations of women’s behaviour. Tactics ranged from petitioning to window smashing. In 1909, English suffragettes in became the first to use hunger striking as a form of protest, leading to the infamous ‘Cat and Mouse Act’ of 1913, which allowed the temporary release and recapture of hunger strikers in response to public objections to force-feeding. In 1912, the Irish Women’s Franchise League established its own weekly newspaper, The Irish Citizen, which ran until 1920. In its pages, suffragists of all political shades debated their differing interpretations of feminism.
On 21 November 1918, the UK parliament voted in the Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act. The act simply stated: “A woman shall not be disqualified by sex or marriage for being elected to or sitting or voting as a Member of the Commons House of Parliament.” Women aged over 21 now had the right to stand for general election. Just weeks later, on 14 December 1918, Constance Markievicz became the first woman to win a seat at Westminster. She abstained in favour of sitting in the First Dáil.
In her celebrated 1995 book The Prospect Before Her, the historian Olwen Hufton wrote that women’s absence from history pointed to “either a grave sin of omission or to a flagrant suppression of the evidence, and hence to a distortion of the record by historians of former times. Whether the omission was unconscious or deliberate, the result was the same: women, with a few notable exceptions, had been denied a history.” Let’s celebrate our suffrage centenary by continuing to challenge that denial, to give silenced women a voice.
Discover some of Donegal’s Historical Women
Please take the time to read further features written by Angela and discover more about Donegal’s inspiring historical women by clicking on the pictures below.
“I hope that these features will raise awareness of the richness of the lives of Donegal women in the past, shine a light on their achievements, and show how they overcame barriers to education and other obstacles. Reflecting on past lives can help us to contextualise current issues and to understand changes and continuities. With that in mind, this series will focus on past women’s struggles for equality, access to education and work, and social justice.”
Dr Angela Byrne
About Dr Angela Byrne
Angela Byrne is a historian specialising in migration and women’s history. She is Research Associate at Ulster University and, in 2018-19, was the inaugural DFAT Historian-in-Residence at EPIC The Irish Emigration Museum. She is author of Geographies of the Romantic North (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), A Scientific, Antiquarian and Picturesque Tour: John (Fiott) Lee in Ireland, England and Wales, 1806–1807 (Routledge for Hakluyt Society, 2018), and many articles and book chapters on the histories of travel and exploration, the Irish abroad, and women in the sciences.
She has previously held lecturing and research positions in University of Toronto, University of Greenwich, Maynooth University, and the Royal Irish Academy, as well as visiting fellowships at Cambridge University, the All-Russia State Library for Foreign Literature (Moscow), and the Huntington Library (Los Angeles). Her research is concerned with cross-cultural encounters and the experiences of women and migrants in the past.