This week the Irish media is full of stories about the centenary of Irish women getting the vote. So is the British media, because 100 years ago, Ireland was still part of Great Britain. So Irish women got the vote when the Representation of the People Act, 1918 was passed in the British parliament on February 6th. Ireland’s freedom was still a few years away, and those were tumultuous times on this island. Resistance to British rule was gathering steam after the 1916 Easter Uprising. At the same time, the movement for women’s suffrage was pushing ahead.
It’s sobering to realize how long the struggle was, and how long women in some countries had to wait. The Isle of Man extended voting rights to women who owned property in 1891, and New Zealand gave women the vote in 1893. Finland permitted women to vote and elected its first female representatives to parliament in 1907. Women in other European countries were watching eagerly, but some still had decades, even generations, to wait. French women got the vote in 1944, and Italian women in 1946.
Some countries extended the vote conditionally, adding restrictions for women such as having to be a certain age or own property. While Portugal gave some women the vote in 1931, it wasn’t until 1976 that Portuguese women had the same legal entitlement to vote as men. Some regions in Japan allowed women to vote as early as 1880, but it wasn’t until 1945 that national law extended suffrage to women across the nation. Some Aboriginal women in Canada could not vote until 1960.
Suffrage and Sovereignty
That initial British Act did not give all women the right to vote in 1918, by the way. It stated that men could vote at age 21, while women could not cast a ballot until they were 30. In a rather sharp contrast, Ireland’s first Dail (parliament) – formed before the country was free – included one woman, namely Constance Markievicz. The 1921 Dail included six women when Kathleen Clarke, Ada English, Mary McSwiney, Kathleen O’Callaghan and Margaret Pearse joined Markievicz. In 2016, Irish votes elected a record number of women to the Dail. Of the 158 members, 35 are women. (But this is still below the European Union average.)
Irish women benefitted from good timing. The suffrage movement was gaining momentum at the same time as the drive for Irish independence. We also had the benefit of some incredible women working on all fronts. Many of the women pushing for suffrage were also active in the movement for independence. Constance Markievicz was a suffragette who was also a founder of Cumann na mBan and the Irish Citizen’s Army. She was an armed combatant in the Easter Uprising, exchanging fire with the British, supervising troops and setting up barricades. Hanna Sheehy Skeffington, founder of the Irish Women’s Franchise League, delivered food and messages to the GPO during the Uprising. They are only two high-profile examples of the many women fighting for Ireland’s freedom and their own.