President hosts a reception to mark International Women’s Day 2018

Thu 8th Mar, 2018 | 17:00
location: Áras an Uachtaráin

Speech by President Higgins at a Reception on International Women’s Day 2018

Áras an Uachtaráin, 8 March 2018

In a world increasingly marked by inequalities of income, wealth, power and opportunity women are at once the most oppressed and the group with perhaps the greatest capacity to challenge and change the present dysfunctional connection between economy, society and ecology.

A Airí,
A Theachtaí Dála,
A Sheanadóirí,
A dhaoine uaisle,
A chairde gael,

Distinguished guests,
Dear friends,


May I say what a great pleasure it is for Sabina and I to welcome you, members of the 32nd Dáil and the 24th Seanad, eminent playwrights, poets and writers, active citizens all, to celebrate International Women’s Day with us on what has become one of the most important annual events in the calendar of Áras an Uachtaráin – International Women’s Day.

Sabina and I, regard it as a privilege to have had the opportunity to work with others throughout our lives in the promotion of equality and campaigns for the rights of women.   It has thus been a real joy for us since 2011 to have Áras an Uachtaráin become a place where we could bring together so many women and men who, through their actions and their words, are showing leadership in their pursuit of equality. We have through many events over the past six years attempted to draw attention to the obstacles, the many challenges that remain to attaining true equality and we have sought of course to celebrate too the new ground that was being broken.

In the course of doing this we have sought support for those who, in Ireland, day in day out, are confronting domestic violence. We have sought to direct attention to the plight of women in the developing world who face gender based violence and discrimination.

We have, as I have said of course, celebrated women’s increasing influence in so many sectors including science and the media, business and the arts but we have focused too on the caring needs of a social economy – on childcare issues and the rights of breast-feeding mothers. Today, at our 2018 event we celebrate women’s increasing role and influence in politics and in doing so take the opportunity to reflect on the journey we have travelled.

Tugann Lá Idirnáisiúnta na mBan deis dúinn go léir cúrsaí a léirmheas agus machnamh a dhéanamh ar an dul chun cinn atá déanta i mbaint amach an chomhionannais do mhná agus i gcur chun cinn agus i gcosaint cearta na mban. Is lá é, freisin, le smaoineamh ar na dúshláin atá fágtha is atá le sárú fós, agus ar na bearnaí atá fós le líonadh má táimíd chun an chothromaíocht a bhaint amach.

Each year, the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women adapts a theme to echo the priority of their annual session.

This year, the Commission, chaired for the first time by an Irish woman, has focused on the rights and activism of rural women, who make up over a quarter of the global population. Rural Women constitute the largest single group of vulnerable workers in the world. They also compose potentially one of the most transformative forces on our planet, because of their potential to act collectively and in solidarity, both within and between nations.

In a world increasingly marked by inequalities of income, wealth, power and opportunity women are at once the most oppressed and the group with perhaps the greatest capacity to challenge and change the present dysfunctional connection between economy, society and ecology.

In the Global South, women are the backbone of the rural agricultural labour force that has become increasingly integrated into the global economy. In sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, over 60 per cent of all working women are employed in agriculture, often working long hours with no formal contracts or legal protection. This precarious work is often further structurally divided on the basis of gender, thus compounding income inequality in rural economies in which the ILO estimates the gender pay gap to be as high as 40%.

In rural areas, unpaid work, - work that is essential but not given recognition, caring for the family, the sick and the elderly, collecting fuel, tragically often doing so in conditions of the threat of violence. Subsistence agriculture, is predominately carried out by women, yet they are widely discriminated against in terms of land security and ownership. Similarly, a disproportionate amount of that unpaid work - child-rearing, caring for relatives and domestic chores falls to women the world over.

In a vision of economy that confines itself to what is measurable, and a narrow version of that, the substance of what should matter in political economy is often lost. Conventional measures of national income and output, such as Gross Domestic Product, which pepper the reports of global institutions and agencies, do not include unpaid work, which is so basic to enabling economic activity. We are reminded of an alternative approach in such work as that of the great Danish economist, Ester Boserup, who has shown through her research that without concerted political action, women would continue bear the cost of development through this double workload.

Women living in precarious conditions, with limited economic power, are also the most vulnerable to the vagaries of global markets and the dangers of a rapidly changing climate, deforestation, desertification and the loss of biodiversity.

It is women and their children who are more likely to become migrants, travelling either to cities or taking often long and perilous journeys to strange and distant countries. For women, the danger is compounded by the presence of those who would take advantage of even the most vulnerable, through trafficking or indentured labour.

On a day such as today then let us recall again that all the members of the United Nations are committed, through the Sustainable Development Goals, to achieve gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls.

The United Nations Commission on the Status of Women has stated that realising this goal requires nothing less than the elimination of geographic and gender inequalities in access to essential services and infrastructure, productive resources, land tenure security, food security and nutrition and income security and social protection.  We have such a distance to travel and our gait is so slow.

In considering progress to achieve equality in our own society, we must also remember our sisters who face so many serious challenges elsewhere on the planet. Our efforts must reach out in solidarity. Are our economic policies sufficient to meet this challenge, whether we are speaking of overseas development aid or, more importantly, the regulatory framework for international trade and capital flows? Are they capable of achieving the sustainable development goals related to gender equality here at home, and at a global level?  These are unavoidable questions, that can generate despair but also hope in how they are answered. 

In considering these challenges that I have mentioned, it is important to remember that we are also here to commemorate, and celebrate, those gains made in parliamentary representation by the hard-fought struggle for women’s suffrage, and to recall and draw strength from the depth of courage and conviction of the women who participated in that great legislative victory of a century ago.

We must never forget that these gains were won through struggle, not conceded easily, and were indeed vigorously withheld in an atmosphere of inequality, patriarchy and authoritarianism.

The attitude of far too many in supposedly polite society to that struggle might be summed up in an extract from an edition of the British weekly magazine Vanity Fair from 1896 describing the establishment of a suffrage organisation by Eva and Constance Gore-Booth in Sligo, Constance was President, Eva the Secretary.  It is reprinted in Dr. Sonja Tiernan’s wonderful edition of The Political Writings of Eva Gore-Booth:

‘The New Woman is still with us and shows herself where least expected. In the far-away regions of County Sligo, among the wives and daughters of the farmers and fishermen, the three pretty daughters of Sir Henry Gore-Booth are creating a little excitement (not to say amusement) for the emancipation of their sex. Miss [I should note that this is spelt Miss!] Gore-Booth and her sisters, supported by a few devoted yokels, have been holding a few meetings in connection with the Woman’s Suffrage (or, shall I say, ‘The Revolt of the Daughters?’) movement. Their speeches are eloquent (un)conventional, and (non)convincing. They are given to striking out a line for themselves, in more senses than one; for Miss Gore Booth has already distinguished herself a lady steeplechaser, and public oratory is their newest toy. The sisters make a pretty picture on the platform; but it is not women of their type who need to assert themselves over Man. & Co., However, it amuses them – and others and I doubt if the tyrant has much to fear from their little arrows.’

The author of the Vanity Fair editorial may have been somewhat surprised to learn that these ‘little arrows’ hit their mark.  As a dedicated suffragette, Eva Gore-Booth on to have an enormous influence in Britain and Ireland. Indeed, Christabel Pankhurst cited Eva Gore-Booth as her inspiration for political activism despite the disapproval of her mother, Emmaline.  Eva Gore-Booth is exceptional in that she combined all of the projects of egalitarianism in her work – trade union rights, gender equality, pacifism, spiritual freedom.

Dr Sonja Tiernan has placed us all in her debt by bringing the life and works of Eva Gore-Booth, as a poet, writer, nationalist, trade unionist, and socialist, and, in her lifetime, a champion for the rights of working people, particularly working women, to the attention of an ever-widening audience. Last month, Sabina and I had the privilege of visiting the gravestone near Hampstead Heath where Eva Gore-Booth and Esther Roper now rest. Their gravestone reads: ‘love that is life is God’.

The term ‘single issue’ campaigner could rarely be applied to these great women of the Suffrage Movements and organisation. While living in Manchester Eva Gore-booth and her life-long partner, Esther Roper, led the Barmaid’s Political Defence League to oppose a provision in the Licencing Bill of 1908 which would have prohibited women from working in licensed premises, throwing thousands of women out of work. It was not only a campaign for the defence of the worker, it was an assertation of the right of women to safely enter such spaces as they wished.

Those who supported the ban on women working in bars included not only those who claimed barmaids were ‘luring men to drink’ but also some well-meaning temperance suffragists who Eva Gore-Booth termed ‘short-sighted philanthropists’.  Eva’s campaign was not only an unqualified success, it had the consequence of ensuring that Winston Churchill failed to take the parliamentary seat of Manchester North-West on account of his support for the Bill.

Eva Gore-Booth worked as a trade unionist in sectors in which women were the majority of the workforce, textiles, but denied representation and understood very well that this circumstance could be used to marginalise women, especially if they were migrants or subject to other forms of discrimination.

It is not only through legislation but through campaigns and actions such as these that so many of the obstacles to the participation of women in the political and economic realms have been removed.  I think of Mary Manning and her co-workers standing outside Dunnes Stores supporting the struggle against Apartheid in South Africa.

Yet, so much remains to be done. The recent initiatives to close the gender pay gap on the part of Government and civil society are most welcome. In doing so it is important to seriously consider the nature and structure of employment, as the UN Committee on the Status of Women have enjoined us to do on this International Women’s Day.

With so many women members of the Dáil and Seanad present today, and you are all so welcome, it is opportune to recall the centenary of the enactment of the Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act of 1918, which enabled the election of the first woman to a national parliament on these islands. I am speaking, of course, of Eva’s sister Constance Markievicz, whose portrait hangs behind me in the Council of State room and a copy of which has very recently been gifted to the Speaker of the House of Commons by the Ceann Comhairle. I trust that it will be hung in a place of prominence.

There may be an irony in this as she never took her seat in Westminster Parliament – indeed she did not recognise its authority over Ireland – but when she was elected a member of the First Dáil Éireann Constance Markievicz was unable to attend its first meeting in the Mansion House in Dublin on 21 January 1919 as she had been interned on the pretext that she had conspired in the ‘German Plot’, though it is more likely that the authorities wished to remove one of the most formidable campaigners against conscription from Ireland.

She was jailed, along with Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington, Maud Gonne – whose portrait, as a result of an initiative by Sabina, also hangs here in Áras an Uachtaráin in the Council of State room – and Kathleen Clarke, in Holloway Prison, only four miles to the north of the Parliament buildings in London.

This was not the first time that Holloway Prison was used to detain political prisoners. It was there that suffragettes such as Charlotte Despard, Christabel and Sylvia Pankhurst were detained during their campaigns over the preceding fifteen years.

It was there that the authorities first began the strategy of forcibly feeding suffragette hunger strikers, illustrating as it does that what began as the mockery of women, so by Vanity Fair’s pen-portrait of the Gore-Booths, had descended into a form of violence, as the cloak of respectability was foregone as soon as the suffrage movement was seen as presenting a serious and determined challenge to what was entrenched and millennia-old privilege sustaining patriarchy and its form of authoritarianism, domination and monopoly of the right to hold property or indeed a political voice.

The long use of Holloway Prison to incarcerate both nationalist and suffragist women – indeed, these were for nationalist women complementary appellations – is a potent reminder that the generation of women of whom I speak stood at the intersection of what Constance Markievicz called ‘the three great movements’ of thought and action which sought to transform Ireland in the early years of the twentieth century: the national movement, the women’s movement and the labour movement.

Is réabhlóidithe tríd is tríd a bhí iontu, bhí siad gafa ní hamháin leis an neamhspleáchas phoilitiúil ach le hathraithe sóisialta i gcoitinne.

Each of these projects were characterised by antagonistic and sometimes contradictory forces – and indeed members and tendencies within each sometimes opposed and contradicted each other. Each movement, however, was envisioned, particularly by its opponents, as, in its own way, challenging central tenants of the British constitutional order – whether that the exercise of political rights should be restricted to men, restricted to those with wealth, or whether all law on these islands should emanate from the British Parliament.

Of the three, the women’s movement was the movement that faced the most implacable opposition – John Dillon, a leading figure in the Irish Parliamentary Party, courageously seeking Home Rule by constitutional reforms, and who would later oppose conscription, on this issue, however famously stated that expanding the franchise to women would be tantamount to ‘the ruin of civilisation’. There were indeed those who held such a view on the impact of enfranchised women.  Their world was under threat but there were others who saw that ‘civilisation’ must be made rid itself of exclusions, that an old civilisation built on such exclusions must be made to yield to what was new, urgent and hopefully egalitarian.

Between these interlaced movements, nationalism - the trade union movement, and the women’s movement - there are obvious parallels and shared strategies. The Pankhursts, mother and daughter, were inspired not only by Eva Gore-Booth but also by the marches held for the Manchester Martyrs.

For many Irish women, the diverse and sometimes conflicting strands of these three movements were but different stages of a single struggle for freedom, justice and equality, one that, it was hoped, would be realised in the institutions, culture and society of Home Rule that might be won for Ireland, or, for the more radical, in an independent Irish republic.

If the fight for the women’s right to vote and for equal civil rights was transnational in its scope – a campaign that crossed and, at its best, transcended class, national and political boundaries – it was also one that took place within the very different political, social, economic, historic, and cultural contexts on these islands.

The struggle was one with a long and painful history through previous centuries, with brave, never to be forgotten sacrifices having to be made by women of their time. We need only recall the Petition of Leveller Women of 1648 with its demand for, in its words, ‘a proportionate share in the freedoms of the Commonwealth’, or Mary Wollstoncraft’s eighteenth-centuryVindication of the Rights of Woman, which sought nothing less than, in her words, ‘the emancipation of the whole sex’, to appreciate the length and depth this shared struggle.

If women such as Mary Ann McCracken - who may have been sworn into the United Irishmen - made strides for women through their civic leadership of anti-slavery and social reform movements in the early nineteenth century, it was Annie Wheeler who first gave a written expression to the demands of Irish women for political representation in the wonderfully titled Appeal of One Half of the Human Race, Women, Against the Pretensions of the Other, Men.

That book appeared under the name of William Thompson, the great Cork philosopher, who described himself in his books as a feminist and socialist and who was acknowledged by Karl Marx, a good friend and fellow Irish writer - he was quick to note that it was Annie Wheeler, and not he, who had written much of the book and to whom the originality of the ideas should be credited.

This historical inheritance was available to fortify and inspire those foundation figures of the suffrage movement in Ireland, Isabella Todd, a Belfast-based Presbyterian and Anna Haslam, a Quaker and businesswomen from Cork.

Their example and their respective organisations, the North of Ireland Women's Suffrage Society and the Dublin Women's Suffrage Association, inspired still more militant suffragists, such as Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington and Margaret Cousins, who were more willing to move on to using direct action to force a seemingly unyielding political order, represented by an Irish Parliamentary Party led by an avowed anti-suffragist. I have already spoken of the courageous and inspirational work of Eva Gore-Booth and her sister Constance who were raising heckles in polite society in their pursuit of suffrage for women.

In November 1912, seventy-one members of the Irish Parliamentary Party voted against the Women’s Suffrage Bill and the Women’s Suffrage Amendment to the Home Rule Bill. This led to the high point of suffragette activity in Ireland, as many men and women feared that the promised Home Rule for Ireland, shorn of all its progressive promise, would indeed continue to be a patriarchal Ireland, an Ireland in which women could not vote, stand for office, or even exercise the most basic economic and social rights.

It is important too to recognise that the Irish women in the suffrage movement were experienced in struggle and while they could differ as to tactics they respected each other as they pursued a shared goal. The term ‘suffragette’ was itself intended as a diminutive insult, but women took hold of the appellation themselves, and even in the popular consciousness today the word summons an image of a resolute, principled and when necessary, direct and radical, activism in the service of a great cause.

As we consider the challenges still be ventured, it is important to recover and to celebrate their achievements.

Last month, I was invited to the Irish Embassy in London to mark Lá Fhéile Bríde with a celebration of the great accomplishments of Irish women. While in London, I also visited the Suffragette Memorial in Christchurch Gardens, only a stone’s throw from Caxton Hall, where so many Women’s Suffrage meetings were held.

Our visit was a reminder not only of the unity of struggle engaged in by the Suffragettes, but also of the divergent paths the struggles took in their distinctive national contexts.

The House of Commons committee that drafted the 1918 legislation sought to ensure that the electorate for the upcoming election would contain an equal number of men and women. Given the number of men who had died in the First World War this seemingly lazy expression of the two-fold prejudice of class and age that was contained in the legislation was required to give effect to the objectives of the draftsman – and they were all men.

It was not until 1928 that an equal franchise was extended throughout Britain and Northern Ireland. In the new Irish State, the context was different, and I would suggest that it is a testament to the activism, courage and fortitude of members of the Irish Women’s Franchise League, the Irish Women’s Suffrage Federation, the

Irish Women Workers’ Union, Inghinidhe na hÉireann and Cumann na mBan that the Irish Free State extended the right to vote to, in the words of the Constitution of the Free State, ‘every person without distinction of sex’ over the age of 21 in 1923.

Formal political equality in the new State was not matched by real political equality, neither was it matched by real economic, social or civic equality. The Irish Women Worker’s Union, founded by women such as Delia Larkin and Louis Bennet, faced an uphill battle, not only against the rulers of the new state but also, at times, against their less enlightened comrades in the trade union movement.

If I may quote Helena Molony, a veteran of the Irish Citizen Army in 1916, a leader of the Irish Women Workers Union, and President of what was then known as the Irish Trade Union Congress, writing in the 1930s:

“[women may have achieved] the once coveted right to vote, but they still have their inferior status, their lower pay for equal work, their exclusion from juries and certain branches of the civil service, their slum dwellings, and crowded and insanitary schools for their children, as well as the lowered standard of life for workers which, in their capacity as homemakers, hits the woman full force.”

Real equality, despite the promise of the Proclamation and the Democratic Programme of the First Dáil Éireann, still had to be fought for in a society that yielded so slowly, and so painfully, to change.

Today, I salute the 35 women who hold seats in a Dáil of 158 members, the 19 Senators in a Senate of 60; a 40% increase on 2011 but still too low.

This moment, this time - one hundred years since one of the greatest victories of the women’s movement – should, and I believe will be, be one of recommitment and re-engagement with the structural sources of injustice. On this centenary we also recall that, despite the many necessary divisions within the suffrage movement – divisions between unionists and nationalists, war and peace, the organisation of the economy -it was capable of uniting women and men around a single, transformative political demand.

Today that should be an inclusive, equal, sustainable Republic of citizens willing to offer real republican egalitarian values to our partners in Europe and the world. 

Despite our diverse political traditions, partisan affiliations, and strongly held convictions, as we do this we must all unite our efforts behind the defence and advance of the political, civic, social and economic rights of women, wherever they may be, live, hope and struggle.

Let us then, on this International Women’s Day, vow to continue that struggle, that is both local and global, national and international.