Speech by Mrs Sabina Higgins at ‘ A Celebration of Women’s Suffrage ‘
University College Cork , 7 December 2018
A Teachta Dála
It is such a pleasure for me to join you all here in this great Centre of learning as we celebrate the centenary of the first exercise of women’s suffrage on our island. May I extend my gratitude to you Finola for the effort you have put into preparing this fitting and wonderful event.
We are in the middle of the decade of centenaries 1913 -1923. We are assembled today in the centenary year of that historic general election of December 1918, the election that led to the establishment of our first Dáil Eireann the democratic assembly of the Revolutionary Irish Republic. That election was the first held in which women, after so many centuries of struggle ,had finally won the right to vote.
It was also one of the first Parliaments in the world in which a women Constance Markiewicz took a seat. I had the pleasure of placing the portraits of Constance Markiewicz and Maud Gonne in pride of place in the Council of State Room, in the Áras. They transformed the room as indeed did the great painting by Sean Keating of the War of Independence – The Men of the South.
Her portrait now hangs in the House of Commons in Westminster in recognition that she was the first MP to be elected to it though of course she never took her seat. Women of the Oireachtas including my daughter Alice Mary went over to present it to them.
These centenary years have provided the stimulus for acknowledging those who have been excluded from the telling of history – the contribution of women to the struggle of emancipation, independence and equality. The part played by women was overlooked or ignored.
Gradually their story has come to light as we commemorated the Dublin Lockout of 1913 and the 1916 Insurrection. We have come to know what a hard-won struggle it was for that first vote of 1911 to happen. Going back the Land Wars the Ladies Land League led by Anna Parnell opposed evictions and provided temporary shelter for those evicted. Maud Gonne continued with their work of helping those evicted in the Land Wars. She wanted to be part of the Nationalist struggle. Finding that none of the Patriarchal Nationalist Organisations would admit women to membership. she founded Inion na hEireann in 1900 which embraced social cultural and economic emancipatory objectives. It established the first political journal for women, Bean na hEireann edited by Helena Maloney. Women engaged in various struggles with different and often overlapping objectives.
The suffragette activity at its earliest owed much to Isabella Todd of Belfast and to Anna Haslam and her husband who were Quakers from Cork.
The Women’s Franchise League was founded in 1908by Hannah Sheehy Skeffington and Margaret Cousins. It was the most radical. It was inspired by the militancy of the Women’s Social and Political Union in Britain, those who would become known as suffragettes. The WSPU and the Pankhurst’s, in particular Christabel, had looked for their own inspiration to Eva Gore- Booth and Esther Roper and their campaign in Manchester for female suffragettes and workers rights.
Inspired by James Connolly and her brother Jim Larkin, Delia Larkin and Rosie Hackett founded the Irish Women’s Workers Union, and demanded not only equality at the ballot box but in the workplace, and the Irish Women’s Reform League united suffragette and trade unionism activity.
All the Suffrage Societies in Ireland had campaigned for the inclusion of women’s suffrage in the Home Rule Bill. Before the Parliamentary Franchise (Women) Bill was voted on, a mass meeting was held to demand inclusion of women’s suffrage. Speakers on the platform included Kathleen Lynn, Jenny Wyse-Power, Countess Markiewicz and Delia Larkin. There were messages of support from Helena Maloney Louie Bennett, James Connolly and George Russell. The Irish Parliamentary Party voted against it and the Bill was defeated and this was a stunning blow.
The Irish Women’s Campaign League began a campaign of civil disobedience. They campaigned in public and were often subjected to violence. Suffrage rallies could only often proceed with security from workers of the Irish Transport and General Workers Union. 35 suffragettes were convicted of breaking the law between June 1912 and August 1914. They were held in Mountjoy and Tullamore jails, where they employed hunger strike to seek the status of political prisoner.
Eventually the 1918 election the franchise was extended to women over 30 years who had property. It was as a result of these campaigns that in the Constitution of the Free State of 1922 the right to vote was granted to every person without distinction of sex, over the age of 21.
Formal political equality was not matched by real economic social or civic equality. Despite the promise of the 1916 Proclamation and the Democratic Programme of the first Dáil Eireann, women had to endure a long and difficult march for equality. One marked by many setbacks and defeats, but also by many wonderful and hard-fought victories.
It is fitting that today 100 years later we pay tribute to the women who sought to shape a truly just, inclusive and sustainable republic of citizens. In our time there are new challenges to be faced and new rights to be won. If we are to succeed we must call up and demonstrate the same indomitable spirit, the same bravery the same compassion as those women.
The different waves of feminism particularly those of the 70’s & 80’s have achieved much in the area of women’s rights and the amazing result of the last two referenda took all by surprise. The new movement of solidarity across civic and political society achieved these results.
In these times the world has become a very changed place. The issues are global as well as national, local and individual responsibility for seeing how we can make the changes necessary to save our vulnerable planet. Evidence of climate breakdown and desertification resulting in famines and conflict, sees refugees and economic migrants traipsing across the globe. An estimated 60 million of them. This makes the task of meeting the target of United Nations sustainable goals which would ensure sufficient and prosperity for all a vital necessity.
Because the economic models prioritise deregulation speculation and individualism, the social fabric of our society has become unsustainable. The balance of work and the quality of home and social life has become distorted.
There are so many causes for concern how do women and indeed men prioritise actions they should take!. Oxfam has stated that gender inequality lies at the heart of the gap between the richest and poorest people in the world. Across the globe one of the greatest causes of concern is gender violence including domestic violence.
Here at home it is acknowledged that it is a vital necessity that the housing crisis is solved. People need the security of a home if they are to have a quality of life. A home allows them to plan for a future where they can have personal fulfilment and can plan, if they wish, to have a family. As people’s aspirations have been disappointed many are in distress and depressed as they do not have security of employment, they are in precarious short-term contract work with wages or salary too low to allow them hope of securing a home. Accommodation rents are so high and increasing every year, and may have no security of tenure.
Last Saturday in Dublin there was an estimated 10-15,000 who marched asking for the State to intervene. They demand that Local Government build the houses that are needed to increase the supply in cities and around the country, would move to use all publicly owned land for social and affordable housing, for rent or purchase so people can have a secure home and create sustainable communities.
Another source The Mercy Law report states that the right to a home is an integral protection of one of the most significant sources of privacy, dignity, personal security, and autonomy. Around the world, the right to housing is included in eighty-one Constitutions. The right to adequate housing is provided for in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and the European Social Charter. The right to housing in our Constitution would put in place a basic protection in recognition that a home is central to the dignity of each person and a foundation of every person’s life.
Maybe what women can do is educate themselves politically and economically so they can participate in finding and supporting the best solutions that will meet their ethical moral obligations to their brothers and sisters at home and across the sustaining but vulnerable planet.
Thank you and Happy Anniversary of our First Voting Day.