The suffragette struggle in Ulster

A British suffragette (c. 1910)
A British suffragette (c. 1910)

To commemorate 100 years since the first suffragettes were imprisoned for their actions in attempting to secure women’s right to vote, author Margaret Ward tells JOANNE SAVAGE about the movement’s history in Northern Ireland

IT seems incredible now, that there was a time when women were denied the right to vote, overlooked as citizens and for the most part consigned to domestic drudgery and menial work.

Some thinkers in the early part of the 20th century even believed that women had smaller brains than men and that they therefore were incapable of using reason and logic, helplessly ruled by their emotions and febrile moods instead.

The women who fought to change this belief in women’s inferiority and campaigned for their right to visit the ballot box had a long, arduous battle on their hands; they were the early feminists - suffragettes.

One of the foremost heroines of the movement was Emmeline Pankhurst, the wife of a Manchester MP who founded the

Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) in 1898. Pankhurst was pioneering because she was adamant that it was time for ‘deeds, not words’ in elevating women’s status in society: women could only have a say in how society was run if they were granted the right to vote.

Emmeline and her daughters Christabel and Sylvia were at the helm of the suffragist movement in Britain which raged in the years preceding the of the First World War, but began in the latter decades of the 19th century.

Women chained themselves to railings, smashed windows, set fire to buildings and were frequently arrested and imprisoned for their acts of civil disobedience. The government of the time when suffragism was at white heat was led by Asquith, who did not believe that women should be entitled to vote. Many British suffragettes, incarcerated and convinced of the necessity of their struggle, even went on hunger strike. The government continued to stand firm.

In Ulster the movement soon found strong support.

“There were about 20 suffrage groups in Northern Ireland before the beginning of the First World War and about 1,000 members,” says Dr Margaret Ward, feminist author, historian and director of the Women’s Resource and Development Agency in Belfast.

“Considering the size of Northern Ireland this was a significant movement.

“It was petitions, letters, trying to have delegations to MPs - this type of activity began in the 1860s.

“As it went on the campaign became increasingly militant. Women in Dublin began to be arrested in 1912 because acts of civil disobedience like smashing windows became an important part of their campaign.”

And women in Ulster became increasingly militant too, fired-up by an awesome hunger for equality with men.

“A lot of the militant activity which took place in the province was initially orchestrated by English and Scottish suffragettes who came over to push the cause. The organisation begun by Emmeline Pankhurst - the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) - established an Ulster centre. Emmeline, her daughter Christabel and another suffragette called Dorothy Evans came to speak to Ulster women.”

Evans gave a lecture on the issue at Queen’s University in December 1913 and the event is recorded in the Queen’s bulletin of the day.

“It says there were 40 suffragettes at the meeting, out-numbered by 200 male students, and that it was a wild scene of pandemonium. These women were so brave in the way they went out there and spoke up despite all kinds of derision and hostility.”

Some of the notable figures in the Ulster movement were Margaret McCoubrey, a Scot married to an Irish trade unionist from the Ormeau Road; Lilian Metge from Lisburn, a militant who was jailed for her part in an attack on Lisburn Cathedral; and Elizabeth Priestley McCracken, a writer from the Lisburn Road.

The Ulster suffragettes held big open air meetings in places like Ormeau Park, Carlisle Circus and Methodist College; they filled the Grand Opera House and the Ulster Hall; they stood outside factory gates, trying to enlist the support of the mill workers.

Although it began as something of a middle class movement, it became a hugely unifying cause, bringing together unionist and nationalist women: the injustice they suffered made their backgrounds and differences in creed irrelevant.

As women stepped outside of the traditional gender roles of the era to seize the opportunity for social change, men of orange and green persuasion for once found something to agree about: opposition to the female vote.

“Unionists said they wanted an independent Ulster and that women would get the vote in this dispensation. And then Edward Carson came out and said no, he did not support votes for women.

“After that the suffragettes declared war on the Ulster unionists.

“The first action was in March 1914 and at that time the Ulster Volunteer Force were drilling troops at Abbeylands House in Whiteabbey. The suffragettes burnt the building to the ground.

“Women were also furious that they were being imprisoned while the UVF, led by Sir Edward Carson, were gun running and preparing for civil war but were unpunished.”

Other places targeted by these campaigning women included the grandstand at Newtownards Race Course, the teahouse at Bellevue Zoo and Cavehill Bowling and Tennis Club. Protesters also poured acid on the greens at Fortwilliam Golf Club. These were seen as places of male entertainment and power and therefore, worthy targets.

There were one or two lone male political voices who spoke out in favour of good sense and equality, as Ward makes clear. James Craig, for example, was in favour of women being granted the vote.

But the opposing voices were the most fierce. One dastardly nationalist, Ward notes, declared that it would be “the end of civilisation as we know it if women voted. Many felt that everything would crumble.”

But it was much more than the right to vote that mattered to the suffragettes, They saw that women’s subservient and degraded status in society, sexual discrimination and their standing in courts of law - would all be bettered with the achievement of this key freedom.

“There were all kinds of social evils the suffragettes felt would not be addressed unless women had the vote,” Ward continues. “They used to go and observe what was happening in the court system when men would be up before judges for incest, rape or violence against women. It was an all male jury, and usually a male judge who was sympathetic to the accused, saying that the man was very provoked and so on. Things like this could only change when women were regarded as citizens on an equal footing with men.”

Ultimately, gloriously, the years of suffragette struggle, of speeches and marches and civil disobedience and sacrifice, all bore fruit.

On February 6, 1918 the Representation of the People Act was passed, granting women over the age of 30 the right to vote. Ten years later, with the passing of the Representation of the People Act 1928, all women over the age of 21 were finally allowed to vote.

To commemorate 100 years since the first Irish suffragettes were imprisoned, and to pay tribute to the valiance and determination of the women who fought the good fight, Margaret Ward will give a public lecture at the Ulster Hall, the very same venue where Emmeline Pankhurst once addressed a rapt crowd.

Today women vote, enjoy the freedom to work where they please, dress how they want and are in control of their sexuality and life choices (at least in Western societies). But many would argue that the cause begun by the suffragettes to put women on a fully equal standing with men has not yet been fully realised.

Feminism is the continuation of this legacy and it still has quite some distance to go: women are still paid less than men, still judged all too often on their appearance and are still frequently undermined by cultural stereotypes that portray us as overly emotional, irrational, airheaded or ‘asking for it’.

And many women, despite these prevalent injustices, refuse to call themselves feminist, when all ‘feminist’ means is wanting to see one’s own sex be treated with the same respect and accorded the same freedoms as men. Who wouldn’t want to build on what the suffragettes began?

Prison, Protests and Hunger Strikes: the Ulster Suffragettes by Dr Margaret Ward is the final lecture in the Anna Eggert Lecture Series and will take place March 2 at 12.30pm in the Ulster Hall’s Group Space. Admission is free but places are limited. To book contact the Women’s Resource and Development Agency on 02890 230212.