Markievicz speech on women’s franchise, 1922
In December 1921, Michael Collins, Arthur Griffiths and other representatives of the underground Irish government and parliament (Dail Eireann) signed a peace treaty with the British government, without authorisation from Dublin. The debates in the Dail took place between December 14 and January 7 of the following year, when the Treaty was narrowly passed in the Dail (64-57), while being soundly rejected in every republican organisation (IRA, Sinn Fein, Cumann na mBan, Fianna Eireann). In March 1922 there was a debate on women’s franchise in the Dail, as the republican movement began to split wide apart over the Treaty. The vast majority of republican women – for instance, all six women members of the Dail, 93% of Cumann na mBan (the women’s wing of the IRA) – were known to oppose the Treaty and the (formerly republican, now neo-colonial) Treatyites worried that votes for women would benefit the republican/anti-Treaty side. A further factor in their initial fear was that the war for independence had brought large numbers of a new generation of Irish women into political activity and the public sphere, throwing into question many of the controls over women and much of the social conservatism of Irish life. People like Arthur Griffiths, who had always supported female suffrage, now weighed that up against their support for the Treaty and their roles in the new neo-colonial administration in Dublin.
Markievicz herself had first gotten involved (albeit briefly) in suffrage activities in Sligo in her younger years. After returning to Ireland from Britain and France in the early 1900s, she joined the radical republican women’s organisation, Inghinidhe na hEireann, founded by Maud Gonne. The Inghinidhe women linked together the struggle for women’s and Irish freedom, arguing for free women in a free Ireland, whereas the suffrage groups fought simply for female suffrage under British rule. In the debate over the franchise in the new neo-colonial state, Markevicz spoke as a militant republican, a fighter for Irish freedom and women’s freedom:
Constance Markievicz TD, Dail Eireann, March 2, 1922
I rise to support this just measure for women because it is one of the things that I have worked for wherever I was since I was a young girl. My first realisation of tyranny came from some chance words spoken in favour of women’s suffrage and it raised a question of the tyranny it was intended to prevent –
women voicing their opinions publicly in the ordinary and simple manner of registering their vote at the polling booth.
That was my first bite, you may say, at the apple of freedom and soon I got on to the other freedoms, freedom to the nation, freedom to the workers.
This question of votes for women, with the bigger thing, freedom for women and opening of the professions to women, has been one of the things that I have worked for and given my influence and time to procuring all my life whenever I got an opportunity. I have worked in Ireland, I have even worked in England, to help the women to obtain their freedom. I would work for it anywhere, as one of the crying wrongs of the world, that women, because of their sex, should be debarred from any position or any right that their brains entitle them a right to hold.
In Ireland we have been in a rather difficult and complicated position. It has been the habit of our tyrants over in England to use women’s suffrage as a party cry. Each party, when it suited them, ran the suffrage question for all it was worth. But when they were in a position to help the cause of women’s suffrage, the cry then was “Oh1 there is something more important before the nation.” Now, I am sorry to accuse Mr Griffith of taking up that English attitude here in Ireland. Mr Griffith supported the women’s suffrage cause and he never varied when women suffragists were throwing axes at his political opponent, Mr Redmond.
Mr Griffith in those days spoke his opinions very freely as to women’s suffrage. In those days women felt that they did not want to seek rep-resentation at Westminster. I have a vote myself now to send men and women to the Dail, and I wish to have that privilege extended to the young women of Ireland, whom I count in every way was my superiors.
With the glorious innocence and intuition of youth they fixed their eyes on high ideals. They had the education that was denied to me in my youth and they have proved their valour during the years of the terror in a way that we, the older women, never got a chance to do.
There was a dastardly remark about women in men’s clothing made just now by the Teachta who spoke. I would challenge the men of honour, the other men did not even require women’s clothes to get out of the way when shots were being fired, and I would ask would any man of the IRA turn down the girls who stood by the men in the days of the fight for freedom and did what the women did in the gap of danger?
It is for these girls that I speak today and it is the experience that these girls had in the last year that has brought to birth in them a great desire for this small privilege – the right of citizenship in Ireland. Many years of organisation, of speechifying and talk did not enable our franchise society of noble women to put these ideals into the young women’s hearts. But it is the work they have done during the last couple of years, where they have been dragged out of their shells and made to take their place as citizens at the polling booths, helping at the elections and helping the men on the run, that has put this desire into the hearts of young women.
This desire is voiced from every quarter in Ireland – this desire which I find re-echoing strongly in my heart. No-one can say that with me it is a party measure, for I have always done it, always pushed it and always tried to get the women their due and their rights. We have been in a difficult position in Ireland because we were on the run. When our Dail was held in secret, it was impossible to bring forward measures like this. War measures were the only measures that were attended to and, naturally, the women did not push forward at the time when asking for their rights might have delayed people in a house where they would be in danger of murder.
The women realised that. I realised it. I even wished to put this forward before in the Dail, but there were so many difficulties in the Dail – too many other subjects to be discussed – that I did not bring it forward. I have brought it forward before in different places.
One deputy here seems to think that Cumann na mBan would torpedo the Treaty. In the name of Cumann na mBan I thank him for his appreciation of their valour and strength and I can tell him that it will be up to them to do it whether they get the votes or not.
Today, I would appeal here to the men of the IRA more than to any of the other men to see that justice is done to these young women and young girls who took a man’s part in the Terror.