Irish women’s long fight for equality

Modern Irish society and women's role in it has been shaped by events in the mid 19th century. Mary Smith writes:

Socialist Worker

Irish women’s long fight for equality

The famine wiped out half the population in twenty years. To rebuild society and ensure survival, new ways of organising the land and family life were introduced. The Catholic Church came to dominate and its power was further entrenched with the establishment of the newly independent Republic. The virgin mother became the role-model for Irish women!

The ‘women’s question’ in Ireland, as elsewhere, began by focusing on the vote. Women’s suffrage was first taken up in 1866, and by 1911 there were some 24 women’s suffragist groups agitating. Between 1912 and 1914 there were 35 convictions of women for suffrage activities.

James Connolly got the Irish Transport & General Workers Union to protect the suffragist meetings and insisted that women were entitled to fight for their demands in whatever way they chose.


The first solely women’s organisation in Ireland was Inghinidhe na hEíreann (Daughters of Ireland). They morphed into Cumann na mBan who were the main women’s grouping in the 1916 Rising.

Inghinidhe, though founded by quite privileged women was, according to founding member Ella Young, ‘composed of girls who work hard all day in shops and offices owned for the most part by pro-British masters, who may at any moment discharge them for treasonable activities’. Some of these women would later become heroines of the Easter Rising, and senior figures in the subsequent struggle.

There was a tension between the suffragists and nationalist women. The suffragists said there was no point in fighting for an independent state that refused to guarantee equal rights for women, and the nationalists said all other political questions had to be set aside till independence had be achieved.

In fact, many of the women fought for both their rights as women and for national independence, and when Cumann na mBan was formed in 1914, all but one of its executive members were active suffragists.

About 90 women out of around 1500 volunteers took part in 1916. But it was in the War of Independence, that is the Irish Revolution, that women participated in the struggle as never before, and the gains for them as women, began to be felt.

They won the vote and Constance Markievicz in 1918 became the first woman ever elected to the British House of Commons. Later she became the second woman in the world (after Alexandra Kollontai in the Russian Revolution) to hold cabinet rank in government.


For many ordinary women, their fight was ensuring the gains of the newly independent State worked for them, and they participated in building and administering the fledgling Republic in ways few would have dreamed of.

Most active women, and their organisations, opposed the Treaty. But the pro-treaty forces, backed by British guns and money won the day and these counter-revolutionary forces eventually pushed back the gains of the revolution, including the new-found status of women in society.

The ‘Free State’ welcomed the Catholic Church’s endorsement, and with it the bishops’ view of the appropriate position of women in society. Slowly but surely, the women were deterred from continuing in their dissident activities as greater numbers were arrested and interned.

The government of the Free State banned Cumann na mBan in January 1923 and opened up Kilmainham Jail as a detention prison for ‘suspect’ women. The gains women had made were rolled back with a series of Acts by the new government, restricting their access to work, removing them from civic roles (jury duty), targeting unmarried mothers and creating a framework for punishment of ‘errant’ women in the Magdalene laundries and the like.

Finally the constitution of 1937 extinguished the last light of freedom for women when it copper-fastened their traditional role as homemakers and mothers. The rights they had won twenty years earlier in the Revolution were wiped out.

From the mid 1920s to the 1970s Ireland was a tough place for women. Between the Catholic bishops and DeValera’s Fianna Fáil (his was the only garrison in 1916 that excluded women) there were view choices for women outside of religion, child-bearing or emigration.

Nuns made up one of the largest groups of women workers in Ireland till the 1970s. Contraception was illegal, so was divorce.

And yet women workers fought back. The Irish Women Workers Union (IWWU) challenged the notorious Conditions of Employment Act of 1935, which legitimised discrimination against women. Women workers led the stuggle for paid holidays and in 1945 laundresses won the right to two weeks paid leave –a ‘privilege’ hitherto. unheard of for any workers, male or female,

It wasn’t until the 1970s that Ireland’s ‘second wave feminism’ emerged with the founding of the Women’s Liberation Movement (WLM), in 1971. The membership were mostly professional women, some of whom were socialists. They were influenced by the emerging WLM in the US and Britain, and the civil rights movement in the North. Their demands were:

  • Equal rights in law.

  • Equal pay and the removal of the marriage bar.

  • Justice for widows, single mothers and deserted wives.

  • Equal educational opportunities.

  • The right to contraception.

  • One family, one house.

The WLM spawned a series of initiatives campaigning on access to contraception, notably the ‘Contraception Train’ where, in defiance of the law, women brought condoms back from Belfast, challenging the authorities to arrest them.

Amazingly it was not until 1985 that the sale of condoms without prescription became legal.

In 1980, the Women’s Right to Choose Group was founded to campaign for full access to contraception and free, safe and legal abortion in Ireland. Months later, SPUC – the Society for the Unborn Child – was set up and then the Pro-Life Amendment Campaign (PLAC) started the ultimately successful campaign to insert the 8th Amendment into the constitution, copper fastening the ban on abortion.

Socialists and radical women, although having set up AAC, found themselves marginalised by more respectable and moderate campaigners who wanted to be all things to all people. It was not unlike the debates today about removing the 8th where some who want it gone are still reluctant to simply say ‘Repeal the 8th now’. They fret about ‘something to replace it with’, and loosing the support of Fine Gael feminists.


But the X case in 1992 changed everything. News emerged that a fourteen year old rape victim was effectively interned, rather than the State allowing her to go to the UK for an abortion. A howl of rage ascended from the streets; tens of thousands marched, school-girls abandoned their classrooms to join the protests; the demand was LET HER GO!

The government was in disarray. The Supreme Court was terrified into overturning the previous ruling restraining Miss X, and thus drove a coach and horses through the existing legislation. It was a fundamental shift.

A series of referendums followed, further liberalising access to UK abortion clinics, and Irish society in general. Liberal values were ‘on a roll’; and homosexuality was decriminalised in 1995 and divorce was won – though it took until 1996!

The tragic death of Savita Halappanavar in 2012 was another turning point. And now the campaign to repeal the 8th amendment, without which there can be no progress towards free, safe and legal abortion is the main focus for political activism for many young women.

Just as the water charges movement brought thousands of women into political awareness, so too equality issues are being taken up by young people, especially since the marriage equality referendum.

Socialists have been and are to the fore in all of these struggles and our job is to fight for every possible step forward in the here and now while also understanding that full equality and liberation will require a fundamental change in society.

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