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Suffering for suffrage

On the Edge

On The Edge
Áine Ryan

IT had to be jaw-dropping for anybody – man or woman, young or old – when veteran journalist Nell McCafferty told the following yarn on Miriam O’Callaghan’s Sunday morning radio show a couple of weeks ago. Listeners heard that back in 1970, after the Derry native got a job with The Irish Times with a respectable salary of £20 guineas per week, she decided to go to her bank to get a mortgage to buy a house. You can imagine the feisty feminist’s litany of expletives when she was asked if she had a husband or a man to go guarantor. Ultimately, the bank manager went out onto the street and summoned a male passerby to sign the necessary document. When Nell asked the signatory what he worked at, he responded: “I am on the dole.”
Well, ‘doesn’t that bate Banagher’, as the saying goes.
Our national poet, William Butler Yeats comes to mind – in a manner of speaking – ‘Was it for this the wild geese spread the grey wing upon every tide’.
So was it for this that Hannah Sheehy Skeffington went out at dawn to Dublin Castle, the seat of British colonial rule, and broke a window during the campaign for suffrage at the turn of the twentieth century?
That was almost 106 years ago, June 13, 1912. Armed with a wooden stick the 35-year-old activist crept along the cobbles around the castle and smashed a window. It would be six years more, in February 1918, before women who were over 30 had property rights and a university education, were allowed to vote through the enactment of the Representation of the People Act.

WELL, those little conditions certainly excluded the majority of Irish women. One wonders how many Co Mayo women had the privilege of owning property and obtaining a university education 100 years ago? It would be another ten years before women achieved equal voting rights with men.
While Hannah Sheehy-Skeffington was arrested after her actions in 1912, her granddaughter, Dr Micheline Sheehy- Skeffington’s arrest after she re-enacted the scene on February 6 last was just to be true to the drama and to mark the centenary of the legislation.
Speaking at the ceremony, Dr Skeffington said: “We forget how much these women put themselves through. The reason they smashed the windows in 1912 was because they were fed up with the way the Irish (Parliamentary) Party would have nothing to do with the suffragettes or votes for women. Home Rule was going through for half the population; it was home rule for men but not for women.”
Her grandmother endured two months in jail and then went on hunger strike in solidarity with the suffragettes fighting for the cause in Britain.
Irish women may no longer need to break windows to highlight inequality, but we all know only two well that there is still a glass ceiling out there that discriminates against gender equality in all sorts of fora. And this discrimination does not need to be overt or enacted in legislation to have its insidious ripple effect.

SPEAKING after her symbolic action on February 6, Micheline Sheehy-Skeffington said: “My grandmother might be impressed that we’ve had two female presidents but at the same time have we actually got equality? Things have improved in some ways, we have more representation … but there’s not that much respect in some levels. There is a sea change happening with movements like Waking the Feminists and MeToo but it takes enormous courage to stick with it.”
Well, she should know. She won a landmark case against her former employer of 34 years, NUI Galway, in 2014. The Equality Tribunal found that the university had discriminated against the botanist for promotion because of her gender.

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