A Century of Women - 1920s
The 1920s experienced the continued impact of both the consequences of the Great War, with the loss of many millions (mostly men) as well as the specific Irish dimension of the War of Independence, the subsequent Civil War, and the communal conflict in the north. The loss of sons and fathers, brothers and husbands, disrupted many elements of traditional life, with countless women continuing to carry the burden of economic responsibility for the household while fulfilling their domestic roles. Widowhood was a common societal feature, and many thousands of mothers raised their families without the support of a partner. In their emotional and economic distress, the fast-changing political context must often have seemed remote from their daily experience.
Created as a compromise solution to competing identities, the newly formed state of Northern Ireland reinforced existing political, cultural and religious boundaries, with the border becoming, for many, the symbol of a fragmented nation. In 1922 the Free State extended the female vote to all those over 21, while women in the North waited until the Representation of the People Act of 1928 for this reform. But while the ability to vote was an important acknowledgement of the right to political equality, there remained many barriers to, and indeed little enthusiasm for, further advancing female representation in public life at the national level. Women were more likely to participate in local and extra-parliamentary arenas, and especially in church-based organisations, which provided many opportunities for voluntary activity. Both Republican and unionist movements continued to be supported by female activists.
Post-war depression impacted strongly on the industries of the North, which, while causing extreme poverty and hardship, would eventually lead to greater solidarity amongst the female, as well as the male, workforce.
The Unionist-dominated government of the north faced hostility from Republicans both within and outside its borders, and the suspicion with which its political leaders regarded the minority Catholic population ensured that discrimination and sectarianism filtered through all levels of Northern Irish society. The resulting violence impacted strongly on family life: between July 1920 and June 1922 over 450 were killed and more than 1,100 wounded, 8,000 were forced out of their homes and 650 homes and businesses were destroyed. Although Catholics numbered 24% of the Belfast population, they suffered 70% of the casualties.
In 1921, during a sharp increase in loyalist violence in Belfast, the North Queen Street branch of Cumann na mBan was formed at the request of the IRA. Annie Ward was Officer Commanding (O/C) and Elizabeth and Nell Corr were among the 30-40 members. Elizabeth Delaney from Andersonstown was O/C of Belfast Central branch. In April 1922, the Special Powers Act, introduced by the new Northern Ireland parliament, had declared Cumann na mBan, along with the IRA, an illegal organisation. Northern branches of Cumann na mBan sent delegates to the February 1922 Convention of Cumann na mBan. All northern members rejected the Anglo-Irish Treaty but played no role in the subsequent Civil War, which was not fought in the north.
During this period, politicized women on all sides sought to use their newly won influence in defence of, or in opposition to, the arrangements set out in the 1920 Government of Ireland Act. Moreover, with women making up an electoral majority in 1928 (52%), their male leaders were anxious to ensure their backing (12 seats on the Ulster Unionist Council had been granted to the Ulster Women’s Unionist Council in 1920). The UWUC, for example, utilised its considerable resources in support of the newly created state. In the run-up to the 1921 election, its leaders encouraged the registration of women voters, holding classes to instruct them on the working of the system of Proportional Representation which was to be used for the first election. The policy of abstentionism meant women on the nationalist side were at a disadvantage in terms of formal structural organisation. However, the Ladies’ Auxiliary of the Ancient Order of Hibernians galvanised working-class support for Belfast Nationalist politician, Joseph Devlin. Female auxiliaries of Orange Lodges did the same on the Unionist side, while the Gaelic League focused on Irish language and culture.
Two women were elected to the new NI Government in 1921; Julia McMordie who served until 1925, becoming the first female High Sheriff of Belfast in 1928, and Dehra Chichester (married name Parker in 1928). Resigning in 1960, Parker was the longest serving woman MP in the Northern Ireland House of Commons and the first woman to serve in the Northern Ireland Cabinet. McMordie (Vice President of UWUC) had been the first woman member of Belfast City Council and in 1929 became first Woman High Sheriff of Belfast. Another Unionist, Margaret Alicia Waring, was elected in 1929 and served until 1933. Her party credentials were reflected in her position as Deputy Grand Mistress of Down and District Mistress of Down Lodge no. 4 in the Association of Loyal Orangewomen of Ireland.
A greater, though still proportionally small, a number of women became Councillors and were possibly more effective in local politics, as were female Poor Law Guardians. Indeed, noting that in many wards female candidates outnumbered their male counterparts, The Newry Reporter commented on 8 January 1920, that ‘were it not for the introduction of the Proportional Representation (P.R.) system, the women of Newry, if organised as such, could have ‘swept the board’ and formed a council of eighteen ladies’.
Initially designed to protect religious and political minorities, this voting system took little account of gendered identities. Nonetheless, its subsequent abolition and a return to the ‘first past the post’ system had little impact on female representation within local government. Over the period 1899 to 1940, this averaged 1.8% of borough councillors, 1.6% of county borough councillors and 1.4% county councillors. Despite comparatively small numbers, these elected positions enabled women to intervene in issues concerning children, poverty, education and health. According to the records of the Ulster Women’s Unionist Association, Belfast Women’s Advisory Council also made their voices heard on behalf of the welfare of women and children.
Recent research indicates that women played a significant role in party politics at local level; a case study of the North Belfast Labour Party, for example, reveals women leading public meetings, writing articles, and forming an active Women’s Guild in efforts to win the support of their working-class counterparts. Nationalist politicians continued to rely on female supporters rather than political colleagues.
During the post-war economic decline, the major industries of shipbuilding, construction and textile were all severely affected and the impact was felt by women as well as men. With 28% of the insured workforce unemployed in 1929, poverty was pervasive. 14.5% of married women were recorded in employment in the north; the figure for Belfast was unsurprisingly higher at 21%. The 1926 census notes that 1,124 women were employed as civil service officials and clerks, and 13,666 in commercial, finance and insurance occupations. The perception that shorthand and typing posts were especially suited to women would ensure a steady increase in these areas, though the following decade would exclude married women from employment throughout most of the public sector. Moreover, in rural areas, as later historians have argued, no account was taken in official records of women’s unpaid work in farms or family businesses.
Opportunities for women to enter the professions were significantly enhanced by their entrance to Universities (1908) and by the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act of 1919. Although by the 1920s over 20% of all graduates were female, tradition and prejudice would continue to limit progress in some areas more than others; thus in 1926, 14% of the medical profession was female, only 5 women (2%) practiced dentistry. The legal profession also remained predominantly male, though a handful of women were admitted to the Northern Ireland Bar during the 1920s. Frances Christian Kyle was the first woman to be called to the Bar anywhere in the British Isles, initially to Dublin in late 1921 and shortly afterwards to Belfast. She was followed to the Belfast Bar by J. C. McDermott. Averill Deverell was called to the Northern Ireland Bar in 1922 but practiced mainly in the south; Audrey M. McMeekin and Margaret Aiken were admitted in 1928.
The marriage rate, at 5.69% of every 1,000 of the estimated population, was the lowest for ten years, while the birth rate stood at 22.5%. At 85 in every 1,000 births, the rate of infant mortality (children under one year) was of particular concern, as was maternal mortality, with an average of 170 deaths per year between 1916 and 1926. The recorded statistic for illegitimate births was 4.44%, but this is probably more a reflection of social values than of reality; many couples would have entered into marriage following conception, while single women often left the country to avoid scandal. Oral history also suggests that a child born out of wedlock would frequently be brought up by members of the extended family other than by his or her mother.
- The Legion of Mary is formed in Dublin to encourage lay Catholics in voluntary support for the Church.
- Frances Brady from Belfast Cumann na mBan is court-martialled in Dublin and sentenced to two year’s hard labour. She goes on hunger strike while in jail.
- Rose Black receives a five-year prison sentence and is released from Armagh jail during the Truce.
- 46 delegates from all over Ulster attend October Convention of Cumann na mBan in Dublin.
- Frances Christian Kyle becomes the first woman to be called to the Bar anywhere in the British Isles, practicing firstly in Dublin and shortly afterwards in Belfast.
- Free State extends the vote to women over 21.
- Cumann na mBan is outlawed.
- The Infanticide Act effectively abolishes the death penalty for a woman who deliberately killed her new-born child, while the balance of her mind was disturbed as a result of giving birth.
- Winifred Carney is arrested in July but is not interned due to poor health.
- • Proportional Representation is abolished in Northern Ireland elections.
- • Kathleen Brady, Cumann na mBan, is arrested in March
- • Rose Black is rearrested in February 1923. She is released in poor health a few months later.
- Labour Party (NI) is formed: Winifred Carney joins, but continues to work for the ITGWU until 1928.
- The Co-Operative Women’s Guild is formed. Maternal and infant mortality and family allowances are major discussion points at their meetings.
- Illegitimacy Act. This aims to remove the stigma of children born outside marriage and to place financial responsibility on their fathers.
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- In July 1926 the fifth International Congress of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom was held in Dublin, attended by 150 delegates representing 20 countries. This was the first gathering of an international organisation held in the Irish Free State.
- Women’s Advisory Council is formed as part of the Women’s Section of the Northern Ireland Labour Party, to enhance support for and representation of women within the Labour movement. Its particular concerns are with rent, pensions, nursery schools and play centres. The need for family allowance is a recurring theme in lectures and debates.
- Rosamund Praeger, renowned sculptor and artist, receives an honorary doctorate from Queen’s University Belfast
- The Representation of the People Act is passed in the UK. This Act widens suffrage by giving women electoral equality with men: i.e. it gave the vote to all women over 21 years old, regardless of property ownership.
- Illegitimacy Act. Stigma of illegitimacy is removed if a child’s parents subsequently marry.
- The first Northern Ireland branch of Soroptimist International (founded in California in 1921 as a worldwide volunteer service organization for business and professional women who work for peace), is formed in Belfast.
- Former suffragist and peace and labour activist Margaret McCoubrey is elected to Belfast Corporation.
- Margaret Alicia Waring is elected MP to Iveagh, County Down (until 1933).
- Renowned Belfast-born stained-glass artist, Wilhemina Geddis is commissioned to create The Children of Lir window for Belfast’s new Municipal Museum.
Myrtle Hill and Margaret Ward, ‘Conflicting rights: the struggle for female citizenship in Northern Ireland’ in Esther Breitenbach and Pat Thane (eds), Women and Citizenship in Britain and Ireland in the Twentieth Century (London, 2010, pp. 113-138)
Myrtle Hill, ‘Women, War and Welfare: The Co-operative Crusades of Margaret Taylor McCoubrey, 1880-1956’, Familia, Ulster Genealogical Journal, no. 32 (2016), pp. 38-59
Maedbh McNamara and Paschal Mooney, Women in Parliament: Ireland: 1918-2000 (Dublin, Wolfhound Press, 2000)
Diane Urquhart, Women in Ulster Politics 1890-1940 (Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 2000)
Margaret Ward, Unmanageable Revolutionaries: Women and Irish Nationalism (Pluto Press, 1989, 1995)
Margaret Ward, The Women of Belfast Cumann na mBan: Easter Week and After (Belfast, 2017)
Leanne McCormick, Regulating Sexuality: Women in Twentieth-Century Northern Ireland (Manchester University Press, 2009)
Margaret O Hogartaigh, Quiet Revolutionaries, Irish Women in Education, Medicine and Sport, 1861-1965 (Dublin: The Irish History Press, 2011)
Nancy Kinghan, United We Stood: The Story of the Ulster Women’s Unionist Council 1911-1974 (Belfast: Appletree Press, 1975)
A.R. Hart, A History of the Bar and Inn of Court of Northern Ireland (Nicholson and Bass, 2013)