14/12/18

Official Opening of “100 Years of Women in Politics and Public Life 1918-2018”

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Díríonn an taispeántas seo ar mhná de gach gné a chuir go mór le sochaí agus stair na hÉireann le linn an fichiú haois agus ar na dúshláin a sháraigh siad. Buíochas ó chroí le Sinéad McCoole as ucht a cuid oibre. Is taispeántas den scoth é.’’

I am deeply honoured to launch this event this evening.

Sinéad, as curator of this exhibition, has created a unique opportunity for us all to reflect upon the journey that this country has taken over the past one hundred years. In this space, discussion, debate and analysis can flourish. This form of public discourse is essential in any honest exploration of our history.

I would like to express my deepest appreciation to Sinéad for her commitment to this project- I know that it has been deeply personal for her. The challenge and scale of work in cataloguing, digitising and preparing a new exhibition like this is daunting. Sinéad and her team, however, have pulled it off with aplomb. My sincere gratitude also to the staff of the OPW for their ongoing support and to everyone who helped bring this worthy and moving project to fruition, in particular Maggie Mulhare and Jill Barry for their dedication and application over many months.

To the women and their families who have allowed us a glimpse into the past by sharing personal stories and memories, I salute your generosity; much of it is previously unseen archive material.  These personal testimonies, photographs, letters, diaries and ephemera add layers of meaning to the complex narrative surrounding participation in political and public life over the last one hundred years.  As enthusiastic voyeurs into another era, we cannot but be proud of your ancestors.

Today, let us be under no illusion. This is a significant commemorative day in the journey for equality for women.

I’d like you to imagine this for a moment:

Only yesterday, one hundred years ago, no woman in this room, solely because she was female, was permitted to run for election for public office in this country. As a woman in Ireland, no matter how educated or intelligent, it could not be done. Even if that woman was bursting with ideas and reforming policies, she could not bring them forward. It wasn’t that she wouldn’t contemplate it, it was simply that she was prohibited from doing so by law. Her thoughts and ruminations of a better society would have to remain in her mind and in her dreams at night. She could, of course, share her views and opinions with her husband, brother, father, son or other male relative or friend. He, if he was inclined to listen to her, might consider her considered proposals good enough to carry forward.  But he might not. He wasn’t obliged to do so.  For who knew the inner machinations of the female brain?  For the majority of women, it was easier to say nothing, to remain mute and to know your place. That is understandable. Tasked with rearing families, household duties and volunteerism, there was enough work to keep a woman occupied and ever so quiet. But yesterday, one hundred years ago, a woman was a subspecies. She was discriminated against since the day of her birth, her femininity a handicap, her capabilities and opportunity to contribute to public life blatantly repressed.
But who would dare try change it?

Well for some women, to have to remain consistently submissive and subservient to the male gender had taken its toll. They knew, deep in the recesses of their collective psyche, that it wasn’t just the fact that women had views to express but that there was an accepted, tolerated and innate prejudice against us because we were women. That being female was lesser than being male.  That we were not equal. We were not equal because the law explicitly said so. And if our laws explicitly said so then it must be true. But these courageous suffragettes wanted to change the status quo. And so the fight began. And let’s be honest here. It was a fight. Women were jailed, pilloried and abused. But they rallied together, holding public and private meetings, shared leaflets and postcards and put up posters with words like ‘’Women can canvass! Why can’t they vote!”.  What started as a distant rumbling murmur grew into an almightly gigantic roar. There’s a lesson in there somewhere..never stand in the way of a woman on a mission!

These magnificent women methodically, meticulously and bravely disseminated information to all in their path. They overcame many obstacles, blocked out the negativity and battled on regardless.  On behalf of the government, I pay tribute this evening to all the suffragettes who, because of their efforts on our behalf paved the way for women to take their rightful and necessary place in Dáil Éireann and Seanad Éireann.

Countess Markievicz stood for election on this very day one hundred years ago on 14th December 1918.  She was only one of sixteen women candidates throughout Ireland and the UK to put their name on the ballot paper. She was the only woman elected with 7,835 votes or 65.9% of the poll in the constituency of Dublin St. Patrick’s. Markievicz also later represented my own constituency of Dublin Rathdown.   Today I sit under her portrait at Cabinet, her face the sole female among the eight male portraits of illuminaries like Pearse, Emmet, Parnell, Grattan, Wolfe Tone, O’Connell and Sarsfield. One hundred years later I sit at the table as the 19th female cabinet minister with the 18th Regina Doherty, the 17th Katherine Zappone, the 16th Mary Mitchell O’Connor and the 15th Heather Humphreys.

One hundred years ago today, although women could finally vote and stand for election, this was still a qualified freedom.  The Representation of the People Act specified that in order to vote, a woman had to be at least thirty years of age and either married to a man who owned property or owned it herself. Despite this ridiculous restriction the electorate expanded significantly from 700,000 to two million people allowing women, for the first time ever, decide who they wanted to represent their country. We can only imagine the conversations that took place at that time.

It is simply bewildering to think that it took another sixty years for a woman to take a seat at the Cabinet table. It also took a further four years in Ireland before the full equal franchise was extended to all women over the age of 21 but incredibly we were even ahead of the UK which took a decade to achieve the full franchise.

We will never know how the newly emerging Irish State would have benefited from women’s participation in Government. Of course, perusing some of the literature at the turn of the century makes for sober reading.   Let’s take this quote from Miles Franklin in My Brilliant Career in 1901:

“Career! That is all girls think of now, instead of being good wives and mothers and attending to their homes and doing what God intended. All they think of is gadding about and being fast, and ruining themselves body and soul. And the men are as bad to encourage them.’’ 

I think it’s fairly evident from that type of sentiment what trojan efforts our predecessors had to do. One hundred years on, I am disappointed that we have not achieved full equality in Leinster House. At 22% in Dáil Éireann and 32% in Seanad Éireann, female representation in the Houses of the Oireachtas is at a minimum. The introduction of gender quotas and other necessary interventions will help but all Irish men and women need to reflect at this point on where we have come from and where we want to go.  We are at a crossroads. Some countries are regressing not progressing.  Is this what Ireland wants? How can we make a better future for our sisters, our daughters, our nieces and our granddaughters? How do we demonstrate that women can and are at the centre of public life and how their contribution, although different, is equal and not subordinate to those of their male counterparts? How do we instil the ethos in our society that male and female can co-exist, compliment and enhance each other’s work inside and outside the home? How do we teach our young girls that their voices are not just listened to but heard?

I should say that I believe Ireland is changing for the better. I believe there is hope.   One hundred years later, yesterday, legislation to repeal the 8th amendment was passed by all houses of the Oireachtas. It is hard to deny the obvious parallels today between our Irish women’s struggle for the right to stand as a candidate and vote in democratic elections – a basic elementary right and our struggle for the right to basic, elementary healthcare in our own country- a country that the women at the centre of the exhibition today wanted to resolutely protect. We got there in the end. But those of us in the eye of that storm know the harsh glare of the spotlight. It gives us some inkling into what the women from one hundred years ago had to endure. I have nothing but awe and admiration for their courage and conviction. Ná déanaimís dearmad.

I also note that neither change whether one hundred years ago or yesterday was secured without the grit, tenacity, determination, tears and sacrifice of so many. This is not the way it should be. And we are the ones that must change that for the future. And we can if we persist.

I would like to conclude with a quote from the wonderful Mexican poet Octavio Pax in Eagle or sun which I believe sums up where we are at on this day 14th December 2018:

“With great difficulty advancing by millimetres each year, I carve a road out of the rock. For milleniums my teeth have wasted and my nails broken to get there, to the other side, to the light and the open air. And now that my hands bleed and my teeth tremble, unsure in a cavity cracked by thirst and dust, I pause and contemplate my work. I have spent the second part of my life breaking the stones, drilling the walls, smashing the doors, removing the obstacles I placed between the light and myself in the first part of my life.’’

Míle buíochas

Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, 23 Kildare Street, Dublin , D02 TD30. Tel: 01 631 3800 / LoCall: 1890 383 000

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