On 14 December 1918, millions of women across Britain and Ireland participated in a general election for the first time, thanks to the Representation of the People Act.
The act was hard-won through years of activism. But it was nevertheless imperfect, placing the vote only in the hands of certain women. Every male over 21 years was now deemed fit to join the electorate. The act was not quite as generous to women, giving voice only to those over 30, and in specific circumstances. Still, it was progress of sorts.
The two women who stood as Sinn Féin candidates in the election have earned their places in history. In Dublin, Countess Constance Markievicz was elected in the Saint Patrick’s Ward, becoming the first female MP in Westminster’s history.
In Belfast’s solidly unionist Victoria Ward, the noble Winifred Carney stood in what was very much a no-hoper for the party. Sinn Féin encouraged Irish women to “cast their first vote for independence”.
One woman who did not live to see that historic day was Marjorie Hasler, a veteran of the Irish Women’s Franchise League, who had died in tragic circumstances in 1913.
She was “the first Irish martyr for the [suffragette] cause”, proclaimed the Irish Citizen, the newspaper of the movement. Sentenced to six months’ imprisonment for breaking windows on public buildings in June 1912, Hasler’s death was attributed to the effects of incarceration, and police brutality at an earlier demonstration. Her death galvanised the Irish suffrage movement. Suffrage organisations in Britain also mourned.
The Irish Women’s Franchise League (IWFL), founded in 1908, worked together with the British suffrage movement, but was also shaped by the unique circumstances of Irish politics.
One of the few things that seemed to bind mainstream political parties in Ireland – from Carson’s Unionists to the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP) – was an unease with women’s suffrage.
The IPP’s John Dillon went as far as to proclaim ludicrously that “women’s suffrage will, I believe, be the ruin of our Western civilisation. It will destroy the home, challenging the headship of man, laid down by God. It may come in your time – I hope not in mine.”
The Irish Citizen poured particular scorn on the IPP, with one powerful illustration depicting party leader John Redmond standing over the body of a young suffragette.
In England, the adoption of radical tactics by members of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) drew attention to the suffrage question. Some of those tactics were copied in Ireland, north and south.
As Keith Haines notes in his history of Belfast in the years of the First World War, tactics there included destruction of property, as “acid was poured onto greens at a number of golf clubs. Eleven postboxes were damaged by fire, with broken glass found in some, and over 300 letters burned.”
A borrowed tactic of sorts was smashing windows. Just as the WSPU had done in Britain, the IWFL broke windows on public buildings in Dublin in June 1912. At the GPO, the Custom House and Dublin Castle, eight activists, including Marjorie Hasler and Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington, got to work.
Sheehy-Skeffington recalled how “the policeman who grabbed my arm instinctively seized the right, and as I am left-handed, that gave me a chance to get in a few more panes before the military arrived and my escort led me off”.
The women were dragged before the courts. Hasler got the most severe sentence: six months in Mountjoy. At her court case, it was reported that “Constable 140 C. testified that about 5.30 a.m. on June 13th he saw them throwing stones at the windows of the General Post Office, which they broke.” When the police approached, Miss Hasler had a stone in her hand.
This was not Hasler’s first confrontation with the law. She had already spent 14 days in London’s Holloway Prison after a window-breaking protest in Britain in 1910.
She was present also at the remarkable Black Friday protest when, believing it was “no time for rosewater and kid-glove methods”, roughly 300 women from the WPSU tried to storm the House of Commons.
Police violence that day stunned even critics of the suffragettes’ tactics. Hasler suffered injuries that would remain with her until she died.
Curiously, little is known about Hasler’s early life, but there is a clear trail of evidence of her constant activism from 1910 onwards, linking the Irish and British suffrage movements through frequent visits there.
The sentence imposed on Hasler was so extreme that a petition of her own jurors influenced the decision to release her after four months. Upon release, she was clearly weakened. While Hasler died the following year from measles, her comrades were firm in their belief that imprisonment had played its part.
The Irish Citizen newspaper lamented the fact that, “Even in the brief existence of the Irish Women’s Franchise League death has already robbed us of our brightest and best.” A commemorative poem honoured her, noting that “she heard the century’s call — Arise, and help to free thy sex from thrall”.
When the First World War erupted in 1914, many in the British suffragette movement, though there were honourable exceptions, rallied behind the national war effort. Sylvia Pankhurst rightly recognised the scale of the calamity before humanity, correctly predicting that “throughout Europe would be a vast widowhood, the cries of fatherless children … a gigantic arrest of human progress”.
Unlike so many of their English sisters, the Irish Women’s Franchise League continued their fight, ensuring that the suffering of women like Marjorie Hasler was not in vain.