100 Years of Women in Irish Politics and Public Life

Published in Issue 5 (September/October 2020), Reviews, Volume 28

Decade of Centenaries pop-up Women’s Museum

https://www.decadeofcentenaries.com/enjoy-this-virtual-tour-of-the-pop-up-womens-museum/

By Tony Canavan

The Decade of Centenaries has responded to the restrictions on events imposed because of COVID-19 by moving on-line. This exhibition consists of a virtual tour that examines the part played by different women over the last 100 years. It celebrates the stories of over 300 famous and less well-known pioneering women who have contributed significantly to Irish political life and public service since 1918. Curated by Sinéad McCoole (who also narrates), the exhibition is divided into sections for each decade—the 1930s, 1940s, 1950s and so on. The opening web page is lively and well designed. It succinctly explains the purpose and content of the exhibition and invites you to step in, as it were.

Above: The opening web page is lively and well designed. You can choose a decade to explore from a circular panel divided into sections or by using the more conventional buttons along the bottom.

You can choose a decade to explore from a circular panel divided into sections or by using the more conventional buttons beneath the main image. Constance Markievicz is the main focus of the decade 1918–29, along with the other five women elected to the First Dáil. The narration takes us through the events of these years—the various elections, the Civil War, the creation of political parties and so on. While the narrator speaks, relevant images appear on screen. These are photographs, newspaper cuttings and documents. The video on each decade lasts about three to five minutes, just long enough to convey all the relevant information without being too long.

Above: Supporters of the Irish Women’s Liberation Movement’s ‘contraception train’ arriving in Dublin’s Connolly Station from Belfast on 22 May 1971. (Eddie Kelly/Irish Times)

In the 1930s, women remained politically motivated and active in the new state, and were often more radical than the men. Nevertheless, the two main parties, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael (as Cumann na nGaedheal became), were not welcoming towards women and often had little or no female representation at national level. As the narration points out, both parties relied heavily on women for organising at the local level. The 1930s was not a good time for women, as the decade saw the introduction of legislation and regulations that restricted their ability to operate in the workforce or to exercise fundamental rights. Finally, in 1937, the new constitution explicitly stated that a woman’s place was in the home.

Above: ‘A dream of fair women’—Dublin Opinion’s June 1937 front cover commenting on de Valera’s constitution, which explicitly stated that a woman’s place was in the home.

Each decade is approached in this way—a narration of the broad social and political developments with particular reference to the issues and events that affected women. The 1950s, for example, began with the controversy over the so-called Mother and Child Scheme, which crystallised the arguments of the previous decades about the position of women in society and the government’s role in health provision and social welfare. A common theme running through the decades until comparatively recently is unemployment and mass emigration, as Ireland remained a poor country. This economic situation was another inhibitor of the role of women. In the 1950s one organisation that, perhaps surprisingly, welcomed women playing a leading role was the Ploughing Association.

As each decade rolls on, specific women who were prominent in politics, social or labour movements are highlighted, with a potted biography and a list of their achievements. Given the received wisdom about twentieth-century Ireland, it is remarkable that some women succeeded in making their mark in Irish public life. Often they did so as outsiders or rebels, and even women who did not rock the system, such as those in Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael, found that they had to struggle against male prejudice and inbuilt inertia when it came to promoting women. Underpinning all of this, the exhibition asserts, was the Catholic Church. Catholic organisations were prominent in promoting a conservative ideology and women’s role as mothers and homemakers.

Above: Many of the women who were prominent in Irish life in subsequent years, such as Ireland’s first woman president, Mary Robinson, cut their campaigning teeth in the 1970s.

The first cracks in this system began to appear in the 1960s, when many more women were elected to the Dáil than in previous decades. The 1970s are characterised as the decade of change, beginning with a commission on the status of women and the emergence of the Irish Women’s Liberation Movement. An outstanding event in the struggle for women’s rights was the famous ‘condom train’ in 1971, when 47 women brought contraceptives in from Belfast, where such products were legal. Many of the women who were prominent in Irish life in subsequent years, such as Ireland’s first woman president, Mary Robinson, cut their campaigning teeth in this decade. Outside factors were to have a decisive influence for the first time when Ireland joined the European Economic Community, which was to have a lasting impact on many aspects of society.

The Ireland of the later decades is a radically different place from the country in the period after independence. This exhibition takes us through those years, marking the developments and highlighting significant women. While there is no obvious overarching narrative, each decade can be viewed on its own with profit. While the exhibition records the dire situation for women in Ireland in the early years of independence, it also celebrates those women who brought about change.

Tony Canavan is editor of Books Ireland.

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