History of Women's Suffrage in the Brittish Isles -- Should We Celebrate?


BRITAIN -- Ninety years ago this month, female suffragists went on a planned window-smashing rampage throughout the West End of London. More than 120 of them, including their leader Emmeline Pankhurst, were arrested. In a seminally symbolic attack, Pankhurst and two supporters had thrown stones at number 10 Downing Street, shattering windows on both sides of the door.

In all, the suffragists' rampage lasted just 20 minutes - but their spree left shards of splintered glass from Oxford Street to the Strand via Piccadilly and Whitehall.

Many of the women used hammers concealed beneath the voluminous outfits of the times. They claimed they were driven to violence by a British government that not only refused them the right to vote but taunted them; claiming that they were not expressing themselves forcibly enough. So out came the stones and hammers, with the women arguing that they were merely imitating miners, whose militant actions had recently won them concessions from the government.

In Ireland too, suffragists were active during the period. Emmeline Pankhurst toured the major towns of Ireland in the autumn of 1910. By 1912, Hanna Sheehy- Skeffington, for instance, had served her first term in jail for militantly campaigning for suffragism. In fact, when the political powers continued to ignore suffragists' demands, Sheehy-Skeffington warned that "breaking point" had been reached and the only alternative left was "the historic and well-tried argument of the stone".

Since then, of course, women have made huge advances in terms of political power although that particular balance remains firmly tipped in men's favour. This week's abortion referendum, though it included contributions from prominent women as well as men, was excessively male dominated. Women cannot fairly claim utterly exclusive dominion over abortion but the unique intimacy of the relationship between women and pregnancy surely exalts female responses to a degree not adequately reflected in what passed for a debate.

Not that it was ever a debate anyway, or indeed that debate, in the normal sly and hectoring political sense, could adequately cope with such an extremely convoluted and complex issue as abortion. Combining aspects of moral philosophy, sex, religion, medicine, law, psychiatry, "life and death", feminism and the always fraught relationship between the individual and the state, an obscene political game, complete with spin-meisters, was played out in the name of democracy. It debased us as a people.

Consider, for instance, the posterisation of the issue and the reduction of a moral, medical, legal and religious minefield to a simplistic Yes or No response. Even the posters themselves - always seeking maximum impact with a minimum of words - debased the "debate". But never concerned about the form suiting the content and always about the effects their spinning might have, the spinners distilled a labyrinthine issue into sloganeering on gaudy posters in primary colours more suitable for football teams or children's toys.

Given that opinion, even among medical people working in the contentious specialisms, showed, what Walter Prendiville (an associate professor of obstetrics) termed a "full spectrum" of responses, that full spectrum has to have been present among non-medical voters too. Yet all those shades of opinion and belief were reduced to a blunt choice between Yes and No. Perhaps realpolitik makes such absurd simplifications unavoidable. If so, that aspect of the debasement ought to have been repeatedly stressed.

But it wasn't. Instead, we got more raw, emotional and spun arguments, no different from the sort of stuff we expect of such regular political issues as the siting of a new factory, facility or dump. The result is that Ireland can continue to use Britain as a dump for a problem we can, in fact, do much more to alleviate if never quite solve. Addressing the primary issue of how to prevent unwanted pregnancy has got to be the priority of any decent government in this state if the figure of an average of 19 Irishwomen choosing abortion every day is to be reduced.

Patriarchal culture (which is no Butlin's for most men either!) does not define the limits of women's lives to the extent that it once did. Nonetheless, it is clearly a factor in an abortion "debate" in which the overwhelming number of political, religious, medical and legal voices are male. Of course, there were women passionately determined to secure a Yes vote and others just as intent on bringing about a No result. Fair enough, men too have a right to strong feelings on abortion but must acknowledge lacking certain crucial understandings about pregnancy.

After all, even the most scrupulously thought-through male position on the issue cannot replicate the experience of pregnancy. Not that experience is always conclusive over well-informed judgment but it does represent different kinds of knowing. In that sense then, the playing-out of this most complex issue in the roughneck world of predominantly male politics, made all the rougher by the professional deceit of the spinners, did not accord female voices due respect.

No doubt, cherished positions, passionately believed, are held across the full spectrum. But it's reasonable to assume that most people's views are clustered in a grey area that contains aspects of the Yes and aspects of the No positions. As such, forcing voters into simplistic camps represents a form of moral blackmail by the State. The option to ignore the referendum by refusing to vote is scarcely an option for people concerned to participate in Irish society.

Anyway, it's over now - not that either result would stop thousands more Irishwomen travelling to Britain to have their pregnancies terminated. But the gynaecological vocabulary - egg, womb, uterus, fallopian tube and the rest - which has been splattered about the media has been, in its own way, invasive of women. Certainly, it would be difficult to argue against any woman who claimed to feel invaded by the public airing given to normally private and intimate words.

It's not as though gender is the most critical faultline in this society.

Class is. After all, many women enjoy privileges of power and comfort which many men don't. It is as hard to have a bleeding heart for the ladies who lunch as it is for the buck cats of the Golden Circle. The politics of gender are another minefield but the politics of pregnancy are likely to be more fully understood by those capable of experiencing the condition. When you think about it, it takes a hard neck for men to hector women over abortion.

It doesn't always have to be a case of gender oppression and, let's face it, the sisters have been able to produce their own tyrants. But it might be a good idea for men to consider how they might feel if they were either pregnant or capable of becoming so. Certainly, whenever men listen to women pontificating on exclusively or even predominantly male experiences (such as fighting in an army, for instance) the female contribution, often deservedly, is routinely dismissed.

Denying women the right to vote now seems like barbarism. Yet that right has existed for only about three generations. Because of all the bluster, spinning and posterisation of the abortion referendum, when, in truth, what was required was a gentle, caring and compassionate response to the fact of 19-a-day, we were all pushed back towards barbarism. Still, lessons can be learned: even in such a delicate matter, it is power, as it was for the suffragists 90 years ago, not compassion, that is crucial. If we were genuinely civilised, the referendum itself should have been aborted. Meanwhile, the boats and planes head off to Britain as usual . . .