They were knowledgable activists who took a hardline stance against the Treaty - but did they represent the newly enfranchised female Irish voters? Claire McGing tells the story of the women who helped shape the Treaty debates.

From 1916, women activists had reason to believe that the nationalist movement would advance gender equality in the public sphere. The Proclamation of the Irish Republic declared women as citizens of the new state and also spoke of universal suffrage. However, feminists were disappointed by the fact that only two women, Constance Markievicz and Winifred Carney, were nominated by Sinn Féin to contest the 1918 general election.

A 1918 election poster urging women to vote for Sinn Fein
A 1918 election poster urging women to vote for Sinn Fein

The election of Constance Markievicz as the first woman TD and MP was a significant milestone for gender politics; nonetheless, she was the sole woman representative and, as Kathleen Clarke noted in her memoirs, she had to fight for her groundbreaking appointment as Minister for Labour (which included responsibility for social welfare).

Feminists advocated for the recruitment of more women candidates in the 1921 general election. Meg Connery, Vice-Chairwoman of the radical Irish Women's Franchise League (IWFL), wrote to the Irish Examiner three days before the election, reminding the nationalist and labour movements of the promises they had made in relation to women’s equality in the public sphere.

In the end, 124 Sinn Féin candidates were elected unopposed in 1921, including six women. Constance Markievicz, this time representing the constituency of Dublin South following her election to Dublin St Patrick’s in 1918, was joined in what became known as the Second Dáil by Kathleen Clarke (Dublin Mid), Mary MacSwiney (Cork City), Dr Ada English (National University of Ireland), Kathleen O’Callaghan (Limerick City) and Margaret Pearse (Dublin County).

Kathleen Clarke had earlier ambitions to contest for a seat in 1918 but she was not selected to run in either Dublin North City or her childhood home of Limerick City.

Mary MacSwiney
Mary MacSwiney, brother of Terence MacSwiney, one of the six new female TDs who were directly related to dead nationalist heroes. Image courtesy of the National Library of Ireland

Four of the six women deputies elected in 1921 were direct relatives of dead nationalist heroes. Kathleen Clarke’s husband, Thomas Clarke, and Margaret Pearse’s two sons, Patrick and William Pearse, were all executed for their part in the 1916 Easter Rising.

Mary MacSwiney’s brother Terence MacSwiney, Lord Mayor of Cork and Sinn Féin TD, died while on hunger strike in prison in 1920. Kathleen O’Callaghan’s husband Michael O’Callaghan, a former Lord Mayor of Limerick, was shot dead in her presence just two months prior to the general election.

Speaking for the dead?

Over the years, numerous historians have defined the women TDs of the Second Dáil by their tragic circumstances – essentially as surrogates of dead men who held political positions influenced by grief and anger rather than reason – a view rooted in their united and unwavering opposition to the terms of the Anglo-Irish Treaty.

Even Constance Markievicz and Dr Ada English, neither of whom had lost any direct relations during the conflict, were generalised in the same light. As recently as February 2022, a letter to the editor of the Irish Independent named the six women deputies "bereaved women". The fact that all six women wore black as a form of mourning dress during the Treaty debates contributed to this historical narrative.

The women TDs undoubtably understood the power their lineage afforded them throughout the deliberations on the Treaty. In a highly gendered political system that was yet to fully enfranchise all women voters, their claims to ‘speak for the dead’ gave them authority, visibility and considerable sway over the deliberations.

The women spoke at length in public and private session (Mary MacSwiney spoke for several hours, to jeers from the other side), and all of the women in mourning referred to their dead when arguing against the document.

There were many attempts by the pro-Treaty faction to discredit the women for doing this, with questions even raised about their mental ability.

Margaret Pearse
Margaret Pearse, seen here at Bodenstown in 1921, was the only new female TD who wasn't an experienced political activist before being elected © RTÉ Photographic Archive

A century on, it is important to recognise the underlying misogyny of some earlier historical analysis and to take a more rounded view of the women of the Second Dáil. They were well educated relative to ordinary Irish women of the day, held strong ideological beliefs and, with the exception of Margaret Pearse, were experienced activists themselves (three were active in the suffrage campaign in addition to nationalist politics). Mary MacSwiney and Constance Markievicz had earlier expressed a desire to be part of the negotiating team sent to London.

Furthermore, as Kathleen O’Callaghan argued during the debates, nationalist women had also been an important influence on their male relatives:

‘It was the mother of the Pearses who made them what they were. The sister of Terence MacSwiney influenced her brother and is now carrying out his life’s work.’

A gendered re-reading of the Treaty debates shows that the women deputies were highly knowledgeable of the terms of the document; they expressed their own political agency even as they ‘rattled the bones of the dead’. Importantly, Constance Markievicz was one of only two deputies to explicitly represent working class interests in her speech. Kathleen Clarke outlined her own reasons for rejecting the Treaty, before bringing up her late husband in the second half of her speech.

Cumann na mBan convention in 1920
Several of the future female TDs are shown in this image from the Cumann na mBan conference in Whitefriar Street Carmelite Church, Dublin, in 1920. Left to right, Mabel Fitzgerald, Mary MacSwiney, Louise Gavan Duffy, Miss O'Rahilly, Mrs Áine O'Rahilly, Máire O'Rahilly, Mrs Margaret Pearse, Countess Markievicz, Kathleen Clarke, Áine Ceannt, Nancy Wyse Power, Madge Daly, Elizabeth Bloxam, Jennie Wyse Power, Fanny Sullivan and Lily O'Brennan. Photo: © Irish Military Archives, BMH CD216 3

Women of character

Kathleen O’Callaghan stated that she had been elected on account of her husband’s murder. Nonetheless, she denied that women TDs were opposed to the Treaty solely because of personal loss. ‘The women of An Dáil are women of character, and they will vote for principle, not for expediency.’ Similarly, Dr Ada English stated that she had ‘no dead men to throw in my teeth as a reason for holding the opinions I hold’.

In their opposition, the women deputies claimed to represent the majority of women voters. All six women deputies ran in the general election when it was held in June 1922 but only Mary MacSwiney in Cork City and Kate O’Callaghan in Limerick City were re-elected (O’Callaghan was unopposed), both in constituencies with strong anti-Treaty sentiment.

The results showed that, contrary to their claims, women TDs (and Cumann na mBan which was the first organisation to vote against the ratification of the Treaty, by a large margin) were not representative of the views of the female electorate (at least the limited constituency who could vote). Pro-Treaty candidates received over three-quarters of the vote in total.

Cumann na mBan
Maire Comerford with some Cumann na mBan colleagues. Cumann na mBan overwhelmingly rejected the Treaty. Photo: RTE Photographic Archive

The position that women parliamentarians, further entrenched by the Cumann na mBan vote, had taken on the Anglo-Irish Treaty is fundamental to understanding the subsequent role of women in politics in Ireland. Their opposition to the document created a discourse among male political elites and wider society that women were too inflexible, bitter and emotional for politics.

It was also the case that, by opposing the Treaty, women TDs had self-excluded themselves from serving in politics at a time when the norms of parliamentary democracy in Ireland were being established – and when legislation designed to restrict gender equality was introduced by the Free State. They were deprived of first-hand political experience.

Bleak period for women

As a result of these factors, women were significantly under-represented in public life for many decades after independence. Although various women’s organisations attempted to break the ‘male monopoly’ of Irish electoral politics, the 1930s through to the early 1970s was a bleak period for women’s representation in Dáil Éireann.

No general election returned more than five women TDs at a time. In a party system that was not only dominated by men but also increasingly localised, most women TDs had to rely on familial connections as an entry route to politics, in most cases following the sudden death of their spouse – a phenomenon linked to the women TDs elected in 1921.

This article is part of the Civil War project coordinated by UCC and based on The Atlas of the Irish Revolution edited by John Crowley, Donal Ó Drisceoil and Mike Murphy and John Borgonovo. Its contents do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ.