Suffragette City – how Belfast feminists won the vote

By February 22, 2012News, Newsroom

A century ago, a passionate crowd packed the Ulster Hall to hear the leader of the Suffragette Movement, Emmeline Pankhurst demand votes for women.

Now on March 2, leading feminist author Dr Margaret Ward will return to the same venue to deliver a lunchtime lecture on the Ulster Suffragettes, who risked prison and physical attack in their struggle for equality.

Her talk: ‘Prison, Protests and Hunger Strikes: the Ulster Suffragettes’ will discuss the leading figures in the movement and their attacks on bastions of male power that led to many of them being incarcerated in Belfast Jail on the Crumlin Road.

The lecture is the final in the Anna Eggert Lecture Series which examines the impact of women on Northern Ireland. The series has been organised by the Women’s Resource and Development Agency (WRDA) and funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund.

Dr Ward, who is Director of the WRDA and a well known author of Irish women’s history, will discuss the wider political situation at a time when Ireland was on the brink of civil war over the Home Rule crisis. Sir Edward Carson was a major target for the anger of the Suffragettes as he fervently opposed the rights of women to vote, while openly advocating rebellion.

She said: “At this time women were becoming increasingly militant and were furious that they were being imprisoned while the UVF led by Sir Edward Carson were gun running and preparing for civil war but were unpunished. In response they burned down Abbeylands House in Whiteabbey, where the UVF were drilling their troops.”

Other places targeted by the Suffragettes included the grandstand at Newtownards Race Course, the teahouse at Bellevue Zoo, Cavehill Bowling and Tennis Club and windows at Lisburn Cathedral. The protestors also poured acid on the greens at Fortwilliam Golf club and Knock Golf Club.

Dr Ward said: “The targets were seen as places of male entertainment or male power. Churches were regarded as one of those places. Several women were arrested and housed at Crumlin Road Gaol. Most of them were English or Scottish women who came over as part of the overall campaign, although three or four Irish women were also imprisoned.”

Among those from Great Britain who ended up in jail were Dorothy Evans from England, sent over by the Pankhursts to be the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) organiser for Ulster. Madge Muir, who was jailed with her, was from Scotland.

During her lecture Dr Ward will talk about some of the key personalities in the Suffragette Movement in Ulster at the time including Dr Elizabeth Bell, the first woman to qualify as a doctor in Ireland. She was a leading suffragette who had been imprisoned in Holloway Women’s Prison when she took part in the WSPU’s campaign in England.

There was also Margaret McCoubrey, a Scot married to an Irish trade unionist; Lilian Metge from Lisburn, a very active local militant who was jailed for her part in the attack on Lisburn Cathedral and Elizabeth Priestley McCracken, a writer married to George McCracken, who acted as solicitor for the suffragettes.

The women protestors were subjected to physical abuse from groups of males opposed to their activities. In Ulster there were around 1,000 members in 20 different Suffragette organisations.

“They held open air meetings in places like Carlisle Circus, Ormeau Park and outside Methodist College. They filled the Grand Opera House and the Ulster Hall. Despite the Home Rule issue, these crowds were made up of Unionist and Nationalist women united in a common cause,” said Dr Ward.

“They were part of an international movement that spanned the US, Australia and Europe. Proportionally the Suffrage Movement had as many members in Ireland as they had in England.

“They were divided on whether or not to be militant. Some of the groups supported direct action, while others were opposed to attacks on property. It was mainly a middle class movement but they tried to encourage working class women to get involved,” she added.

‘Prison, Protests and Hunger Strikes: the Ulster Suffragettes’, the final lecture on the Anna Eggert Series takes place from 12.30-2pm in the Group Space at the Ulster Hall on March 2. A light lunch will be provided.

The lectures are free but as space is limited they must be booked in advance by contacting the WRDA on or phoning 02890230212.