Review of Louise Ryan, Winning the vote for women

Louise Ryan, Winning the vote for women: the Irish Citizen newspaper and the suffrage movement in Ireland. Four Courts Press, 2018, ISBN 978-1-84682-701-3.


Reviewed by Ann Marie O’Brien

The first edition of Louise Ryan’s Irish feminism and the vote: an anthology of the Irish Citizen newspaper, 1912-20, was published in 1996. This updated and revised edition, Winning the vote for women: the Irish Citizen and the suffrage movement in Irelandis appropriately timed as we celebrate the centenary of the passing of the Representation of the People Act, 1918. The book is a fascinating read of the Irish suffrage movement and how it was represented in the pages of the suffrage newspaper, the Irish Citizenfrom 1912 to 1919. Unlike the first edition, Ryan expands on the recent achievements of Irish women particularly, the increase in women’s paid work and the advancement of equal rights, yet she concedes the areas where women have failed to achieve equality, including their underrepresentation in politics. She argues, ‘women in Ireland still have a long way to go to achieve the full equality sought by the suffrage movement.’ (page 9). Ryan has also considerably expanded her bibliography since the first edition of the publication, to include the research which has taken place on the Irish suffrage movement in recent years. This updated version has resulted in a more valuable and informative study of the Irish Citizen newspaper and its relationship with the Irish suffrage movement.

As Margaret Ward has noted in the foreword of the book, the newspaper ‘is utterly indispensable as a source for understanding those times … [it] was proud to be a paper that reflected the concerns of all those committed to the fight for a society based upon principles of justice and equality’ (page 7). Ryan, through the inclusion of various extracts of the Irish Citizen, has demonstrated the complexity of the movement in all its various forms. Structured thematically, the book clearly demonstrates that it is too simplistic to think of the suffrage movement as a campaign to win female enfranchisement, it encompassed a wide range of issues which included morality, work, trade unionism, pacifism, war and politics. This book divulges the multi-faceted and evolutionary nature of the Irish suffrage movement and situates the movement as a feminist campaign, which was concerned not merely with the vote for women but for the inclusion of women in every aspect of public life.

Ryan has successfully shown that the Irish suffrage movement was a complex campaign, which included men and women of varying viewpoints and opinions. Included in the suffrage movement were militants such as Margaret (‘Meg’) Connery and Margaret McCoubrey, as well as non-militants, including Marion Duggan. The issue on whether to achieve their various feminist aims by militancy was hotly contested in the pages of the Irish Citizen. Duggan, writing in 1913, declared ‘I object to modern militant methods, and to the hunger strike, because as a matter of fact, I do not believe their effect on the public has been such as to lead to the speedy enfranchisement of women’ (page 41). Conversely, Hanna Sheehy Skeffington  believed that the police who broke up an Irish Women’s Franchise League protest meeting, ‘unwittingly rendered us a great service, and given a fine impetus to our movement’ (page 51). Politics also played a considerable part in antagonising and complicating the aims of the movement, particularly after the passing of the Home Rule Bill in 1914. Mary MacSwiney, a suffragist herself, was particularly outspoken on the issue that Irish women should put national sovereignty ahead of their suffrage aims and she proclaimed that Irish suffragists ‘play the political ostrich’ (page 193). Yet, an editorial in 1914, declared ‘There can be no nation without women, and there can be no free nation without free women’ (page 190). Ryan has examined how the events of Easter 1916 softened suffragists opinion towards nationalism but the campaign for the vote remained at the fore.

Ryan’s selection of extracts from the Irish Citizenshows that the Irish suffrage movement was not a one-dimensional campaign. It incorporated men and women of differing political and social backgrounds, it endeavoured to create roles for women in public life, through the vote and in other areas such as work, the law, social reform and politics. Ryan’s exploration of the various themes Irish suffragists were involved in has contributed greatly to our understanding of the Irish suffrage movement.

The inclusion of writings from lesser known Irish suffragists, such as Margaret (‘Meg’) Connery, Margaret Cousins and Marion Duggan is of particular value. The image of Meg Connery wearing an Irish Citizen placard while accosting politicians which is illustrated on the front cover celebrates the often overlooked suffrage women of the period, who have to date, been neglected by historians. Connery and Duggan, in particular were frequent writers in the Irish Citizenand they wrote on topics including morality and conditions of work. While they at times presented differing viewpoints, they wrote with fluidity and expression which provides a fascinating insight into the personalities who were involved the feminist movement in Ireland. Importantly, Ryan has also included editorials by male suffragists, primarily from the founders of the Irish Citizen, Francis Sheehy-Skeffington and James Cousins. It is important to remember that the Irish suffrage movement had a male presence and it is historically imperative to include the writings and opinions of these forward-thinking men.

This book can be viewed as a celebration of the Irish Citizenand its representation of the wider feminist movement in early twentieth century Ireland. Ryan’s introduction of each theme provides context and situates the suffrage movement into the broader issues of the time, making it accessible and broadening the audience to the non-academic reader. Ryan’s bibliography demonstrates the substantial work which has been done on the Irish women’s movement more generally. This book fits well alongside the commendable and highly-regarded works of Rosemary Cullen Owens, Margaret Ward and Cliona Murphy and adds a new dimension to the jigsaw of the Irish suffrage movement.

One cannot help to wonder, however, if the various suffrage organisations could have been more centrally situated in the text. Lesser-known suffrage organisations, such as the Irishwomen’s Reform League, are referenced, but further engagement with these organisations and how they interacted with each other would broaden the readers understanding of how the suffrage movement operated in Ireland. This however, is a slight critique of what is a fascinating and insightful depiction of the Irish suffrage movement. Ryan concluded that ‘Irish suffragists illustrate that Irish women were not just active agents in our history but that they offered a different understanding of that history’ (page 209). Ryan’s exploration of the Irish suffrage movement through the pages of the Irish Citizen, offers a unique insight into the wider campaign of Irish social and political reform. This book significantly adds to our knowledge and understanding of the complex Irish suffrage movement and contributes greatly to the field of Irish women’s history.


Ann Marie O’Brien holds a B.A. and M.Litt. from Maynooth University. She graduated in 2017 from the University of Limerick with a Ph.D. in history which was funded by the Irish Research Council. O’Brien is currently an Associate Research Fellow at the Arts and Humanities Institute at Maynooth University working on her first book, The Ideal diplomat? Women and Irish foreign affairs, 1946-90 which is under contract with Four Courts Press.