Alternative Ulster – five women who shaped Northern Ireland…

Jenny McEneaney is a sHERed Future Co-Producer she writes for Slugger today about some of the women who have an important impact on local politics and society.

Presenting five women who shaped the Northern Ireland of today

Happy International Women’s Day! This year’s theme is Press for Progress in recognition of how far we (men, women, society) still have to strive before realising gender equality. This year’s International Women’s Day provides a degree of poignancy for Northern Ireland as we also reflect on the twenty years since the Good Friday Agreement. For a little inspiration, as part of the Community Relations Council funded sHERed future project, we are profiling five women from across the political spectrum who contributed so much to the Northern Ireland we have today. You might not agree with their politics, you may not agree with their methods, but one thing is for certain; they all vehemently pressed for progress for the betterment of us all.

Isabella Tod

“Our first feminist”, Isabella Tod was born in Edinburgh in May 1836 and in the 1850s moved with her mother to Belfast. A member of the elite, Isabella was an influential woman for her time earning a living writing for several papers including The Northern Whig, and using her influence to campaign on issues she was passionate about: gender equality in education, a married woman’s right to own property, and suffrage. As well as her political campaigning, Isabella also worked from the ground up, setting up hostels for destitute women, working with alcoholic women through her temperance society, and campaigning for the repeal of a law that legalised the forcible medical examination of any woman suspected of being a prostitute.

In 1871, Tod organised the first suffrage society in Ireland, the North of Ireland Women’s Suffrage Committee. She would tour, giving speeches across Ireland and England, which were widely reported in the suffrage journals and daily newspapers. A committed Unionist, Tod used her influence to campaign against the first Home Rule bill in 1886, touring the country and sharing many platforms with men, one of the only women to do so. She died at her home in Botanic Avenue, Belfast on 8 December 1896. There is a blue heritage plaque just above French Village on Botanic Avenue where she used to live.

You can learn more about Isabella Tod here.

Lilian Metge

Born Lillian Gubb in 1871, Lilian was a wealthy widow with family ties to the Quaker Richardsons, one of Ulster’s most important linen-manufacturing dynasties. A committed suffragette, Lillian Metge founded the Lisburn Suffrage Society in 1910. Within the suffrage movement, there was a split between those who believed in using direct action or ‘militancy’ in achieving their aims, and those who believed only in peaceful protest; in 1911, there was an effort to unite militant and non-militant factions under the banner of the non-political Irish Women’s Suffrage Federation (IWSF). From 1912 Metge represented the IWSF internationally and wrote regularly about suffrage in Northern Ireland.

Throughout 1914, the militant suffrage campaign escalated. In April, Metge resigned from both the Lisburn Suffrage Society and the IWSF citing differences over ‘administrative work’ and arguing for more action in the suffrage campaign. In May 1914, Metge was part of a 200-strong deputation that charged George V as he entered Buckingham Palace. She was arrested and witnessed the police brutally beating the suffragettes with batons which had a lasting effect on her. Her shift to militancy overlapped with the arrival in Ulster of one of the most infamous women’s rights agitators, Dorothy Evans who was soon charged by the police after explosive materials were found at her Belfast flat. Militant colleagues across Ulster were attacking platforms of male power including golf greens, churches, and town hall windows, and at Evans’ trial, Metge was arrested for smashing windows outside the courthouse. Evans was imprisoned and following a hunger strike, was released into the care of Metge on 26th July 1914. Merge took Evans to her house on Seymour Street, a short distance from Lisburn Cathedral, and on the evening of 31st July 1914, Metge long with three other women, including Evans, attempted to blow the cathedral up. When the women were arrested, a large crowd gathered and hurled missiles, mud and glass bottles.

Metge’s militancy ended in August 1914 but her campaign for women’s suffrage continued. She remained an active member of the suffrage movement and regularly contributed to the Irish Citizen. Metge died in Dublin in 1954, and was buried in Deansgrange Cemetery.

You can learn more about Lilian Metge here.

Winifred Carney

One of the better known of our profiled women through her involvement with the Easter Rising, Winifred Carney was born into a lower-middle class Catholic family in Bangor in 1887, eventually moving with her family to the Falls Road. One of the first women in Belfast to become qualified as a secretary, she began supporting the Irish Textile Workers’ Union where she met James Connolly. They worked together on the ‘Manifesto to the Linen Slaves of Belfast’, which described many Belfast mills as “slaughterhouses for the women and penitentiaries for the children”. A passionate republican as well as a socialist, Carney then joined Cumann na mBan, the women’s auxiliary of the Irish Volunteers. Winifred was the first woman in the Dublin General Post Office during the Easter Rising and one of the last ones occupying the building. She was imprisoned in Kilmainham Gaol following her capture until December 1916.

Following 1918, the Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act allowed women to stand as candidates and be elected as MPs. Winifred stood unsuccessfully for Sinn Fein in the Belfast Victoria Ward, the first ever woman to stand for election in Belfast on a Republican and Socialist platform. United by their fervent socialism, Winifred fell in love with her husband George McBride, a Protestant Orangeman and former member of the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF). Due to the divisive nature of their relationship, Winifred and George married in Scotland.

Carney died in Belfast, Northern Ireland on 21st of November 1943, and is buried in Milltown Cemetery. Because Carney had married a Protestant and former Orangeman, she was not allowed to have his name (McBride) on her gravestone due to the religious differences.

You can learn more about Winifred Carney here.

Cathy Harkin

Cathy Harkin was born in 1942. As a stitcher at one of Derry~Londonderry’s shirt factories, Cathy became active in the trade union movement and was the first female Chairperson of Derry Trades Council. Cathy was involved in the Derry Labour Party for many years and was involved at the beginning of the civil rights campaign in Derry~Londonderry.

In response to the lack of provision for women and children experiencing domestic abuse in the foyle area, in 1976, Cathy Harkin and Avila Kilmurray occupied 24 Pump Street Derry, a former Salvation Army Hotel for men. This direct action was known as ‘Operation Desperation’ to put pressure on the Western Health and Social Services Board to obtain night shelter facilities for women in the Derry~Londonderry area. The Trust had refused as they didn’t believe that domestic abuse was prevalent in the area. Armed with a bucket and a ladder, Avila and Cathy squatted the building and along with other activists, they decided the group would adopt the aims of the National Women’s Aid Federation (no-men rule, collective decision-making, and the ‘self-help’ principles). Negotiations began with the Western Trust around the demand for legislation and financial support.

Over the eight-month period of their operation, some 90 women and 300 children were accommodated in Pump Street, thus dispelling the assumption that there was no domestic abuse in Derry~Londonderry. Although many of them came from both Protestant and Catholic communities in the city itself, others came from as far away as Dungannon and Ballycastle as it was the only domestic abuse refuge open at the time. Nobody was turned away from the Refuge despite severe overcrowding at times and inadequate facilities. Once the need was evidenced, the Western Trust funded the hostel. Cathy Harkin and Avila Kilmurray continued to fundraise and support other groups to set up their own refuges.

You can learn more about Cathy Harkin here.

Inez McCormack

Inez Murphy was born into a Protestant family in Cultra, County Down. Following a period studying in Dublin and London where she met her future husband Vincent McCormack, Inez returned to Northern Ireland in late 1968 becoming involved in the civil rights movement. McCormack began her career as a social worker in the Ballymurphy office of West Belfast Social Services in 1972. McCormack and her colleagues were instructed to transfer to another area and the Ballymurphy office would be closed. Understanding the need in Ballymurphy, they refused to leave and joined the National Union of Public Employees (NUPE) for support. The transfer was eventually squashed, and McCormack began working part-time for the union in 1974.

In 1976 McCormack became the first female full-time official of the National Union of Public Employees (now UNISON) and increased union membership from 800 to 15000 by the time UNISON was formed in 1993 by organising part-time women workers. She went on to become the first female regional secretary of UNISON and served as the first female ICTU president (1999–2001). McCormack founded and led a broad coalition of civil society groups who successfully argued for strong, inclusive equality and human rights provisions to be included in the Good Friday Agreement. Concerned that the majority of communities most affected by the Troubles continued to be amongst the most socially deprived areas of Northern Ireland, McCormack led campaigns to assert the rights of the most socially excluded and enable them to challenge the problems they experienced. Inez established Participation and Practice of Rights (PPR), a human rights organisation based in Belfast to continue this work. Inez McCormack passed away from cancer on 21st January 2013 at the age of 69, in Foyle hospice.

You can learn more about Inez McCormack here.

About the project:

A sHERed Future project, a Community Relations Council funded resource, seeks to make visible how women have shaped the region’s political present throughout the last two centuries pressing for gender equality progress. Through an examination of five lesser-known women from Northern Ireland’s history and interviews with female MLAs, academics and activists, we seek to explore the barriers women face, the impact of the conflict and the gender blindness in our narrative of history.

The project is directed at young women to help them consider their role in Northern Ireland’s political future. As well as oral histories and interviews with prominent political figures, there are free teaching resources and a toolkit for anyone who wishes to use the material to organise their own session with young women. To find out more about the project, check out our website or email [email protected]