by James Reddiough
Michael Davitt was a pioneer in many respects: he was a Fenian, Land League founder, parliamentarian, human rights activist, internationalist, journalist and historian. He was indeed a pioneer and global reformer in the full sense of the word.
His attitude to women and their role in political and social and economic life was groundbreaking for the time. He believed in women’s suffrage and was instrumental in the founding of the Ladies’ Land League in January 1881, in fact he was secretary for a time. In the Ladies’ Land League, he was an important force that was not merely an ancillary to the Land League, but was equally important because of his views on women’s rights.
He believed that a woman’s place was not just in the home but in wider society and the women’s question was foremost in his mind. He was surrounded by strong female influences early in his life that were to determine how he would view women later in life. Catherine Kilelty, his mother, and his sisters were dominant figures at a time when women were to be seen and not heard. He married an Irish-American Mary Yore in 1886 but not before his close-working relationship with Anna Parnell of the Ladies’ Land League and the presentation of address from the Castlecomer Ladies in Co. Kilkenny in 1883. All of this showed the esteem in which he was held by women and the esteem in which he held them in return.
For decades prior to the 1918 General Election, women did not have the right to vote. Yet years earlier, Michael Davitt, in the House of Commons, rose the issue of the right for women to vote and this made him quite unique because people in the Irish Parliamentary Party, like Charles Stuart Parnell and John Redmond and indeed John Dillon, did not believe that women should play any part in political life either through voting or holding political office. Indeed, Parnell was quite opposed to the Ladies’ Land League. In this regard, the IPP was supporting the views of the Irish Catholic hierarchy who also believed that women who took part in politics were comprising their gender and its modesty.
On the other hand, it was Davitt who full heartedly supported equality for women. Indeed, it could be said that in the founding of the Ladies’ Land League lay the genesis of women’s movements and in 1910, four years after Davitt’s death, you had the foundation of the United Irish Women who would be the forerunner of the Irish Country Women’s Association or ICA in 1935.
The research work of Bernard O’Hara’s biography of Davitt was to highlight the role that Davitt played in promoting equality and fairness for women. Davitt was the first Irish politician and public figure to promote the leadership of women in political life though the Ladies’ Land League in 1880; and to promote equality for women in society. He also believed in educational opportunities for girls.
He believed that women should have the right to vote and stand for election. It is O’ Hara’s contention that Davitt’s work for the cause of women and equality deserves to be remembered. The women’s question was among a number of his concerns that he pursued during his life time. Women in the work place and equality in the labour force were major concerns of Michael Davitt too. He called on the women of Ireland to join the Ladies’ Land League and he wanted them to be politically active. It was through Davitt’s campaigning that that the Ladies’ Land League was founded.
Also, he was in favour of women’s suffrage. He was at odds with the religious authorities and civic leaders of the day in this regard. Davitt was a consistent supporter of votes for women; and the inclusion or enfranchisement of women in December 1918 was the legacy of his efforts and his support for people like Francis Sheehy Skeffington and the suffragette movement. It is true to say that Michael Davitt was an advocate of women’s rights and he rose the matter for the women’s right to vote, and held a position on the local government bodies on the 8th march, 1898 during the debates on the passing of the Local Government Bill 1898.
Michael Davitt had a keen interest in education and he believed that women’s political rights and secular education went hand in hand. Educational improvement would have included women’s education after the Land League had been put on a firm footing, as education was a major concern of Michael Davitt. He said that women should have the right to vote and Michael Davitt was the first modern Irish leader to encourage women to participate in political affairs. It was his contention that women could and should make a decisive contribution in the political arena and he showed this by his encouragement for the foundation of the Ladies’ Land League.
Davitt contended that the purpose of politics was to work for all the people regardless of gender, social class or religion and not just for a privileged elite. He campaigned for secular education right up to the end of his life. The Ladies’ Land League resulted in the mass organisation of women in Irish land politics. Women in the work force and in the work place was another concern of Michael Davitt, and in such he had radical views for his time, unlike many other Irish nationalist leaders, Davitt was in favour of female suffrage.
“No better allies than women could be found for the task. They are in certain circumstances more dangerous to despotism then men.” Michael Davitt brought up the question of the involvement of women in local government in March 1898 in The House of Commons:
“I beg to ask Mr attorney General for Ireland whether women are to be qualified to vote in elections for county councils and district councils under the Irish Local Government Act/Bill and are not expressly disqualified by any of its clauses or provisions from being chosen as members of such bodies. It is to be inferred that they will be so qualified when the Bill becomes law; and if not whether he will undertake to propose a clause in the Bill to entitle this right upon women.” House of Commons question on the 8th March, 1898.