After suffrage came the suffering

Mar 29, 2018

In the centenary year of women getting the vote,  Prof. Patricia Barker looks back at the barriers women had to overcome not only to vote, but to become members of professional bodies, as well.

This year, we commemorate the centenary of the enfranchisement of some (but not all) women in the UK and Ireland. The Representation of the People Act 1918 widened suffrage, not just to women, but to some previously disenfranchised men. The Act granted the vote to:

  • All men over 21 and men who had turned 19 during service in the First World War; and
  • Women over 30, but only if they were registered property occupiers (or married to one) of land or buildings having a rateable value greater than £5.

This extension of the franchise resulted in an increase in the electorate in Ireland from 700,000 to over two million. It is thought that women were only allowed to vote at 30 because granting them the vote at 21 would have resulted in them having the majority of votes, due to the loss of men during the war. This inequality was corrected in 1922.

A history of voter oppression

Over the years, there were various reasons why some people were excluded from voting. Roman Catholics were banned from voting and holding public office in 1728, to facilitate the seizure of Catholic-owned land for the ‘plantations’. After the 1798 Rebellion, the Act of Union resulted in the disappearance of the Irish Parliament. After Catholic Emancipation, the electorate was radically cut to ensure that the newly enfranchised Roman Catholic voters could not out-number Protestants. In a population of eight million, the electorate was cut from 216,000 to 37,000 men by raising the property rateable valuation qualification from forty shillings to £10. This restriction was eased slightly in 1832, 1850 and 1867. A further easing in 1887 resulted in 30% of the adult male population being able to vote in Ireland, compared with 60% in England. Throughout all these machinations for controlling the male electorate, women were simply denied the right to vote.  

The suppression of women

There were several arguments presented to justify the exclusion of women from participating in voting. The most commonly cited was that women already had the municipal vote, which dealt with questions of housing, education, care of children, workhouses and so forth, all of which were “peculiarly within a woman’s sphere”. There was also the argument that all government rests ultimately on force, to which women, for physical, moral and social reasons, were not capable of contributing. During this time, women were often seen as too emotional to vote, without the intellectual faculties to vote, not in need of a vote (because men could vote in our interests) and too delicate to engage in politics. However, all those arguments were overcome, and (some) women first voted in the General Election of December 1918.

Women and Chartered Accountants Ireland

Among other things, the introduction of the enfranchisement of women led to the decision to open professions, including accountancy, to women. The 1918 Act led people to question the principle that professions need to control entry and establish a masculine identity. The older professions, such as medicine, law, the church and some of the newer professions, including accountancy, had specific barriers in their charters to the entry of women. There were some professions that had not adopted this fundamentally gendered approach, but they had quickly become female dominated and stereotyped as ‘women’s work’. They included teaching, nursing, social work and librarianship.

Very soon after the granting of the vote to women, the Sex Disqualification Act was enacted in 1919. It prohibited the exclusion of women from universities and ruled that any royal charters (including that of the Institute of Chartered Accountants in Ireland) which contravened the Act by disqualifying women, would cease to have effect. So, at its meeting in Fleet Street, the President Stewart Blacker Quinn introduced the resolution that the Institute of Chartered Accountants could admit female students and members on the same terms and conditions as men. It was passed by a large majority. Eileen Woodworth was the first woman to be admitted as a student in 1920. She qualified in 1925.

In spite of this breaching of the barrier to women Chartered Accountants, and although the Proclamation of 1916 and the first Constitution of 1922 made specific provision for equality between men and women, there were several factors which militated against the early blossoming of our profession to gender equality for many years.

The position of the Roman Catholic church (supported by government) was that women should remain in the home and have families unrestricted by contraception. Protestant women were influenced by the Victorian notions of the subjugation of personal ambition in the interests of family and philanthropic service.

In the years following the First World War, the problem of the ‘surplus women’ meant that women were required to cede their posts to the returning officers. Many, of course, without jobs, could not find husbands due to the decimation of the war.

The 1937 Constitution removed the provision relating to equality and replaced it with specific reference to the special place of women in the home.

The 1936 Conditions of Employment Act empowered the government to introduce controls on the employment of women, including successive marriage bars, differential salary scales etc.

Despite their legal right to enter the profession, the number of women taking up that right was pitifully small. It was not until we entered the Common Market (now the EU) that we began to approach equality. In 1973, I was the 20th Irish woman to qualify as a Chartered Accountant since Eileen Woodworth in 1925. It was a lonely furrow. Virginia Woolf’s words describing one of those early professional women have resonance:

“She is one of the race of the pioneers. She is among the ice-breakers, the window-smashers, the indomitable and irresistible armoured tanks who climbed the rough ground: went first, drew the enemy’s fire and left a pathway for those who came after. I never knew whether to be angry that such heroic pertinacity was called for, or glad that it had the chance of showing itself.”

2018 and beyond

One hundred years later, Chartered Accountants Ireland is committed to equality and women experience no barriers to entering training contracts, examination success and employment opportunities. However, they are far from equally represented at the very top of our profession and, as with other professions, that space at the top is still largely defined to a male model. In looking forward to the next hundred years, we should reflect that in the struggle between the stone and water, in time, the water wins.

Prof. Patricia Barker is Adjunct Professor of Accounting at Dublin City University.