This Month in Celtic History
by Stephen Paul DeVillo

November 2002


7 November 1878:   Margaret (Gretta) Cousins, Irish women’s rights activist, born.

Born to a prominent Methodist family in Roscommon, Margaret Gillespie was seemingly destined to a career in music, studying at the Royal Irish Academy of Music in Dublin and later earning a university degree in music. Married to the Belfast-born James Cousins and starting out as a music teacher, Margaret’s life abruptly changed when she attended a women’s suffrage meeting in Manchester, England. She would devote most of the rest of her life to the cause of women’s rights, in Ireland and elsewhere.

In those years the movement to gain women the right to vote was slowly gathering strength amidst an atmosphere of ridicule, disregard, and occasional violence. Although much popular historical attention has focused on the movement in Britain and on its charismatic leaders Emmeline, Christabel, Adela, and Sylvia Pankhurst, a vigorous campaign to gain the vote for women was also carried on in Ireland.

Returning to Ireland, Cousins joined the women’s movement there. Ireland had long had a suffragist organization: the Irish Women’s Suffrage and Local Government Association had been organized in 1901, but its roots went back to the 1880s. A number of its members, though, looked admiringly at the militant Women’s Social and Political Union founded in England in 1903, and thought that the time had come for Ireland to have a more militant, but still separate and distinctively Irish suffragist organization of its own. Accordingly, Cousins joined with Hannah Sheehy Skeffington and founded the Irish Women’s Franchise League in 1908. In 1910 she returned to England as one of the Irish delegates to that year’s Parliament of Women held in London.

In Ireland, militant Suffragists, or “suffragettes” as they were often jokingly referred to in the press, paralleled the activities of their counterparts in Britain by engaging in acts of civil disobedience. In Ireland, window breaking emerged as the preferred tactic, and small carpenter’s hammers soon became the symbolic fashion accessory of the Suffragist movement. At the time large panes of plate glass were still something of a rarity in Ireland: most shops were still windowed with small panes of glass that could be broken with a hand-held hammer with little risk of serious injury. Although fashionable shop fronts along Dublin’s Grafton and Sackville Streets were popular targets for this activity, Cousins believed in taking things straight to the heart of the political system, and began her personal campaign by daringly breaking windows in Dublin Castle, the seat of the British administration in Ireland. For her “panes”, as journalistic punsters had it, she was jailed for six months at Tullamore Prison. There she joined three other Suffragist prisoners in a six-day hunger strike for political status.

In England, similar demands by imprisoned Suffragists had been met by horrific episodes of force-feeding and brutality, but the authorities in Ireland seemed to have had little desire to carry things to such extremes, and instead gave informal recognition of the separate, non-criminal nature of the four prisoners in Tullamore.

Although acts of civil disobedience gained attantion and signaled that, in Cousins’ own words, “the era of dumb, self-effacing woman was over”, she kept an eye on a broader political agenda and sought, by cultivating connections with the nationalist movement in Ireland, to have a provision for women’s suffrage included in the anticipated Home Rule Bill. Although the Irish Parliamentary Party’s leader Jonathan Redmond remained adamantly against it, the cause of women’s suffrage gained acceptance among some of the more advanced nationalists.

Apart from being a leading Suffragist, Cousins was also, along with her husband, a committed member of the mystical movement known as Theosophy founded by Madame Blavatsky back in the 1870s. When in 1915 James Cousins got an opportunity to go to India to join the editorial staff of the Theosophist journal New India, the couple departed Ireland. But for Gretta Cousins this by no means meant an abandonment of her feminist activism: she simply continued her work in her new home in India. In 1917 she helped found the Indian Women’s Association and began pressing to put women’s suffrage on the agenda of the Indian independence movement. In 1926 she co-founded the All Indian Women’s Conference, an organization that remains active and influential to this day.

Women’s suffrage came at last to Ireland via the 1918 act of the London parliament that granted the vote to women over 30 in Britain and Ireland. It was just in time for Irish women to vote in the election that resulted in the formation of the nationalist Dail Eireann, and the election of the first woman to the London parliament, Constance Markievicz (who refused to take her seat, joining instead the Dail Eireann.) Women’s suffrage was accepted as part of the constitution of the Irish Free State when it was formed four years later following the War of Independence.

Gretta Cousins continued to work for women’s rights in India, and died there on 11 March 1954.

The stories in This Month in Celtic History are drawn from over 1000 anniversaries of people and events from the histories of the six Celtic nations of Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Brittany, Cornwall, and the Isle of Mann in the 2003 Celtic Calendar, now available from the Celtic League American Branch.

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