11th December 2012
I am honoured to speak on behalf of the Taoiseach’s nominees. In preparing for today I spent the past week reflecting and reading through the history of the Seanad, as it appears my colleagues also did, and in particular I looked at its earlier days. My colleagues know I have a keen interest in family history, and through my research on my family I learned the necklace I am wearing today was given by my grandfather to his sister on her wedding day in the 1920s. I wonder what were their thoughts about the newly founded Seanad on that day in County Clare. My family history includes some amazing strong women, and as I wear my great-aunt’s necklace, I wonder whether the first women of the Seanad gave her inspiration.
The women nominated to the 1922 to 1937 Free State Seanad were highly gifted and made significant contributions to the political, economic and cultural spheres of Ireland. Notably these women were committed to gender equality during a period in which legislative changes ensured women’s rights were further weakened. Jenny Wyse Power had been active in the Ladies’ Land League and local government, and also ran various businesses. Ellen Odette Cuffe, Countess of Desart, was a London-based Jewish woman who had founded a woollen mill, a theatre and a hospital in Kilkenny. She was also a keen supporter of the Irish language. Alice Stopford Green was a noted historian. Eileen Costello was a London-based teacher who moved to Galway and had a keen interest in Irish folklore. Elected in 1928, Kathleen Clarke was a well-known nationalist who opposed the wording of Bunreacht na hÉireann as she believed it placed women in a lower position than the Proclamation of 1916. Kathleen Browne, a member of Cumann na nGaedheal, joined the Seanad through a by-election in 1929.
Despite their political differences, these women often worked together to promote women’s issues. The Civil Service Regulation (Amendment) Bill 1925, which sought to confine State examinations for senior Civil Service posts to men, was strongly opposed by Senators Wyse Power and Costello. Additionally, Senator Wyse Power, who had worked in the republican courts established during the War of Independence, was staunch in her opposition to the Juries Act 1927 which barred women from jury service in the new state. Many of the women Senators supported the Illegitimate Children (Affiliation Orders) Bill 1929, which was introduced to improve the status of unmarried mothers by providing the mother with the right to financial maintenance from the child’s father. Senator Clarke opposed a ban on contraceptives in 1934, arguing it would drive the issue of birth control underground. Radically for the time, Senator Clarke also called for solidarity from the trade union movement on the issue of equal pay in 1935.
A number of women elected over the years to the post-1937 Seanad, such as Mary Robinson and Gemma Hussey, began their political careers campaigning actively for women’s issues. Once elected, they worked hard to ensure women’s rights were placed on the agenda of the House. The then Senator Robinson, despite being subject to personal hate mail and high levels of suspicion from a number of colleagues, introduced a Bill in 1973 to make contraceptives legal in the Republic. Meanwhile, Senator Hussey attempted to introduce legislation on rape, sponsoring the Sexual Offences Bill 1980, which lapsed on First Stage. A former Judge of the Supreme Court, Catherine McGuinness, who was first elected to the Seanad in 1979, argued for the rights of the individual throughout her legislative and judicial career. These women, and others, made improving the lives of ordinary women central to their work as Senators, and are just three examples of the high level of female talent which has emerged from the Upper House.
I was interested to note that between 1937 and 2007, no Taoiseach nominated more than four women. This was broken in 2011 when the Taoiseach, Deputy Enda Kenny, included seven women among his 11 nominees.
This ensured the new Seanad was 30% female, a record high in women’s political representation in the Houses of the Oireachtas. As one examines the transcripts and history of the House, it is clear that women Senators have made contributions to the Upper House and to Houses of the Oireachtas well beyond their paltry numbers.
The 90th anniversary has given me an opportunity to reflect on our history and to draw inspiration. I feel very privileged to be a member of Seanad Éireann. As I reflect today, and especially looking at my colleagues in my Independent group and admire the work that they have done outside and inside the House, I think that each one of us has an opportunity to reflect and decide what will be the legacy of our work. Will we be willing to use our voices, our role and our powers to make a positive difference to the lives of the people of Ireland?
I would like to record my thanks to Claire McGing, NUI Maynooth and Fiona Buckley UCC for their input and assistance in preparing this statement.