"No idle sightseers ... but a genuine political force [and] ... a most effective organisation with that of the men."
These were the words which unionist, Roland MacNeill used to describe the Ulster Women’s Unionist Council (UWUC) in 1922. Unionist women were involved in the anti-home rule campaigns from the time of the first Home Rule Bill in 1886. Although unable to express their opposition to home rule by the means of a parliamentary vote, women demonstrated, addressed meetings, disseminated propaganda, fundraised, canvassed and joined bodies like the Belfast branch of the London-based Women’s Liberal Unionist Association. Such involvement, although ancillary, introduced many women to political work for the first time. Unionist women were also petitioning en masse as a way to express a political voice: close to 20,000 signatures, for example, were collected for an anti-home rule petition, conveyed to parliament in a carriage belonging to Theresa, 6th Marchioness of Londonderry, a future UWUC president, in 1893.
Small local women’s unionist associations were active in various parts of Ulster in the early twentieth century, but the inauguration of the UWUC in January 1911 was an important turning point in the history of women’s political activism in Ireland. This body became hugely popular within a relatively short period of time; by the end of 1911 thirty two branches had been formed throughout Ulster with a collective estimated membership of 40,000-50,000. Two years later the press were quoting membership figures of between 115,000-200,000 members. Although a margin of exaggeration is to be expected, the sheer scale of the UWUC’s activities, attendances at their public demonstrations as well as signatories to their petitions reinforce the fact that this was a very sizeable organisation.
Much of the explanation for this popularity lies in the fact that the years of 1911-14 were crisis points in the history of unionism. The Parliament Act of 1911 removed the last constitutional bulwark against home rule by limiting the power of the House of Lords to a two-year veto and thus any future home rule bill could no longer be defeated outright by the Lords. For unionists this soon gained a grim reality when the Government of Ireland bill of 1912 was defeated by the Lords and hence delayed for two years. Furthermore, the fact that the UWUC was led by members of Ulster’s aristocratic elite, such as the organisation’s early presidents, which included Mary Anne, 2nd Duchess of Abercorn (1911-13) and the aforementioned Theresa, Marchioness of Londonderry (1913-19), added respectability to the organisation and likely attracted many members. As was common to many political women in the 19th and early 20th centuries, the leaders of women’s unionism were connected to the movement by familial and marital ties. The UWUC’s second and most influential president, Theresa, 6th Marchioness of Londonderry, was also politically astute and very well connected. The so-called ‘Queen of Toryism’, once likened to ‘a highwaywoman in a tiara’, was a leading political hostess, entertaining royalty and the socio-political élite. She was also an influential patron of the unionist leader, Edward Carson who regarded her as his best friend and of the Tory leader, Andrew Bonar Law. Such connections allowed a local organisation to act on a much wider stage.
Many of the most active members of the UWUC were upper/middle class in social origin and this can be explained by the practicalities of political work. Throughout Britain it was also women from these classes who possessed the time and economic freedom to participate in political life. This was reflected in the UWUC’s ruling body, its Executive Committee, meeting on weekdays and during normal working hours which precluded working women’s involvement. But these upper-class women should not overshadow the importance of unionist women working at a local level.
The role which the UWUC defined for itself was distinct from that of men: they sought to work by means of ‘gentleness, tact and quiet influence’. Like its forerunners, this was an auxiliary organisation, formed to complement, rather than rival, the work of male unionists. The UWUC identified the defeat of home rule as its sole concern and perhaps most strikingly this meant that the question of women’s suffrage would not be discussed. A range of anti-home rule arguments was, however, aired; unionist men and women alike objected to home rule on religious, economic, imperial and constitutional grounds, but the UWUC also developed a gendered argument which focussed on the sanctity of the home and portrayed women’s political activism as an extension of their maternal and protective instincts. This was also a way to make unionism appear relevant to women’s lives as the following from Lurgan Women’s Unionist Association in 1911 highlights: ‘the Union…meant everything to them – their civil and religious liberty, their homes and children…Home was a woman’s first consideration…in the event of Home Rule being granted, the sanctity and happiness of home life in Ulster would be permanently destroyed.’
The Ulster Solemn League and Covenant and Women’s Declaration, signed on ‘Ulster Day’, 28 September 1912, not only emphasise the determination to resist home rule, but also aver to women’s place within unionism. Women were not permitted to sign the covenant by the Ulster Unionist Council and had to negotiate to be allowed to draw up a separate women’s declaration. The wording on that declaration was drafted by Thomas Sinclair and approved by the UWUC’s Advisory Committee. The shorter text of the declaration, in comparison to that of the covenant, noted women’s desire to ‘associate’ themselves ‘with the men of Ulster in their uncompromising opposition to the Home Rule Bill…whereby it is proposed to drive Ulster out of her cherished in the Constitution of the United Kingdom, and to place her under the domination and control of a Parliament in Ireland. Praying that from this calamity God will save Ireland’. Although women were told to make separate arrangements to set up signing stations throughout Ulster, there was undoubtedly more co-operation than this might suggest; many of the agents responsible for collecting the signed declaration forms also collated the covenant. Signatures for the declaration were collected at Belfast City Hall, the Ulster Hall, and various town halls, court houses, unionist clubs, schools, church halls, court houses, temperance, mission and orange halls. Some signed in their own homes and in areas like Ballymena there were house to house collections. Some of the more unusual signing stations included a vacant shop in Carrickfergus and Portrush skating rink; outdoor venues like church grounds were also common. The illiterate made a mark of ‘X’ with their name and address being added by the collection agent.
The signatories to these documents provide one of the best examples not only of the popularity and determination of unionism, but also the comparative strength of women’s unionism: a total of 228,999 women signed the Declaration in Ulster compared to 218,206 male signatories to the Covenant. Belfast saw the highest number of female signatories: over 61,500 women signed the declaration in Belfast, with close to a quarter of those coming from the south of the city. In Down just under 35,000 women signed; in Derry the figure was over 20,000. The number of signatures in Cavan, Monaghan and Donegal was unsurprisingly smaller – 3722 women’s signatures were collected in Cavan, for example. Ulster women resident elsewhere in Ireland signed in even smaller numbers – 768 in Dublin; just 26 in Waterford; 21 in Wicklow and even smaller numbers in Kildare and Kilkenny. Nor did the women’s declaration attract signatures from across the whole country – there appear to be no female signatories in areas like Leitrim, Limerick, Meath, Mayo, Sligo or Westmeath. A British covenant and declaration was also signed by those of Ulster birth in England and Scotland and this attracted more male signatories than female – 19,162 men signed in comparison to 5,055 women. This was possibly a consequence of the lower number of women’s political associations to coordinate the campaign. With the British and Ulster signatories combined, 237,368 men signed, compared to 234, 046 women.
The UWUC is still in existence today; it is therefore a unique survivor from the proliferation of women’s political organisations that were established in early 20th-century Ireland. Although an intrinsically auxiliary and conservative organisation, it is not without significance. The sheer size of the association and the scale of its activities are an effective illustration of the degree of political enthusiasm which many women possessed years before they could vote: the UWUC of the early 20th century remains the largest female political force Ireland has ever seen.
The women’s council made a significant contribution to the strength of popular unionism and its espousal of unionist principles, although having much in common with male unionists, was not a mere imitation. The fact that many women remained members of the UWUC not just over years, but decades, alludes to a deep sense of political responsibility and sometimes fear. They were not seen as the political equals of men; nor did they want to be. Their work was important for unionism, for countering bias against politically active women and for their members, particularly for the many middle-class women who were taken out of the domestic containment of their lives and introduced to politics for the first time.