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3 November 2005 Edition

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Remembering the Past - Leading fighter for the rights of women


Margaret Cousins, nee Gillespie, was born in Boyle, County Roscommon on 7 November 1878, 127 years ago. In 1903 she married Belfast-born James Cousins and started out as a music teacher.

Margaret's life drastically changed when she attended a women's suffrage meeting in Manchester, England. She devoted most of the rest of her life to the cause of women's rights in Ireland and elsewhere.

The Irish Women's Suffrage and Local Government Association was organised in 1901. A number of its members looked admiringly at the militant Women's Social and Political Union founded in England in 1903, and felt the time had come for Ireland to have a more militant, but separate and distinctively Irish suffragist organisation. 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 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.

For her "panes", as journalistic punsters had it, she was jailed for six months in Mountjoy and 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 gave informal recognition of the separate, non-criminal nature of the four prisoners in Tullamore.

Although acts of civil disobedience gained attention 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. She 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. As she said: "We were as keen as men on the freedom of Ireland, but we saw the men clamouring for amendments which suited their own interests and made no recognition of the existence of women as fellow-citizens. We women were convinced that anything which improved the status of women would improve, not hinder, the coming of real, national self-government."

Women's suffrage came to Ireland via the 1918 act of the British 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 Dáil Éireann, and the election of the first woman to Westminster — Sinn Féin's Constance Markievicz, who refused to take her seat, joining Dáil Éireann instead.

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 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. For Gretta Cousins this by no means meant an abandonment of feminist activism and she continued her work in India.

In 1917 she helped found the Indian Women's Association and pressed for women's suffrage to be on the agenda of the Indian independence movement. In 1922 she was appointed the first woman magistrate in India and in 1928 founded the first All-India Women's Conference. In December 1932 Cousins, while still a magistrate, was sentenced to one year in prison for protesting at the introduction of legislation which curtailed free speech.

While in Vellore Women's Jail she went on hunger-strike in support of Mahatma Gandhi, then also imprisoned. After her release in October 1933 Cousins continued to campaign for women's rights and in 1938 was elected President of the All-India Women's Conference.

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

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