Tuesday, 8 March 2011

International Women's Day

This year part of the celebration of International Women's Day includes a project to temporarily 'rename' a number of streets after women who 'made an important contribution to the city over the years'.

The project was organised by the Women's Tec in Duncairn Gardens and according to Anne McVicker, 'they tried to pick names that were in keeping with the particular area'.

The five women they chose are:
1. Nora Connolly, (1893-1981), the daughter of Irish republican James Connolly.  The Falls Road has been renamed Nora Connolly Road.
2. Ruby Murray (1935-1996), the popular Belfast singer.  The Lisburn Road has been renamed Ruby Murray Road.
3. Sadie Menzies (1914-1996), a founder member of the Revolutionary Workers Group and the Communist Party of Ireland.  Newtownards Road has been renamed Sadie Menzies Road.
4. Mary Anne McCracken (1770-1866), a social activist and sister of Henry Joy McCracken, the United Irishman.  Royal Avenue has been renamed Mary Anne McCracken Avenue.
5. Madge Davison (1950-1991), a leading fugure in the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association and also a member of the Communist Party of Ireland.  Duncairn Gardens is to be renamed Madge Davison Gardens.

As I read the list two thoughts occurred to me.

First of all, I wondered how representative this list is of prominent women in the history of the city or indeed the province.  Two of the five were members of the Communist Party of Ireland, a miniscule political party with no elected representatives, one was the sister of a United Irishman and another the daughter of an Irish republican.  Were there never any women from the unionist community, who were social activists or were active in politics?

Isabella Tod
Of course there were and an obvious example is Isabella Tod (1836-1896), a social reformer, a sufragette and a Liberal Unionist.  She campaigned for the rights of women in a range of areas, including education, and was one of the most prominent of the Belfast women who campaigned for the right to vote.  Isabella was also an evangelical Presbyterian and an Ulster-Scot, and she was associated with the great Ulster Unionist Convention of 1892.

Then secondly, why does the list of names not include even one unionist, when there are two members of the Communist Party and an Irish republican?  It seems that either the organisers of the project, the Women's Tec, have a very limited knowledge of social activists from the unionist community, such as Isabella Tod, or else they chose to ignore that tradition and exclude them from the project.  If the latter is the case then the Women's Tec have revealed themselves to be politically partisan.  An organisation such as the Women's Tec should seek to be inclusive and non-partisan but they have clearly failed to do so.

There is a short article on Isabella Tod on a historical website hosted by University College Cork and the author of the article, Tomas O'Riordan, concludes by saying 'she is regarded as the prominent feminist of the nineteeth century.' 


  1. Perhaps women today have forgotten Amy Carmichael?!!

  2. Yes Mark, another excellent suggestion and representative of all the Ulster women who have gone abroad as Christian missionaries.

  3. Nelson, you should have asked WOMEN’STEC on Friday about the "reclaim the Streets" project, instead of criticising on your blog. The reason behind the street names was to uncover women who played a role in creating our fine City of Belfast. They were not chosen by party or religion, but by the contribution they made. WOMEN'STEC work all over NI and we see a bigger picture and refuse to work in a divisive manor that you have engaged in. We haven't failed Nelson; you have in stooping so low, shame. However I'm glad there is discussion about women's contribution and perhaps next International Women's Day, we will have an Isabel Todd Road.

  4. Helen - I looked at the newspaper reports and the website. The choice of names was in the public domain and was clearly unrepresentative. You say that they were not chosen by party but it is remarkable that two of the five were members of the Communist Party and one was a member of Sinn Fein. Yet there was not a single unionist.

    Moreover Hanna Sheehy Skeffington receives a lot of attention from some people in the 'women's movement' in that her name was chosen for the project Hanna's House. She was assistant editor of the Sinn Fein newspaper An Phoblacht but also a co-founder, with Michael O'Riordan of the Communist Party, of the Irish Friends of Soviet Russia.

    I find it disappointing that when I point out these simple facts I am described as being 'divisive'. I would suggest on the contrary that your choice was divisive in that it excluded or ignored any social reformers who were unionists.

    I hope that if this project is repeated next year the choice of names will be more representative and inclusive. Is there a problem with inclusivity? Is it not good to include some unionist women who were social reformers as a way of inspiring and encouraging unionist women today. They shoud not be written out of the story. Rather they should be remembered and celebrated.