Bangor Historical Society met on 14 March 2024. The speaker was Mrs Carol Walker from the Somme Museum. Her subject was the role of women in the First World War. She began by talking about women’s position in the Victorian age. At that time women were very much restricted in what they could do. Society was divided by class: upper, middle & working class. The roles of men and women were also defined: women became wives & mothers and looked after the home. Men’s role was to provide for the family. Women’s legal, civil and political status was restricted. By the late nineteenth century women’s demand for more rights was focused on obtaining the vote.

There were two main groups involved, the suffragettes and the suffragists. The latter took a peaceful approach, while the former were more militant. Emmeline Pankhurst was a leading suffragette. Women throughout the British Isles supported the idea of votes for women. A leading Belfast supporter was Isabella Tod.

By 1914 women’s status was improving. More women were receiving a better education and going to university, but this mainly affected upper class women whose families supported the idea. By 1914 800,000 women were in paid employment. This was mostly low paid such as domestic, agricultural and textile industries. Some women did sewing, laundry etc at home. In Ulster women became involved in local politics on both the nationalist and unionist sides. The latter were able to sign a declaration in support of the men who signed the Solemn League and Covenant in 1912. Some became UVF nurses. The leading unionist politicians were divided on the question of votes for women. James Craig supported it, but Edward Carson opposed it.

By 1914 suffragettes in Ulster were following the lead of those elsewhere by adopting more violent tactics. Examples of these were an arson attack at Bangor Station and an attempt to blow up Lisburn Cathedral. Another suffragette tactic was the hunger strike by women imprisoned for violent acts. This led to the very unpleasant practice of force feeding which earned the women public sympathy. The government then introduced the ‘Cat and Mouse’ Act which meant that the women would be released and then rearrested when their health had recovered.

In 1914 Britain declared war on Germany following the latter’s invasion of Belgium. Now the position of women was transformed. As men went off to war, women took their places in the workforce. In Britain 900,000 worked in munitions, 113,000 in farming, 117,000 in transport and 100,000 became nurses.

Mrs Walker then gave examples of individual women who became involved in the war effort. Dorothy Laurence wanted to be a journalist, reporting from the trenches, but she was not allowed to go. Nevertheless she went to France and posed as a soldier with the help of a sapper. She served for 3 weeks as a soldier until arrested by the military police. She was accused of being a camp follower and was court-martialed. She was found guilty but insane. She was put in a lunatic asylum in 1917 and died there in 1964. Her diary is in the Imperial War Museum. Flora Sandes was the only British woman to have served officially as a soldier in World War One. She did this by joining the Serbian Red Cross. Jessie Roberts’ family had moved from Scotland to Newtownards in 1906 where her father became manager of the gas works. She joined the Volunteer Aid Detachment and served in a military hospital in Wimereux. She later married a soldier she had nursed. The photographs she took during her service are now in the Somme Museum.

Elsie Maud Inglis was known as the Lady with the Torch. Born in 1864, she trained as a doctor and then became a pioneer surgeon. Her offers of help when the war started were turned down. Instead she set up the Scottish Women’s Hospital Units. She went to Serbia, but in 1915 was captured by the Germans. She was repatriated, but in 1916 she went to Odessa, then part of Russia. Then she discovered she had breast cancer, went home and died shortly afterwards. She was given a full military funeral and buried in St. Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh.

Finally Mrs Walker talked about two women from Ulster. Sister Mary Agnes Doherty was a nurse from Dungannon. She worked in Salonica where she died from dysentery. Dr Isabel Addey Tate was born in Tartaraghan in north County Armagh. She trained in Queen’s College, now Queen’s University. She worked in Burnley Union Infirmary. Later she joined the Royal Army Medical Corps and worked in Malta where she died from typhoid in 1917. She is the only woman recorded on the university war memorial.

The war proved a watershed for women. Their contribution to the war effort earned them the vote in two stages. In 1918 married women over 30 who satisfied a property qualification got the vote. This did not apply to Ireland. Ten years later, women over 21 got the vote on the same terms as men and this applied to Northern Ireland.