Kieran’s Our City, Our Town Article,
Cork Independent, 8 December 2016
Remembering 1916: Questions of Gender
One hundred years ago this month the focus of gender swept into the newspaper media. In early November 1916, Miss Jeannette Rankin, Independent candidate, was elected Representative from Montana. This was the first time in the history of the United States of America that a woman has been elected a member of Congress. Miss Rankin was a suffrage campaigner through whose untiring efforts women won the fight for the ballot in Montana. This was also four years before the ratification of the amendment to the United States Constitution, which granted women the right to vote.
Across the Atlantic Ocean, in Ireland and Britain, the exodus of males to the fronts of World War I led to a shortage of workers (approx. 1.6 million) across a myriad of services, professions and trade. Hence large numbers of women were recruited into jobs vacated by men who had gone to fight in the war. New jobs were also created as part of the war effort, for example in munitions factories. The high demand for weapons resulted in munitions factories becoming the largest single employer of women during 1918. In addition, the introduction of conscription in 1916 made the need for women workers urgent.
In the first few days of November 1916, the innovation of female letter-carriers reached Cork. Thirty aspirants, under the superintendence of the regular male staff, started at 6am to learn the work and finished at 9am. The introduction of what the postal system described as “post-women” to Cork was not to result in their permanent employment. They were only taking the place of postmen, whose services were not available. They were paid 5d per hour during their period of duty. The authorities stated the “post-women” were not to be asked to handle heavy parcels; their duties were confined to letters and letter packets. An editorial in the Cork Examiner on the 7 December remarked on the heavy weights of packages questioning the inequality indirectly; “During Christmas the long hours and weights carried are excessive, and tire out strong men who are used to years of that work. Therefore, if the women are only to carry light loads, who is to bear the brunt of the load that was hitherto divided between the eighty male auxiliaries and the permanent staff?”
On 9 December, the Cork Examiner highlighted the exclusion of female students as resident pupils. A letter by Sir Bertram Windle, President of University College Cork, appeared in the press: “I have been favoured with a copy of the letter, which is being sent by the Munster branch of the Irish Association of Women graduates in connection with the admission of women graduates as residents in the South Infirmary. The number of women medical students is rapidly increasing and it will be enormously to their advantage to have an opportunity of seeing the practice of a great medical institution, as can only be seen by those living within its walls. If, therefore, your committee can at all find it possible to accommodate them I can only say that you will gain the gratitude of all those who are interested in the education of women”.
The House Committee of the South Infirmary discussed the situation and recommended that there was no suitable accommodation for resident female students. They suggested that female students be admitted as day boarders from 9.30am, until such an hour as may be agreed on by the committee. Females students were to assist in the work of the hospital in the same way as the male students, and to be provided with meals on payment of one guinea per week, if desired.
On the afternoon of 12 December 1916, through the courtesy of Captain F Downie, Director of Munitions (no.10 Area, Ireland), Lieutenant Hinge, Lord Mayor Thomas Butterfield and a representative of the Examiner were conducted around the Cork National Shell Factory, where 150 people are employed. This was located at St Peter’s Market, now the Bodega Bar on Cornmarket Street. They were taken from machine to machine, at each of which several girls were employed. The gas heaters registered a heat of 1,000 degrees centigrade, and into which the nose of each shell was inserted and heated to a great temperature before being placed into dies.
Captain Downie expressed regret that he was unable to obtain skilled labour in Cork and pointed out that the men who were working hard at the bottling press and gas heaters were men who were trained at the Dublin National Shell Factory, and that more skilled workmen would be required. The factory aimed to employ 250 persons, who were to work in three shifts. Each shift was to be under the superintendence of a matron who is a trained nurse, and who will look after the general health of the workers. The scale of the wages paid to the girl workers was 10s 6d per week of forty-five hours as probationers. At the conclusion of the probationary period, they were to take their places in one of the three eight-hour shifts, when their wages according to the shift in which they were engaged, namely – those on the shift from 6am to 2pm were to receive 2s 6d per day, 2s 9d per day if on 2pm to 10pm shift; and 3s 3d per day if on the shift from 10pm to 6am.
Cork 1916, A Year Examined (2016) by Kieran McCarthy & Suzanne Kirwan is now available in Cork bookshops.
Cork City History Tour (2016) by Kieran McCarthy is also available in Cork bookshops.
873a. Cork GPO, c.1916 (source: Cork City Through Time by Kieran McCarthy & Dan Breen)
873b. Picture of World War I munitions factory, London, c.1916 (source: Getty Images)