McCoubrey (Morrison), Margaret (1880–1956), suffragist and political activist, was born Margaret Mearns Morrison in Elderslie, Renfrewshire, near Glasgow, on 5 January 1880, one of two daughters and a son of William Morrison, labourer, and his wife Elizabeth. Her mother had three children with her previous husband who had died. Margaret's family moved to Glasgow where they experienced financial hardship following her father's death in 1890. On finishing school aged twelve, she worked in a men's outfitter's shop and took night classes in shorthand typing, bookkeeping and business studies. Qualifying as a shorthand typist aged sixteen, she served as secretary to the managing director of Scotland's first private telephone company before teaching in a private training college, becoming deputy headmistress by the age of twenty-four.
She styled herself Margaret Taylor McCoubrey upon marrying John Taylor McCoubrey (1863–1935) in the Free Church of Scotland, Glasgow, in December 1905. He was an electrical engineer in the Harland and Wolff shipyard on the Clyde. Nominally presbyterian, the couple reserved their fervour for what she saw as the linked causes of socialism and female suffrage. Upon John's transfer in 1907 to the Harland and Wolff shipyard in Belfast, they lived nearby in Candahar Street where they raised Elizabeth (b. 1906) and John (b. 1907) and enjoyed a modest middle-class lifestyle. Supported by her husband, who was later secretary of the Belfast District Electrical Trades Union, she threw herself into political activism and joined various groups of a political or social nature, including the Irish Women's Suffragist Society (IWSS) in 1910. Its largely Belfast-based membership tended to be more radical than that of Ulster's other significant suffragist group, the Irish Women's Suffrage Federation (IWSF), which put more emphasis on upholding the Union. Both were broadly middle class and unionist.
By 1912 many Irish suffragists had embarked on a policy of opposition to the Liberal government and its Irish nationalist allies for their refusal to include a clause in the Home Rule Bill enfranchising Irish women. That summer, she emerged as the driving force behind the IWSS when she arranged and spoke at a series of open-air meetings promoting the suffragist cause across Cos. Down and Antrim; she also spoke regularly at the society's weekly public meetings in Belfast. Although her denunciations of the ruling Liberal–Nationalist alliance pleased unionist listeners, these events were frequently marred by aggressive heckling from party-political partisans, anti-suffragists and juvenile delinquents. (Her husband suffered a black eye and broken teeth during an open-air meeting held in 1914). Disdaining microphones, she used her powerful voice to give as good as she got in upholding an unpopular cause, becoming widely admired within the suffragist movement for her determination and skill in argument. In November 1912 she was appointed the IWSS's honorary treasurer.
With the Irish suffragists riven by disagreements between the advocates of peaceful or violent tactics and by the competing pull of their unionist or nationalist loyalties, McCoubrey was an agnostic on the national question, while championing the efficacy of militancy; accordingly she sought closer relations between the IWSS and the more militant, nationalist leaning Irish Women's Franchise League (IWFL), based in Dublin. From 1912 she contributed to the IWFL newspaper the Irish Citizen and spoke on behalf of the IWSS at several IWFL demonstrations in the Phoenix Park, Dublin. As the IWSS agent at the Londonderry by-election in February 1913, she cooperated with the IWFL's agent in arranging meetings and distributing literature opposing the nationalist-backed Liberal candidate. Her speeches also condemned the Unionist candidate for his anti-suffragist stance. Exasperated by those suffragists who gave priority to other issues, she urged the avoidance of party-political affiliations. She also criticised the trade unions for failing to support female suffrage, unskilled workers and equal pay between genders.
The Ulster suffragists engaged intermittently in civil disobedience from late 1912, mainly involving harassing politicians and breaking windows in government buildings. She justified such actions from criticisms within and without the IWSS by contending that constitutional methods had failed. Ever concerned with cultivating suffragist unity, she shaped the IWSS's ambiguous stance towards lawbreaking. This alienated moderate members, who left for the IWSF, while failing to satisfy the radicals, who left for the militant British organisation, the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU), once it established a Belfast branch in September 1913. The IWSS's ensuing endorsement of militancy failed to halt the defections, which culminated in the society's demise in April 1914.
Knowing that the WSPU's move into Ireland would annoy the IWFL, she opposed this development before accepting that the hardened militants arriving from Britain were stimulating action. From October 1913 she cooperated closely with the WSPU, initially in her capacity as IWSS treasurer, later as a WSPU member. Assorted WSPU activists, including Dorothy Evans and Christabel Pankhurst, visited or stayed in her house while waging an intense campaign of arson and destruction of property in north-east Ulster during March–July 1914. She helped without participating directly, as she felt she could not risk imprisonment on account of her two young children. The police trailed her and watched her house, raiding it at least once. In June 1914 she partook in a joint constitutional-militant Irish suffragist protest at Westminster.
To her dismay the outbreak of the first world war that September prompted the effective collapse of suffragism in Ulster, as the bulk of its adherents, including those in the WSPU, redirected their energies towards the war effort. A convinced pacifist, she became honorary secretary of the new Ulster centre set up in Belfast in September 1914 by the anti-war IWFL. Most Belfast suffragists shunned the IWFL for its anti-war stance and association with Irish nationalism. She corresponded with the IWFL leader Hanna Sheehy Skeffington (qv), confiding to her the difficulties she encountered in keeping the Ulster centre afloat supported only by a tiny, half-hearted membership, which was divided over the war. These letters reveal the mutual antipathy that developed between McCoubrey and her erstwhile suffragist comrades as well as her dislike of the WSPU's authoritarian character and belief that it had degenerated latterly into nihilism.
In spring 1915 she embarrassed certain Ulster centre members by deciding to travel to the international women's congress held in the Hague for the purposes of war mediation. Although the government prevented her from attending by denying her a travel visa, this controversy pushed the Ulster centre into oblivion soon after. Subsequently she spoke at an anti-conscription rally arranged by the Independent Labour Party (ILP) of which she was a member. In summer 1917 she launched a month-long peace and suffrage campaign in Ulster during which her open-air meeting at Bangor, Co. Down, on 25 August was broken up by a hostile crowd.
Following her call up in 1916 to work as a pensions officer, she 'learned to sip a glass of sherry, smoke a cigarette, put sixpence each way on a horse and the correct way to dye her hair' (Hill, 'Women, war and welfare', 47). She had always resented doing housework and spent her free time writing, speechifying, attending committees and devouring newspapers and political literature, staying up well into the night. Her house was 'a cross between a hotel and a polling booth on election day … every available space was covered with newspapers, books and magazines' (ibid, 49).
From 1914 most of her activity concerned the cooperative movement. A member of the local Belfast cooperative society since 1906, she confounded warnings that her suffragist convictions would undermine her prospects by becoming the first woman to win election to the board of management, serving there from 1914 to 1926. Lauding cooperatives for empowering women and workers, she rejected the doctrinaire socialist view that the ownership of cooperative shares turned workers into capitalists, asserting instead that cooperatives were inherently collectivist. By the late 1920s she was well known throughout Ireland from serving as general secretary of the Irish Women's Co-operative Guild. She edited the Belfast edition of the Whitesheaf (later the Co-operative Home Magazine) for thirty-six years, continuing even longer as Irish correspondent for the Co-operative News and the Scottish Co-operator. Further to earning various certificates from cooperative summer schools and correspondence courses, she lectured cooperative members on economics and on the history of the cooperative movement.
She was among the few women activists within the Belfast Labour Party, which was founded in 1918 and reconstituted as the Labour Party (Northern Ireland) in 1924. Amongst other positions she was vice president of the party's Central branch in 1926 and sat on its Women's Advisory Council from 1927. Her husband was the party treasurer. In 1926 she ran unsuccessfully in the Belfast municipal council election in the Ormeau ward. Standing in a municipal council by-election in February 1929, this time in Dock ward, she lost by six votes, but petitioned against the result, alleging personation, and was declared elected by the courts in May. Before losing her seat in the 1931 municipal elections, she used this platform to highlight the poor housing conditions in her ward and to promote the welfare of mothers, young children and working women. In a January 1930 speech about her experiences on the male dominated Belfast city council, she called men the spoilt darlings of the home, also describing them as verbose, conspiratorial and impractical.
A long-time committee member of the Belfast Girl's Club Union, she was in 1933 appointed manager of the club's retreat, Drumella House, at Carnlough, Co. Antrim; it became her residence. Originally intended for use every July, she made it a year-round retreat for those who could not otherwise afford a holiday and a regular meeting venue for various worthy organisations. Residents took educational courses as well as enjoying parties and musical evenings. Latterly applications had to be turned down during the summer months. Retiring in 1945 to live with her daughter's family in University Street, Belfast, she died in a local hospital on 11 April 1956 and was buried in Roselawn cemetery. She left an unfinished history of the cooperative movement. Her son John served in the British Army during the second world war, dying in a Japanese prisoner of war camp.