Friday 18 October 2019

Women, suffrage and class

The groundwork for equality was laid well before events of 1916, writes Mary McAuliffe

Female Irish Republican supporters pose for a photograph with an Irish tricolour to publicise a meeting in mid-1916. (Photo by Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)
Female Irish Republican supporters pose for a photograph with an Irish tricolour to publicise a meeting in mid-1916. (Photo by Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)
Anna Haslam.

From the mid-19th century, middle-class suffrage women in Ireland campaigned for the right to vote on the same basis as men. As well as seeking the right to vote, they supported changes to legislation on married women's property rights, they sought access to third level education and an improvement in the conditions for middle-class working women.

A major campaign which many of the early suffrage pioneers were engaged with was the campaign to repeal the Contagious Diseases Acts of 1864, 1866, and 1869. In an effort to combat the spread of venereal diseases, especially among the members of the armed forces, the government introduced such stringent controls on women suspected of prostitution that middle-class women felt it reinforced the sexual double standard and undermined the civil liberties of all women. Belfast-based Isabella Tod, educator and reformer, and Dublin-based suffragette Anna Haslam were active in the Ladies' National Association which was founded in 1869 to campaign for repeal of the Acts.

Because of her work on the campaign Tod became convinced of the necessity of female participation in the public realm, and in 1872 she set up the first Irish suffrage group, the Northern Ireland Society for Women's Suffrage Committee. In Dublin, in 1876, Anna Haslam founded the Dublin Women's Suffrage Society, which later became known as the Irishwomen's Suffrage and Local Government Association.

While there were suffrage societies and groups in most urban centres in Ireland, the number of women, mostly protestant and middle class, actively engaged in suffrage campaigning remained small through the later 19th century. They were reformist rather than militant and used the 'soft' campaigning techniques of letter-writing, organising drawing room meetings, gathering signatures on petitions, contributing to supportive publications, issuing pamphlets and co-operating with their English counterparts. They supported the introduction of private members' bills in the House of Commons, especially in 1884, when women were not included in the Reform Act which extended the male franchise. One of their successes came in 1898 when the Local Government (Ireland) Act allowed certain women to vote in and sit on rural and urban district councils and on town commissions.

However, by the early years of the 20th century, suffrage activists began to become more radical and militant. In 1908 Hanna Sheehy Skeffington and Margaret Cousins set up the Irish Women's Franchise League (IWFL), which represented a new generation of suffrage activists who had lost patience with the moderate, reformist tactics with the older suffrage organisations, and, influenced by the militancy of the British Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU), were determined to push their ideology of 'Suffrage First, before all else'.

More radical and outspoken than previous suffrage groups initially, its main aim was to achieve female suffrage within the context of the campaign for Home Rule. Despite the support of individual members, John Redmond's Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP) was, in general, not in favour of female suffrage. However, the IWFL launched a determined campaign to have the right of women to the vote included in the third Home Rule Bill. In order to stabilise its political alliance with the Liberals and secure the passage of Home Rule, the IPP refused, in March 1912, to support a conciliation Bill in the House of Commons which would have granted a limited female franchise.

The following month, when the third Home Rule Bill was introduced, it did not include a provision for the female franchise. In response the IWFL stepped up its militant campaign. Chaining themselves to railings and breaking windows in public buildings including Dublin Castle, the GPO and Custom House, led to a swift response from the authorities. Several activists, including Hanna Sheehy Skeffington, found themselves arrested and imprisoned.

In July 1912, two members of the WSPU travelled to Dublin to protest at a visit of Prime Minister Asquith. They threw an axe which missed him and grazed John Redmond. The women, Mary Leigh and Gladys Evans, were arrested, imprisoned and went on hunger strike. Despite the fact that many of the Irish women resented the intrusion of WSPU members in Irish affairs, Sheehy Skeffington and other IWFL members in prison at the time went on a sympathetic hunger strike. The IWFL women were not force-fed while on hunger strike and were soon released, but Sheehy Skeffington did lose her job as a German teacher because of her imprisonment.

By 1913 militancy was dying down, and the suffrage movement was becoming more engaged with the labour movement. Members of the IWFL had taken an increasing interest in the plight of women workers, and, in 1911, Sheehy Skeffington and Countess Markievicz shared a platform with Delia and James Larkin at the launch the female trade union, the Irish Women Worker's Union (IWWU). Here Markievicz declared that while women may not have the vote a "union such as now being formed will not alone help you obtain better wages, but will also be a means of helping you get votes".

During the Lockout of 1913 many of the middle-class IWFL women and the working-class IWWU women worked together in the soup kitchen in Liberty Hall. However, working-class women did not, in general, join the IWFL, as Helena Molony later said, there grew "a deep feeling of social consciousness and revolt among women of a more favoured class, [which] passed over the heads of the Irish working woman and left her untouched". Rather the more radical middle-class suffrage campaigners began to lean left in their thinking, and influenced by the thinking and support of James Connolly, most of them joined the IWWU and, later, the Irish Citizen Army.

By late 1914 the largest women's organisation in the country was nationalist rather than feminist in orientation. In April 1914, Cumann na mBan was founded with the aim of creating an organisation where advanced nationalist women could work for the cause of Ireland. Its manifesto initially spoke of funding and "arming a body of men" for the defence of Ireland. This seeming auxiliary status to the Irish Volunteers did not endear it to suffrage activists. The Irish Citizen condemned its "crawling servility to the men", while Sheehy Skeffington described Cumann na mBan as little more than "animated collecting boxes".

The IWFL was unwilling to accept the nation first ideology of Cumann na mBan despite the fact that many suffrage activists were on its executive. However as Cumann na mBan grew in urban and rural areas many suffrage campaigners and members of the IWFL joined, and although initially middle-class, by 1915 it had become a cross-class organisation.

Despite their class difference and arguments, most especially their debates about suffrage first or nation first, the women in Cumann na mBan, the IWWU, the Irish Citizen Army and the IWFL co-operated on many issues including resistance to any move to introduce conscription in Ireland once war broke out in 1914. The influence in the activism and ideologies of these women can be best seen in the inclusion of the promise of full citizenship in the Proclamation of 1916.

Dr Mary McAuliffe lectures on gender history at UCD Women's Studies. She is co-author of the forthcoming book 'Realists and Idealists: 77 women of the Easter Rising'.

Irish Independent

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