06.09.2016
  • Europe
  • Ireland

Our Struggle Too

Ireland’s revolutionary women made the fight for emancipation their own.

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Margaret Skinnider was one of the 1916 Rising’s many heroes. A scout, courier, and sniper, stationed at the College of Surgeons and St Stephen’s Green garrison, she was shot three times while attempting to clear out British snipers targeting her comrades.

James Connolly’s daughter, Nora, would later write that while William Partridge, “a very famous man in the working class movement,” was present for Skinnider’s squad’s most challenging missions, “he and other members accepted that she was in charge.”

Defending her right to undertake dangerous activities, Skinnider wrote in her autobiography that “women had the same right to risk our lives as the men; that in the constitution of the Irish Republic, women were on an equality with men. For the first time in history, indeed, a constitution had been written that incorporated the principle of equal suffrage.”

Yet despite these acts of bravery, the contribution made by women to the feminist, nationalist, and socialist revolutionary politics of early twentieth-century Ireland is often overlooked.

Indeed Skinnider herself, despite her 1916 actions, was denied a military pension by the government for many years as they said that the Military Pension Act was only applicable to “soldiers as generally understood in the masculine sense.”

The tradition of radical women in Irish politics runs deep. At the forefront of early feminist struggles was the Irish Women’s Franchise League (IWFL), established in 1908 by Hanna and Francis Sheehy-Skeffington.

The Sheehy-Skeffingtons represented a new generation of activists that had lost patience with the moderate tactics of older suffrage organizations. Influenced by the militant British Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), they decided that women’s suffrage took precedence over other political questions.

Their demands echoed the qualified calls for male suffrage — women over thirty with certain property qualifications would be eligible for the vote — limiting their appeal to working-class women. Regardless, the IWFL launched militant campaigns to achieve its goals, which prior to 1912 centered on getting female suffrage included in the Third Home Rule Bill.

The bill would have provided limited self-government for Ireland, and was sponsored by the constitutional nationalist Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP). Despite vehement opposition from Ulster Unionists and the Conservatives, the IPP held the balance of power in Westminster after making a deal with Prime Minister H. H. Asquith to support his Liberal government in return for Asquith’s support for Home Rule.

Irish women were divided on the issue of suffrage. Many nationalist women opposed campaigning for the right to vote for what they considered to be a foreign government. Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington disagreed, arguing that “until the Parliamentarian and the Sinn Féin woman alike possess the vote, the keystone of citizenship, she will count but little in either party.”

Despite these ideological divisions, IWFL members and nationalist women from groups like Inghinidhe na hÉireann (Daughters of Ireland) campaigned together to have female suffrage included in the Home Rule Bill.

Their campaign ultimately failed. The Home Rule Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP), led by John Dillion and John Redmond, both suffrage opponents, prevented its inclusion in any form. Dillion and Redmond went as far as stymieing the 1911 Conciliation Bill, which would have extended the right to vote to property-owning women.

Women activists were outraged and disgusted. The words of a Mrs. Coate from the Newry Suffrage Society reflected the mood:

We must do nothing to endanger the sacred cause of Home Rule. Therefore, we must be doormats and feather cushions, and so make everything pleasant and easy to enable the men of Ireland to win their freedom.

The IWFL as a whole responded to the betrayal by adopting more militant tactics, smashing windows in IPP offices and government buildings.

Revolutionary Politics

Suffrage wasn’t the primary concern for many women during this period. Women radicals — like the members of Inghinidhe — pursued separatist campaigns despite linking up with the IWFL to advocate for the inclusion of suffrage in the Home Rule Bill.

Inghinidhe members believed that in the struggle for national independence, without women, Ireland “was going into battle with one arm tied behind her back.”

As part of their political project they set up a women’s newspaper — Bean na hÉireann (Women of Ireland) — in 1908 that expressly aimed “to be a women’s paper, advocating militancy, Irish separatism, and feminism.”

Established at a time when constitutional nationalism (embodied in the Home Rule movement) seemed on the verge of success, the newspaper was one of the few Irish publications to advocate physical force republicanism. As editor Helena Molony recalled,

[I]t was a funny hotch-potch of blood and thunder, high thinking, and home-made bread. We were the object of much good-natured chaff. Friendly newsagents would say, “Bean na hEireann? That’s the woman’s paper that all the young men buy.”

Molony, like many radical women of her generation, was inspired by a mix of ideologies: nationalism, feminism, and eventually, socialism. She was a committed political agitator and soon became the driving force behind Bean na hEireann, soliciting articles and support from leading feminist and female socialist commentators of the day.

Molony was also an effective recruiter, and is credited with bringing women like Countess Markievicz and Kathleen Lynn into the movement.

Like many radical women, Molony believed in the power of direct action. In 1911, she was arrested and briefly jailed for throwing stones at George V’s portrait in a Grafton Street shop window in protest of the king’s visit to Ireland.

Molony also became increasingly interested in socialism and “the fight on behalf of the underdog.” In her “Labour Notes” column in Bean na hÉireann she (according to Molony) “fumbl[ed] at the idea of a junction between labour and nationalism,” declaring “Labour and the Nation [a]re really one.”

Molony’s column drew the attention of James Connolly — an Irish republican, socialist, and trade union leader — and the two soon developed a close collaboration. The collaboration was indicative of a broader move by women militants from the suffrage and militant nationalist movement toward socialist politics.

Existing links facilitated this connection: for example, Francis Sheehy-Skeffington and Kathleen Shannon — both founding members of the IWFL — were secretaries of Connolly’s Socialist Party of Ireland.

And James Connolly, described by Francis Sheehy Skeffington as, “the soundest and most thorough-going feminist among all the Irish labour men,” was given his first platform by the radical women of the Shan Van Vocht newspaper, produced by Belfast poets Alice Milligan and Anna Johnson.

The Irish Citizen, another feminist newspaper, established in 1911 and edited by Francis Sheehy-Skeffington and James Cousins, facilitated this confluence. The Irish Citizen’s motto was, “for men and women equally the rights of citizenship; for men and women equally the duties of citizenship.”

It covered a range of issues — conditions and pay for working women; the need for women’s trade unions; issues of domestic and sexual violence against women; feminism and militancy, war, and pacifism; and the need for women in the police, in the legal sphere, and on juries.

Women and Workers

In 1911 — following a strike in Jacob’s Biscuit factory where three thousand women workers joined men in winning improved conditions — Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington and feminist activist Constance Markievicz shared a platform with trade union organizers Delia and James Larkin at the launch of the Irish Women Worker’s Union (IWWU).

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 1913 Dublin Lockout, many middle-class IWFL women and working-class IWWU women worked together in the soup kitchen in Liberty Hall — a window into the squalid conditions of many of the city’s poor.

However for the most part, working-class women did not join the IWFL. As Molony said in later years, 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.”

Instead, it was middle-class suffrage campaigners who became increasingly radicalized. Influenced by Connolly, many joined the IWWU and used it as a platform to fight for their feminist, socialist, and nationalist goals.

According to the Irish Citizen, Connolly was loudly cheered at a speech that he made at the height of the Lockout, in November 1913, when he declared that “he stood for opposition to the domination of nation over nation, of class over class, or of sex over sex.”

Connolly was becoming particularly close in this period to radical activist women such Helena Molony, Constance Markievicz, Marie Perolz, Winifred Carney, and Kathleen Lynn.

In turn, Connolly became more radical in his views of women. In The Re-Conquest of Ireland (1915) he included an analysis of the situation of women in Ireland and asked: “of what use . . . can be the reestablishment of any form of Irish state if it does not embody the emancipation of womanhood?”

Connolly was convinced that the oppression of women and the oppression of the worker by “a social and political order based upon the private ownership of property” were inseparable, and recognized the double burden of the working women: “The worker” he wrote, “is the slave of capitalist society, the female worker is the slave of that slave.”

But neither did Connolly view men as the emancipators of women; he believed that women had to be the ones to achieve their emancipation, remarking “none so fit to break the chains as they who wear them, none so well equipped to decide what a fetter is.”

Ireland’s radical women activists lived Connolly’s sentiment, and extended their emancipatory struggle to many spheres, including the fetters of domesticity. Many lived deeply unconventional lives that challenged the mores of the time.

Markievicz sent her daughter to her ancestral home to be raised by her parents, while she remained a full-time activist; Lynn, Molony, and Madeleine Ffrench-Mullen also all rejected domesticity and motherhood, and pursued (along with several others) same-sex partnerships.

Lynn and Ffrench-Mullen met while volunteering at the Liberty Hall soup kitchen during the Lockout, and spent the rest of their lives together, as partners, activists, and agitators for social and political change.

Militant Republicans

Experienced, mostly middle-class radical women, and younger working-class women joined the Irish Citizen Army, the worker’s militia established in 1913 to protect the striking workers during the Dublin Lockout.

Women were involved in the Citizen Army from the beginning, with many socialist women preferring to join it rather than other militant nationalist organizations — a preference that reflected an increasing intersection of national, social, and trade union consciousness.

But it was the Irish Volunteers (formed in November 1913) that attracted the majority of women involved in nationalist organizing. The Irish Volunteers was set up in response to the formation of the Ulster Volunteers, and to reinforce the claim for Home Rule in Ireland.

The Irish Volunteers, however, were not inclined to allow women to join. So, as nationalist and feminist Jennie Wyse-Power wrote in Leabhair na mBan, women held informal meetings in the months following formation of the Volunteers “to discuss the formation of a women’s society whose aim would be to work independently, and at the same time to organize Nationalist women to be of service to the Irish Volunteers.” They set up a new group called Cumann na mBan (Women’s League) to achieve these goals.

Cumann na mBan initially focused on funding and “arming a body of men” for the defense of Ireland — a seemingly auxiliary status that did not endear them to suffrage activists, and drew the ire of the Irish Citizen, which condemned their “crawling servility to the men.”

The IWFL was unwilling to accept the “nation first” ideology of Cumann na mBan even though many suffrage activists were on its executive.

However, despite their debates about suffrage first or nation first, the women in Cumann na mBan, the IWWU, the Irish Citizen Army, and the IWFL put aside their differences to cooperate on many issues, including resistance to moves to introduce conscription in Ireland once war broke out in 1914.

Nor were these organizations static. By 1914, many radical Inghinidhe women had joined Cumann na mBan because the organization had become much more militant in its expression of nationalism, and more feminist in its outlook.

To be sure, Cumann na mBan — despite being dominated by young, working-class women — never became as radical or as socialist as the women of the Irish Citizen Army; but with the participation of the Inghinidhe women there was no doubt, as historian Cal McCarthy has noted “that [Cumann na mBan] became more culturally directed and that the intellectual heart of the new organisation also came under the influence of some more advanced ‘militant republicans’.”

The Risen Women

When the Rising began on Easter Monday 1916, it was — because of confusing, countermanding orders — a small, chaotic affair confined to Dublin, and smaller uprisings in Enniscorthy (Wexford), Ashbourne (Meath), and Galway. In Dublin, only fifteen hundred of the Irish Volunteers and the Irish Citizen Army rose, among them were about one hundred and eighty women of Cumann na mBan and the Irish Citizen Army.

The Citizen Army, in keeping with its more egalitarian view of gender participation, had the only two female officers in the Rising: Markievicz was second in command at the Royal College of Surgeons outposts, and Kathleen Lynn was the senior medical officer in the Citizen Army.

In fact, after Commandant Sean Connolly (leader of the Citizen Army group at the City Hall outpost) was killed in the first few hours of fighting, it was Lynn who took over, and eventually offered the surrender of the City Hall battalion.

When the insurgents surrendered, seventy-seven women were arrested along with the men. These women were brought into custody as well because as Rose McNamara, commander of the Inghinidhe women who fought at the Marrowbone Lane outpost, said, the women “were part of the rebel contingent and were surrendering with the rest.”

McNamara’s statement reflected the fact that the women had been there to fight for freedom — national freedom, class rights, and gender equality — all of which were expressed in the primary document of the Easter Rising, the Proclamation of the Irish Republic.

Addressed to Irishmen and Irishwomen, the Proclamation promised a republic elected by the suffrage of all Irish men and women, and a nation based on equal rights and equal opportunities for all its citizens, and resolved “to pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation and all of its parts.”

Building the Republic

In the immediate aftermath of the Rising, activists in Cumann na mBan and the Citizen Army fought to keep nationalist and socialist ideas alive; and in the face of mass arrests and internment of male activists, it was up to the women to reorganize the resistance.

Citizen Army members Helena Molony and Rosie Hackett worked on the reorganization of the Citizen Army and the Irish Women Worker’s Union. Liberty Hall, which had been badly damaged during the Rising, soon became a center of radical activity again. Numbers swelled as more and more radicalized working-class young people were drawn to republicanism and socialism.

On the first anniversary of the Rising, Helena Molony and Citizen Army women reprinted the Proclamation and posted copies around Dublin.

Citizen Army members also commemorated the first anniversary of James Connolly’s execution. Helena Molony, Jinny Shanahan, Rosie Hackett, and Brigid Davis printed a huge banner that read, “James Connolly Murdered 12th May 1916,” and hung it from the top parapet of Liberty Hall.

Cumann na mBan emerged from the Rising stronger, more radical, more explicitly feminist, and more militant. The Proclamation of the Republic guaranteed equal citizenship to all, and by 1918, Cumann na mBan changed its manifesto to reflect this.

Its members reaffirmed their role in “arming a body of men and women” to fight for an Irish Republic,” but also insisted that they would “follow the policy of the Republican Proclamation by seeing that women take up their proper position in the life of the nation.”

Citizen Army women such as Constance Markievicz, Lynn, and Ffrench-Mullen attended the 1918 pro-Bolshevik rally at the Mansion House. Molony attempted to use her position within the Labour Party to rally support for workers who were establishing soviets throughout the country.

To these women, and others such as republican and socialist activist Winifred Carney, the promise of a worker’s republic, with full and equal citizenship, was worth fighting for.

The 1918 general election was the first election in which women had limited suffrage (for women over thirty with a property qualification). In it, Constance Markievicz, a Sinn Féin candidate, became the first woman elected to Westminster.

In 1919, when an independent parliament (Dáil) was declared to pursue the Republic and separation from Britain, she became only the second woman minister in Europe, heading up the Ministry of Labour.

The electoral gains made by Sinn Féin (taking 73 out of 105 seats) showed the importance of new women voters, many of whom supported the party. Perhaps, as the Irish Citizen noted, there was “an element of ironic justice in the fact that women, whose claims [the IPP] so long opposed with such unbending hostility, should have played so large a part in its final annihilation.”

When the War of Independence began in 1919, the women of Cumann na mBan and the Citizen Army all participated, contributing in whatever way they could to the fight for national freedom and the promises of the Proclamation.

The women ran safe houses, hid arms and guns and protected arms dumps, prepared and delivered bombs, and acted as spies and couriers; they took part in raids and ambushes, prepared Volunteers killed in action for burial, and endured raids on their homes and the often extreme violence visited on their persons by the British armed forces.

As Cumann na mBan member Lil Conlon wrote in her memoir:

The going was tough on the female sex, they were unable to “go on the run,” so were constantly subjected to having their homes raided and precious possessions destroyed. To intensify the reign of terror, swoops were made at night, entries forced into their homes, and the women’s hair cut off in a brutal fashion as well as suffering other indignities and insults.

In 1921, a truce was called and an all-male delegation sent to London where the Anglo-Irish Treaty was negotiated and then brought back to Dublin for consideration by the Dáil and the people. The stance of so many of Ireland’s revolutionary and radical women against the Treaty makes sense when one explores the profound counterrevolution which followed the establishment of the Free State.

Possibilities of radicalism, which feminist and socialist women engaged with prior to 1916, and which they saw reflected in the 1916 Proclamation and program of the Dáil, were undermined if not eliminated altogether by a State whose social, class, and gender policies were dominated by Catholic social and moral thinking.

Treatyite Reaction

According to historian Maryann Valiulis, the independence that came brought with it a sense of disillusionment — a feeling that there was “very little the Free State could control. . . . [however] the Free State government could . . . control women.”

The revolutionary women were now constructed as ungovernable and unmanageable, their activities in the public realm of men, unacceptable. The new state, dominated by conservative revolutionaries and the Church, having crushed more radical elements in a brutal civil war, thought women’s place was in the home.

They were reframed as the moral, pure, and respectable cornerstone of the nation: the “angel of the house.” This discourse of female domesticity was underpinned by societal expectation, state legislation, and Church imprimatur.

Meanwhile, women’s demand for full citizenship was now perceived as threatening. As Valiulis notes, both church and state regarded the claim for equality as “foreign to [women’s] nature” and based upon a “new (un-Christian) conception of society.”

The ideal Irishwoman was now the self-sacrificing mother, confined to the boundaries of her home — pure, passive, chaste, respectable — a woman who valued traditional culture, who knew and accepted her place in society.

Conversely, women who demanded a more public role were seen to be masculine, asking for positions which respectable woman could and should not take up.

Republican women especially, because they (for the most part) opposed the 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty and were the most politicized women in the new state, drew the most vitriol from male politicians and churchmen. They were the “furies” who according to Treatyite parliamentarian P. S. O’Hegarty “became unsexed,” corrupting the idealized role of the mother with their political activity.

Between 1922 and 1936 Ireland’s governments introduced legislation to consistently chip away at the equal position of women: during this period women lost the right to work, to protection for female workers, to information on contraceptives, to sit on juries. The right to be a full citizen was denied to women.

Organizations like Irish Women’s Citizens’ and Local Government Association, Irish Women’s Union, the Joint Committee of Women’s Societies and Social Workers, the National Council of Women, the National University Women’s Graduates Association, and the Irish Country Women’s Association fought these developments tooth and nail, and sometimes achieved limited gains in the battle to roll back detrimental gendered legislation.

The fightback over the new 1937 constitution was emblematic of the anger felt by Irish women activists. Senator Kathleen Clarke — widow of Thomas Clarke, one of the signatories to the Proclamation — issued a fiery denunciation of the new constitution, citing its regulation of the rights of women workers and its relegation of women to the domestic realm.

Clarke declared the document a betrayal of the promises of the 1916 Proclamation and principles of equality contained therein.

The Association of Old Cumann na mBan voiced their agreement with Clark, and were particularly incensed about the inclusion of a reference to the “inadequate strength of women.” Where, they wondered, was the worry about the inadequate strength of women when women were engaged in “heavy muscular toil conveying machine guns, heavy explosives and rifles,” during the War of Independence?

Meanwhile, the Irish Women’s Citizens’ Association (IWCA) decried the deteriorating position of women within the Irish State. Gender equality, a cornerstone of the Proclamation, was by the second decade of the Irish Free State as distant a dream as it had ever been.

Although its meaning and intent was steadily eroded in the 1920s and 1930s, the importance of the 1916 Proclamation’s promise of equal citizenship for men and women should be remembered. The degree to which later politicians deviated from its spirit is evident in the distinction between the constitution of 1922, which enshrined equal status, and the constitution of 1937, which expressly rejected it.

Women activists — republican and socialist — kept the spirit of the revolutionary period alive and never stopped battling for full and equal citizenship. It’s a struggle that should be honored and continued today.