The War of the Sexes

An Irishman’s Diary about suffragism and the white feather campaign

Emmeline Pankhurst: took a prominent role in the ‘White Feather’ campaign which aimed to shame men into volunteering for the army. Photograph: PA

Emmeline Pankhurst: took a prominent role in the ‘White Feather’ campaign which aimed to shame men into volunteering for the army. Photograph: PA


At the risk of disillusioning Mary O’Dowd (Letters, Wednesday), it must be said that women were neither as invisible during the first World War as the commemorations suggest, nor as innocent of blame for the slaughter as this leads her to believe.

She notes that, in coverage of the centenary so far, there is “not a woman in sight”. So allow me to reintroduce one Emmeline Pankhurst, the great suffragette and an enthusiastic supporter of the war, who was very visible 100 years ago.

Upon the outbreak of hostilities in Europe, Pankhurst promptly suspended her struggle to win the vote for women in favour of what she now saw as the great national imperative: beating the Germans. Thereafter she campaigned with characteristic vigour for the conscription of all able-bodied males. And along with her daughter, Christabel, she took a prominent role in the “White Feather” movement, which, pending a draft, aimed to shame men of fighting age (16 and upwards) into volunteering.

From late 1914 onwards, no young male with a full set of arms and legs could appear in public in an English city without the risk of being conferred with the mocking “Order of the White Feather” by a member of the female gender. In fact, often, war veterans home on leave were similarly insulted, until they could point to a missing body part or other evidence that they hadn’t shirked their duty.

Such was the success of the White Feather campaign – founded by a man, incidentally – that it also in some cases became a nuisance. Special badges had to be struck to identify public servants and others deemed indispensable to the home front, thereby sparing them the feathered taunts.

As for Emmeline Pankhurst, such services to the war effort made her an unexpected darling of the (male) establishment for a time.

And among the ironies of this was that many of the men and boys she hounded into military service were just as devoid of the franchise as she was. You had to be a man of property to vote then. Most soldiers didn’t qualify.

In fairness, the war split many movements, not just suffragism. Even the Pankhurst family took different sides. Two other daughters, Sylvia and Adela, were ardent pacifists: one of several strong differences of opinion that eventually led to complete estrangement from their mother.

There were also competing motives among the suffragist supporters of war, ranging from a sort of Redmondite argument – the need to prove themselves worthy of full citizenship – to a feminist identification with the “rape” of Belgium.

In any case, the many stark legacies of Emmeline Pankhurst’s war included the 1918 Representation of the People Act, which extended the vote to most men over 21 and to many women over 30. The age discrepancy was not unfair discrimination, it was argued at the time. It was just to prevent male voters becoming a minority, so many of their gender being prematurely dead.

I don’t know whether the White Feather campaign will feature at the second annual Liam and Tom O’Flaherty summer school later this month. I do know, however, that the first World War and feminism will be among the subjects for discussion: at least to the extent to which both featured in Liam O’Flaherty’s writings.

A soldier himself, O’Flaherty was wounded both physically and mentally in the trenches: the shell-shock he suffered in 1917 was probably a factor in a series of nervous breakdowns later in life.

That trauma also helped inform his 1929 novel The Return of the Brute, whose unsparing depiction of the effects of war on men drew comparison with a much more famous book published that year: All Quiet on the Western Front.

The Return of the Brute will be a theme of Theo Dorgan’s keynote address to the school, entitled: “The brutal truth – the slaughter of the poor”. Other events include a dramatised reading of O’Flaherty’s only play, Dorchadas (“Darkness”), which challenged the then-prevailing attitude to the role of women in the Irish Free State.

The weekend event takes place on the Aran island of Inishmor from August 30th to 31st. More details can be had from its director, Seosamh Ó Cuaig, via, or at 087-2194247.


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