A new battlefield

Fr Eugene Sheehy with Hanna and Francis Sheehy Skeffington in August 1912.

Fr Eugene Sheehy with Hanna and Francis Sheehy Skeffington in August 1912.

Wed, Oct 17, 2012, 01:00

The outbreak of war in August 1914 had serious repercussions for the women’s movement worldwide. Throughout Europe, feminist groups espousing pacifism quickly lost members, especially in countries supporting the war effort.

In 1913 three Irish women attended the seventh congress of the International Woman Suffrage Alliance (IWSA) in Budapest: Hanna Sheehy Skeffington of the Irish Women’s Franchise League (IWFL), Louie Bennett of the Irish Women’s Suffrage Federation (IWSF), and Lady Margaret Dockrell of the Irish Women’s Suffrage and Local Government Association (IWSLGA).

While these societies remained in existence during and after the conflict, there was no unified stance on the war. Suffragists with strong English/unionist connections abandoned or postponed suffrage work, turning to war relief work. Jingoistic references in IWSLGA reports suggesting that “women are helping to save our empire” offended both feminist and nationalist women. An emergency council of suffragists, formed in August 1914 to allow them to engage in remedial work, was firmly opposed by the IWFL, which commented: “The European war has done nothing to alter our condition of slavery”. An early decision by the IWSF to support the emergency council was reversed early in 1915, Bennett writing in The Irish Citizen: “Women should never have abandoned their struggle for justice, war or no war”. The Irish Citizen made its anti-war stance clear from the beginning of the war with its poster: “Votes for Women Now! Damn your War”.

Initial differences within Irish suffrage societies reflected pro- and anti-war views, either on loyalist or feminist grounds. Hanna’s husband Frank Sheehy Skeffington and Louie Bennett were among the leading pacifist voices during this period. The former continuously published anti-war articles in The Irish Citizen arguing that war was “necessarily bound up with the destruction of feminism; feminism is necessarily bound up with the abolition of war”. Bennett argued that suffragists “of every country must face the fact that militarism is now the most dangerous foe of women’s suffrage”.

After the cancellation of the 1915 IWSA congress, a Women’s Peace Party was formed in the US in January 1915, followed by plans for a women’s peace conference at The Hague in April 1915. At a conference to discuss possible Irish participation, fears were expressed that this might imply disloyalty to those fighting at the front. Similar sentiments were expressed throughout Europe. The British press derided intending participants as “pro-Hun peacettes” going to “pow-wow with the fraus”.

Hanna Sheehy Skeffington wrote that the IWFL planned to attend the conference, as it regarded war as the negation of the feminist movement. Early in 1915 she wrote to Thomas Haslam that every war was regarded by the countries engaged in it as a sacred and holy war, arguing: “Women must rid their minds of such cant”. Bennett was the only one of seven Irish delegates granted a travel permit, but could not attend due to an Admiralty ban on travel.

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