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Suffragette Margaret (Meg) Connery protesting to Edward Carson, MP for Trinity and Ulster Unionist Party leader, as she campaigned for votes for women in 1912.
Some young women grew frustrated with the slow progress of suffrage agitation in Ireland after many decades of constitutional lobbying led by the Irish Women’s Suffrage and Local Government Association. Influenced by the militant strategies of the British Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), two university graduates, Hanna Sheehy Skeffington and Margaret Cousins set up a new suffrage group in Dublin in 1908. Named the Irish Women’s Franchise League (IWFL) it was impatient for change and ready to challenge social conventions. Although women-only, men could be associate members and two of the early male recruits were the husbands of the founding members – Francis Sheehy Skeffington and James Cousins.
Aiming to win the vote for women, on the same terms as men, the IWFL, whose leaders were nationalist in their political sympathies, vociferously lobbied to have female enfranchisement included in the Home Rule Bill. Although the IWFL described itself as militant, members did not engage in militant activity during its early years. It was frustration caused by the failure of the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP) to support votes for women in the Home Rule Bill of 1912 that finally sparked the outbreak of militant agitation in Ireland.
The opposition to female enfranchisement by the IPP and its leader John Redmond had a wider political cause. The IPP had forged an alliance in the British parliament with the ruling Liberal Party under prime minister Herbert Asquith. It was feared that if women were given the vote, Asquith, a vehement opponent of women’s suffrage, would resign. In any ensuing general election it was thought the Conservative Party would sweep to power, thus delaying any chance of Home Rule. This gave the IPP a vested interest in supporting the Liberal government and keeping Asquith in power.
The IWFL decided that militant action was the only way to get the attention of the Irish Party and the British government. On June 13th 1912 eight women were arrested for throwing stones at Government Buildings in Dublin. When Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington, Marguerite Palmer, and sisters Jane and Margaret Murphy, came to trial, 200 women, including the other arrested suffragettes, Kathleen Houston, Marjorie Hasler, Maud Lloyd and Hilda Webb, packed the court room. The women were each sentenced to either a fine or two months’ imprisonment. All refused to pay and opted for prison, where they were soon followed by the other four.
However, the IWFL never achieved the levels of militancy associated with the Pankhursts and the WSPU in Britain. Not only were Irish women involved in less militancy, but the nature of their actions was usually milder than those of the British suffragettes. IWFL tactics rarely involved more than heckling politicians or breaking windows in government offices. The vast majority of Irish suffragists were constitutional, opposing any form of militancy. Unlike the British movement, Irish suffragism was not polarised by a militant versus non-militant divide.
Research on suffrage activism has focused largely on the pursuit of the vote. Thus the movement may be misunderstood as a single-issue pressure group. We need to go beyond a focus on enfranchisement to uncover the complexity of identities, actions and motivations behind the suffrage movement.
The study of historical movements often fails to uncover their true dynamism, the lively discussions and debates underpinning their activism. One way of analysing and assessing such debates and the breadth of activity and campaigns undertaken by suffragists is through their newspaper, the Irish Citizen, published between 1912-1920. While edited for much of its life by Francis and later Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington, the paper was not simply a mouthpiece for the IWFL.