Separate but equal
UK links and tensions:Although influenced by what was going in Britain, suffragists in Ireland went their own way
From 1860s Irish women were strongly influenced by suffrage groups in the rest of the United Kingdom. Irish suffragists copied their campaigning tactics, spoke at suffrage meetings in England and Scotland, and campaigned with their British sisters on women’s education, married women’s property rights and other women’s rights issues. Isabella Tod, who established the first Irish suffrage society, the North of Ireland Society for Women’s Suffrage, circa 1872, affiliated it to the London Women’s Suffrage Society. Tod travelled throughout Ireland tirelessly, speaking at public meetings to persuade both men and women of the need for the vote, and appeared regularly at suffrage meetings in London, and other British towns. Anna Haslam, who organised the Dublin Women’s Suffrage Association from 1876, also worked closely with, and was influenced by, the British suffrage movement.
Irish suffragists read and were influenced by British suffrage newspapers and journals, including Englishwoman, later the Englishwoman’s Review, Votes for Women, and The Suffragette. Numerous English suffrage journals published regular sections on “Irish affairs”. Irish activists attended suffrage meetings in London and elsewhere. Some received training from English groups. Margaret Cousins, for instance, worked for the militant Women’s Social and Political Union for three weeks in the summer of 1909. She noted, “it was a helpful apprenticeship for our campaign later in Ireland”.
Votes for women was the aim uniting suffragists. However, tensions between and amongst groups, in Ireland and England, were evident throughout. There were splits in the English movement around issues relating to sexual morality, which saw the feminist Josephine Butler campaign against the regulation of prostitution. Many suffragists could not accept association with such a cause, deeming it unfeminine and harmful to the suffrage campaign.
In Ireland individuals such as Anna Haslam and Isabella Tod, strongly unionist and opposed to Home Rule, tended to align their suffrage groups with the more conservative English groups. Millicent Fawcett, the leader of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies in England, had contact with Irish suffragists in the 1880s and 1890s and visited Ireland regularly, and was a noted anti-Home Rule advocate. Such groups faced new challenges in Ireland after 1900.
Within Ireland, by the early twentieth century, some frustration was felt at the lack of progress the older groups appeared to be making. In 1908 a new suffrage group, the Irish Women’s Franchise League (IWFL), was established by Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington and her husband Frank, and their friends Margaret Cousins and her husband, James. The IWFL was committed to a more aggressive and militant campaign than the earlier suffrage groups and influenced by the tactics of the British-based Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) formed in 1903. The WPSU, centred on the mother-daughter team of Emmeline, Christabel and Sylvia Pankhurst, was the first militant group. They engaged in attacks on property, civil disobedience, and heckled speakers at meetings. They brought violence and deliberate destruction into public life, gaining notoriety and huge publicity for their actions.