Separate but equal

Wed, Oct 17, 2012, 01:00

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.

Hanna Sheehy Skeffington and Margaret Cousins were typical of the new generation of activists. They were young graduates who married feminists. The IWFL was non-party, meaning that it did not affiliate to any particular political party, aiming to lobby all politicians. Their slogan was “Suffrage before all else”. The formation of the IWFL was a significant development in the Irish suffrage campaign. Its militancy brought the campaign to the attention of a larger audience.

From its inception it was criticised by those who felt that women’s suffrage should not take priority over the nationalist cause. Many nationalist women saw the IWFL as an adjunct of the WSPU. The leadership of the Irish Parliamentary Party was also hostile to the suffrage cause. Sinn Féin, rejecting the right of England to rule Ireland, also had difficulties with the campaign. Hanna Sheehy Skeffington noted that women, like Constance Markievicz, “whose natural sympathies should have been with us”, instead adopted an opposing position in terms of priorities and strategies.

The IWFL had the Pankhursts to speak in Ireland on a number of occasions, in well-publicised and crowded public meetings. In the nineteenth century there had been attempts to establish branches of English suffrage societies in Ireland but it was believed that Irish women were best left to organise their own societies. However, in the early twentieth century branches of English suffrage societies were set up in Ireland. These included the Conservative and Unionist Suffrage Association, the Church League for Women’s Suffrage and the Men’s League for Women’s Suffrage, among others. These were generally middle-class, conservative societies with little impact on Irish suffrage groups.

It was clear, especially with the formation of the IWFL, that Irish suffrage societies wished to remain separate and distinct from English organisations. Some of this was due to nationalist feeling. In 1916, a Miss O’Connor of the Irish Catholic Women’s Suffrage Society noted that “Irishwomen are invited to join hands with their English militant sisters and help them in their struggle for freedom. But they are apt to reply that their English sisters gave them no help or sympathy during the famine, or in bad times when they and their children were ejected from their homes”.

The WSPU decided to establish a branch in Belfast in 1912 and another in Dublin. Christabel Pankhurst argued that the Irish Parliamentary Party under John Redmond held such sway in parliament that pressure must be put on them to secure women’s franchise. The WSPU’s target in Ulster was Sir Edward Carson who was also unwilling to include women’s suffrage as Unionist Party policy. Irish suffragists engaged in a militant campaign from June 1912, involving breaking windows in government buildings, and heckling at meetings.

The tactics of the WSPU were more violent. The English prime minister, Herbert Asquith, visited Dublin in 1912 and two English activists threw a hatchet into his carriage and tried to burn down the Theatre Royal.

In Ulster the WSPU activists engaged in arson attacks, damaged a golf course in Belfast, and attacked other property, generally belonging to Unionists. WSPU activists Mary Leigh and Gladys Evans, imprisoned for their militant activities in Dublin, were the only suffragettes forcibly fed in Ireland during imprisonment.

Public opinion was not generally supportive of militant activity; newspapers, in particular, were quick to condemn the women involved. Militancy was seen as anti-home rule, anti-nationalist and unwomanly behaviour. Non-militant Irish groups completely disassociated themselves from the WSPU’s actions in Ireland, and even the IWFL were not supportive. Relations between the WSPU and Irish suffrage groups had completely broken down by 1913. On the outbreak of the first World War the WSPU suspended all activities.

The war fractured the international women’s movement. In Ireland some suffrage societies, mostly those linked with English groups, suspended activity and engaged in war relief work. Some Irish groups were anti-war or pacifist.

When the war ended, Home Rule for Ireland was on the statute book and in 1918 the British parliament, arguably because of womens war work, granted partial suffrage, confined to those over thirty with a property qualification, to women throughout the United Kingdom.

However, by this time the Irish political scene had completely changed. New political cultures emerged for Irish and English women after the war and many retained or forged new links with their sisters in other countries.

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