Suffrage and socialism: links with Labour

The exectutive of the Irish Woman's Franchise League.

The exectutive of the Irish Woman's Franchise League.

Wed, Oct 17, 2012, 01:00

BY 1912 IRISH trades unions had an organisational framework built up over many decades: central offices with full-time paid officials, and trades councils in most cities where different unions met on local issues. The Irish Trade Union Congress met yearly from 1894 and the Labour Party was formally launched at its 1912 conference.

Women workers faced particular difficulties. Many worked in areas such as domestic service where organisation was difficult. Employers generally paid women less than men. Women workers themselves might, and did, contest their pay and working conditions yet, if they married, the prospect of a “family wage” for men could be more attractive.

Labour and suffrage were not obvious allies. Class and gender separated Labour leaders like James Larkin, James Connolly or William Partridge from young, academic, often professional, suffragists. Many male trade unionists supported wage differentials in favour of men, while opposing employers who favoured women as cheaper workers. Some supportive men feared suffragists would settle for a limited franchise, and that property owning women would oppose Labour candidates as strongly as their men.

But there were also unifying factors. In 1880, in the aftermath of the Trade Union Congress in Dublin, two trade unions for women were formed with support from middle-class feminists, including Anna Haslam, the Dublin Tailoresses’ Society and the Bookfolders and Sewers’ Union. Both were shortlived.

Suffragists and socialists shared territory. Both were urban, with offices in town centres, and called meetings on the streets, as well as in private rooms. Both had weekly newspapers, the Irish Worker (1911-1914) and The Irish Citizen (1912-1920), and branch activities.

Both women’s and workers’ organisations had links to global movements. Socialists had formal links through their International association. Women campaigners exchanged information through their press and, from the 1900s, international networks. The Irish Citizen reported on women in other countries, especially the English-speaking colonies of the British empire of New Zealand and Australia.

The long association between socialism and feminism had forged a mutual language, traceable to the 1830s, of rights, equality and solidarity. Women Under Socialism by the German socialist August Bebel and Women and Labour by South African writer Olive Schreiner were the influential socialist texts before 1914. Margaret Connery of the Irish Women’s Franchise League (IWFL) based a talk to Dublin socialists and two articles in The Irish Citizen on Schreiner’s book. In early 20th-century Ireland both socialism and feminism were growing. Many young feminists became socialists. In 1911 Louie Bennett founded both the Irish Women’s Suffrage Federation to link smaller suffrage groups and the Irish Women’s Reform League (IWRL) to link suffrage with working women’s issues. In the pages of The Irish Citizen, middle-class feminists, including Bennett and law graduate Marion Duggan, advocated the organisation of women’s trade unions and argued that women workers should decide their own priorities.

Working women themselves were active. In industrial districts, especially in Belfast and Derry, working women of all ages would “pour through the streets” at different times of their long working day in the factories. Linen districts regularly heard the shouts and songs of young women voicing grievances at low pay and the iniquitous system of fines for breaches of industrial discipline like laughing or singing, or bad work.

Women led strikes from the late 1890s. In 1906, just a year before James Larkin’s better known 1907 dock strike, a Belfast mill pay dispute for an extra shilling a week shut down the linen industry in the city.

Dublin’s workforces also joined this new wave. Strikes at Dublin’s biscuit factory, Belfast’s York Street linen mill in 1911, and Carroll’s Dundalk tobacco factory, and the smaller Dublin workshops that followed, were supported by mediation or strike pay by the Irish Transport and General Workers Union (ITGWU), founded by Larkin in 1909.

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