Suffrage and socialism: links with Labour

Wed, Oct 17, 2012, 01:00

Under the auspices of the ITGWU the Irish Women Workers’ Union (IWWU) was founded in Dublin in September 1911 as a general union for all women workers, with Delia Larkin, sister of James, as its first general secretary. Its foundation had the active support of nationalist feminists, both Suffrage-First and Nation-First. Hanna Sheehy Skeffington and Constance Markievicz were platform speakers with James Larkin at the launch in the Antient Concert Rooms. Speeches and venue both linked the vote and women’s industrial struggles.

Many combined suffrage campaigning with commitments to other causes. In Dublin Cissie Cahalan (above left), a founding member of the IWFL, presided over the Irish Drapers Assistants’ Association’s Ladies Committee.

Francis Sheehy Skeffington and Kathleen Shannon, also founding members of the IWFL, were secretaries of the Socialist Party of Ireland. The Irish Citizen reported founding meetings of the Independent Labour Party of Ireland in Dublin and Belfast which highlighted support for votes for women in their programmes. The highest ambition of Tipperary teacher, Catherine Mahon, first woman president of the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation in 1912, was “to be a Labour MP in a Nationalist Parliament”.

James Connolly, who Louie Bennett remembered as one of the best suffrage speakers she had heard, supported women’s suffrage even if they voted against him. When the weekly IWFL meetings in the Phoenix Park came under physical attack, stewards from Liberty Hall, the new headquarters of the ITGWU, came out to protect the speakers. Socialists and trade unionists, including women trade union officials like Mary Galway in Belfast and Delia Larkin, while favouring “adult suffrage”, supported women’s suffrage.

During the 1913 Lockout, the ITGWU took responsibility for the dependants of thousands of locked-out workers. The kitchens of Liberty Hall provided daily meals, from breakfasts to dinners, produced by out-of-work members, their families and supporters. Dublin feminists joined this work, including Hanna Sheehy Skeffington and IWFL members, Bennett and the IWRL, Markievicz and Molony. Their attendance during the Lockout reads like a roll call of well known names from Dublin’s feminist and nationalist movements.

It was many middle-class women’s first visit to a trade union office. Bennett “crept like a criminal into Liberty Hall” to avoid being seen by anyone who knew her. Such experiences were vital to many women’s later engagements with unions and labour. The Irish Citizen Army, set up by Larkin in 1913 to protect the workers, later enrolled women on equal terms with men. As members of the ICA, Markievicz, Helena Molony and Dr Kathleen Lynn, fought in the 1916 Rising. Links between nationalist feminists and Labour, including Connolly’s commitment to women’s citizenship, contributed to the endorsement of women’s equal citizenship in the 1916 Proclamation. Suffrage-Labour interaction also encouraged debates about adult suffrage as opposed to women’s suffrage, and bonds between Labour and feminism, certainly at leadership level. It is not clear what proportion of the general membership of the IWWU or of the female members of other trade unions were active suffragists. As middle-class socialists recognised they could have more immediately pressing priorities.

Undoubtedly, the commitment of many middle-class feminists to the cause of Labour was life-long. In the IWWU itself, Delia Larkin was succeeded as general secretary by Helena Molony in 1915 and in 1917 by Louie Bennett. Both Molony and Bennett devoted their entire working lives to the union. Although, sadly, Catherine Mahon never fulfilled her 1912 dream.

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