Tooth and Claw

Suffragette being force fed in prison.

Suffragette being force fed in prison.

Wed, Oct 17, 2012, 01:00

Women were “considered part of the people” when the government wanted to tax or count them but not when it came to the “parliamentary vote”, wrote Mary Earl of the Irish Women’s Franchise League (IWFL) in the Irish Times on April 1st 1911. The letter was to justify the organisation’s advocacy of a boycott of the census, due to take place the following day. Statistics gathered through the census would be used by a parliament of men, elected by men, to make laws affecting women. Given this situation women were “quite justified” in refusing to be enumerated.

From the 1870s Irish suffrage groups had asserted “the moral right of properly qualified women to some share in the enactment of the laws which they are required to obey”.

Earl’s argument – that women were justified in flouting the law while they had no share in its enactment – flowed directly from that assertion, although it was more radical and, as late as 1911, only a small cohort of militant suffragists, the suffragettes, embraced the position.

In Britain from 1905 militant groups, most importantly the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), sought to “interfere with the peace of mind of the government” and push it toward granting women’s suffrage by a campaign of escalating law-breaking. Disruption of political meetings gave way to breaking windows in public buildings, politicians’ homes and shops. From the beginning, when militant acts remained comparatively mild, the state responded by imprisonment, jailing over 1,000 women in Britain between 1905 and 1914. In Ireland they imprisoned 27 suffragettes on 35 separate occasions between 1912 and 1914.

Imprisonment helped the militant groups to generate publicity and find new ways to trouble the state. From 1909, large numbers of British suffragettes embarked on hunger strike demanding to be treated as political prisoners.Militant suffragism in Ireland followed British militancy and appeared somewhat later.

Gradually, a small group of committed activists emerged and in the summer of 1912 the IWFL began militant activity.

On June 13th, eight women, including Hanna Sheehy Skeffington, threw stones through the windows of various government offices in Dublin. They received prison sentences of varying lengths. Held at Mountjoy, they enjoyed a privileged regime under a new rule introduced as a consequence of the prison conflict in Britain. As a result of these better conditions, and the IWFL’s comparatively cautious approach, these women did not hunger strike.

On July 18th three members of the WSPU intervened in Ireland. They followed the prime minister, Herbert Asquith, to Dublin where he was to address a Home Rule meeting at the Theatre Royal. They threw a hatchet at him and John Redmond MP and attempted to set the venue ablaze. When they were convicted and given lengthy sentences, they began hunger strikes. This posed a problem for the IWFL prisoners: to strike in solidarity or continue not to strike given their privileged treatment. They split. Four women, due for release within days, joined the strike: two of them with enthusiasm and regardless of their colleagues’ views and two (including Sheehy Skeffington) after considerable soul-searching. Four, serving longer sentences, did not: two supported their colleagues’ actions in striking but refrained because of poor health; two others disagreed in principle with the decision.

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