Tooth and Claw

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.

The authorities responded with the controversial strategy of forcible feeding or, as they called it, artificial feeding. Again, they took their lead from developments in Britain. When a hunger striker actively resisted, this process involved restraining her in a padded reclining chair while pumping food into her stomach through a tube inserted either through the mouth or nose. Hoping to avoid some of the inevitable negative publicity, the Irish authorities waited until the expiration of the IWFL strikers’ sentences and released Lizzie Baker, the WSPU striker with the shortest sentence, before forcibly feeding Mary Leigh and Gladys Evans. They fed Leigh for a month and Evans for six weeks, releasing them when medical officials became alarmed about their health. Although 24 more suffragettes would be imprisoned in Ireland, and most would hunger strike, the Irish prison authorities did not forcibly feed suffragettes again. They first pursued a twin strategy of isolating them in a provincial prison, Tullamore, and improved their conditions hoping to prevent or end hunger strikes.

This changed in 1913 when most suffragette prisoners in Ireland were members of the WSPU, which had established a branch in Belfast. These women, and radical members of the Belfast-centred Irish Women’s Suffrage Society (IWSS) who assisted them, were more aggressive and less amenable to compromise. Their offences became more extreme, reflecting the trend in Britain, and included arson, bombing, and destruction of sports grounds. They also went on hunger strike to protest their actual imprisonment rather than their prison status, a further rejection of the law.

By then the authorities had a new weapon, the Prisoners (Temporary Discharge for Ill-health) Act, passed in April 1913, and commonly known as the Cat and Mouse Act. This allowed temporary release on condition the hunger striker returned on a specified date to complete her sentence. Suffragettes warned that this would become a form of torture, leading individuals to conduct damaging serial strikes. In Ireland, the authorities rarely insisted on the return of released prisoners, seeking to use the Act to rid themselves of troublesome dissidents. The dissidents, however, consistently re-offended to ensure re-arrest and re-imprisonment, before striking again.

The militant campaign ended with the outbreak of the first World War. It had not by then achieved its goal and it is not clear that it won many converts to suffragism in Ireland. It had, however, drawn attention to the cause and made government’s life difficult. Less frequently commented on was the militants’ success in weakening a key pillar of the state – the prison system became a less effective means of law enforcement because of the concerted protests, while the prisons became places where the law was consistently and publicly undermined. This had a profound influence on later Irish political dissidents.

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