Hanna Sheehy Skeffington: fighting Ireland’s ‘masculine monopoly’

Having helped win independence, she spent rest of career championing women’s rights

Almost 100 years ago women in Ireland and Britain over 30 years of age won the right to vote and to stand for election. If we scroll back to a few years earlier, we can see that Irish feminists and Irish republicans were far in advance of this limited concession passed by the British parliament.

In June 1912 Irish suffragists smashed window panes in the GPO and in other official buildings, frustrated by women’s exclusion from the terms of the Home Rule bill. Four years later the Easter Rising became, as suffrage campaigner Hanna Sheehy Skeffington recognised, “the first time in history that men, fighting for freedom, voluntarily included women”. A further landmark for Irish feminists was the election, in December 1918, of Constance Markievicz, a leading figure in the Rising, who became the first woman in Ireland or Britain to triumph at the ballot box. The Irish Citizen, paper of the Irish suffrage movement, was triumphant:

And so Ireland again leads the way, and while Britain wallows in reaction and turns her back on woman MPs Ireland proudly writes Progress on her banner to show the world how much in advance she is of those who would rule her.

Women joined Cumann na mBan and supported the IRA in its fight for national independence. Hanna joined Sinn Féin and became its director of organisation, maintaining her commitment to feminism. An editorial in the Irish Citizen in 1919 insisted that women must continue to fight:


until all women have the vote equally with men and until women have secured the other rights that enfranchisement involves, of which the vote is but a small part and but a symbol. We want equal pay for equal work, equal marriage laws, the abolition of legal disabilities, the right of women to enter the hitherto barred learned professions, women jurors and justices, in short, the complete abolition of various taboos and barriers – social, economic, and political – that still impede women’s progress and consequently that of the race.

Feminist hopes that national independence would secure all these rights were soon dashed. The failure of the Dáil to support the motion of Deputy Kate O’Callaghan to give the vote to women over 21 before the referendum on the Treaty took place caused much disillusionment. Hanna articulated the injustice of this result:

It is upon these women that much of the brunt of the Terror fell: upon their morale depended, in effect, that of the entire Republican army. Many of them played a very active part in fighting for freedom, many suffered imprisonment, torture, deportation for their principles. Being under thirty did not exclude them from court-martials and convict cells, but now excludes them from voting at the coming election.

While the new Free State did extend the franchise in 1922, no other progressive legislation regarding women was passed. Instead, women’s right to be in the public sphere was challenged through legislation removing them from jury duty and from large parts of the workforce. Six years after the establishment of the Free State Hanna summed up the situation. Women were living in a state where “What was given at first with gladness has been gradually filched away. Equality has ceased to be accorded to us, save on paper”. She lamented the “negative legislation” that was being passed instead of the “constructive” legislation that people craved. Those who now imposed censorship regarded women as “not only dangerous and explosive, but also a rather indecent quantity. They linger on the shortness of women’s hair or her skirts, and seem to regard such things as just a little immoral.” The establishment of the Censorship Board was “a blot on the vaunted freedom” that had been won and she condemned it:

The unusual, the daring, any criticism of the Catholic Church generally, or of individual clerics, indictment of marriage, sex, hygiene, medical views of birth control, sex education for the young, all these are marked down, Marie Stopes, stock, lock and barrel…lumped together under the absurd formula “in general tendency indecent”.

In 1933, after Amy Johnson and other aviation pioneers had challenged myths on women’s supposed frailties, Hanna remembered an earlier period when a woman “was mobbed for riding a cycle on the quays in Dublin”, and remarked with sarcasm “that had aviation been opened up, say, a century ago, a male taboo would have been instantly automatically established, barring all women from the very start. I doubt if women would even have been permitted as passengers on airships…Statistics would have been forthcoming to prove that air-travel would affect alarmingly the health, or even the existence of offspring.” She saw “a man’s world that we women live in, run by man for man” and warned of the “evidence of a set-back to women, especially in countries such as Germany and Italy where fascist power is strong”. The situation was to worsen in Ireland also, with the 1935 Employment Bill which she believed “out-Hitlers Hitler”, due to section 12 which gave the Minister for Industry the power to limit the number of women in industry, or to remove them altogether.

During the campaign against the 1937 Constitution feminists set up the Women’s Social and Progressive League to scrutinise and challenge legislation emanating from the Dáil. In 1943, as a forerunner of a possible women’s political party, four women stood for election. Hanna was a candidate in South Dublin. Her election address included demands for equal work, equal opportunities for women, the removal of the marriage ban on teachers, doctors and other skilled women, the restoration of jury rights, the abolition of the means test, proper pensions, school meals and free books for school children, family allowances, a clean milk supply, an effective anti-TB campaign, and civilised treatment for the unemployed. It was, as she said, a “bold enough challenge to masculine monopoly”. Its failure was a blow to those women who hoped that a more equal and inclusive society could have been built from the ashes of Easter Week.

In considering the situation of women in the Ireland of 2017, with its continued lack of equality in political representation, the denial of women's rights over their bodies, the gender pay gap, and many other issues, we have to ask ourselves how far have women really progressed since those earlier years? Hanna Sheehy Skeffington believed that the 1943 election had sown "seeds of new growth" that were lying "submerged, but living". With the momentum shown in recent years over the Repeal the 8th Amendment, the Women for Election campaign, Waking the Feminists and other grassroots pressure groups, has the time for germination of those seeds finally arrived?
Margaret Ward's new book Hanna Sheehy Skeffington – Suffragette and Sinn Féiner, Her Memoirs and Writings, from UCD Press, is available in bookshops and online from UCD Press. Martina Devlin, Catriona Crowe and Senator Ivana Bacik will join Margaret Ward at 6.30pm on October 4th in the Royal Irish Academy, Dublin to discuss Hanna's legacy: Where are we in Irishwomen's struggle for equality today?