Suffrage and socialism: links with Labour

Suffrage and socialism : Suffrage and trade union aims didn’t always tally – some trade unionists supported higher wages for men, for example – but they found common cause fighting against injustice and for equality

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.

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.