Suffragettes at war

By autumn 1915, the first World War had raised tensions in the women’s movement

In the autumn of 1915 the workrooms and shop on Dublin’s Eden Quay where Rosie Hackett and her workmates had sewn and sold shirts and badges for over a year was reorganised. Their union official, Delia Larkin, founding secretary of the Irish Women Workers’ Union and manager of the Irish Women Workers’ Co-operative Society had left Ireland in the summer.

James Connolly, acting general secretary of the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union, had appointed Helena Molony, one time editor of Bean na hÉireann, now the registered “owner” of the Workers’Republic weekly as IWWU organiser and reorganised the sewing room under Jenny Shanahan. In September even its name was changed to the Irish Workers’ Co-operative Stores, crossing out the “Women” of its former title.

The women’s union was returning to industrial campaigning with the help of Marion Duggan, a barrister and campaigner for law reform for women and children, in a campaign against confectionery manufacturer Williams and Woods, which had dismissed their women workers, awarded a wage increase by the new industrial wages board.

The core activity of stitching and entertainments that had maintained the women’s union after hundreds of members lost their jobs during the lockout in 1913 was now extended to first aid evening classes in Liberty Hall under the direction of the south Dublin doctor Kathleen Lynn. These combined with preparing food and joining in the route marches and displays with the Irish Citizen Army out of Liberty Hall.

Small steps and small numbers. The Co-operative Stores now functioned as a drop-in centre and post office for rebellion and the workroom began manufacturing haversacks and flags, even a machine gun belt. Rosie Hackett remembered these changes as “when the work of the women’s section of the ICA started in earnest”.

That autumn Ireland was steeped in mourning. The fearful toll of Gallipoli was tallied daily in columns of casualties, where men’s lives were counted into regimental catalogues, “killed”, “wounded”, “prisoners of war”, and that most cruel of fates – “missing”. Business meeting of councils, trade unions and company boards across the country were frequently interrupted to pay condolences.

The needs of war at the battlefront – soldiers and supplies – shaped government policy on the home front. Its aims were thus to release men for the forces, to maintain essential war supplies, to solve labour shortages, to deal with the rising cost of living and to keep the peace in industry.

Warfare sharpened the focus on women, particularly in industry. An abundance of committees, official and voluntary, addressed their welfare and employment. A government-appointed Central Committee for Women’s Employment for Leinster, Munster and Connaught was composed largely of Dublin women suffrage campaigners. An Ulster Committee included Mary Galway, the women linen workers’ union official.

These committees, under royal sponsorship, provided work for unemployed women but their workshops were frequently dismissed as “Queen Mary’s Sweatshops” since they paid women so little.

In Dublin a wartime relief workshop run by the Suffragist Emergency Committee in Dawson Street made toys. Doll-making in Dublin had the patriotic advantage of substituting Irish-made goods in an industry where Germany excelled.

Domestic service and embroidery skills training was to replace foreign with Irish labour. Susanne Day, a Poor Law Guardian in Cork and secretary of the Munster Women’s Franchise League, pointed out that “In Ireland it seemed to be the idea of all the Distress Committees that women thrown out of employment by the war should, no matter what their previous occupation, get a six months course of domestic training.”

By 1915 industry was recovering, since the initial disruptions of the military call-up and enlistment and the collapse of women’s work. Now war contracts for military supplies boosted production. Clothing and kitting out an army reversed the fortunes of textile and clothing industries.

The 1915 Munitions of War Act enforced industrial controls across any firm with a war contract, whether making boots or blankets, webbing or shirts. Women were back stitching and weaving across the country. Belfast was manufacturing the new weave of aircraft linen.

Industrial difficulties were far from over, however. Low wages and poor conditions persisted. Factories without war contracts continued on short time. The cost of living rose sharply. It was estimated that between July 1914 and June 1917 food, rent, clothing, fuel and light rose by 70-75 per cent with devastatingconsequences for the weekly incomes of households dependent on women’s already low wages. Another year of food price inflation led to protests by trade unions, women’s organisations, and co-operative societies.

Conciliation and arbitration boards governed industrial disputes through the war years, bringing employers and unions to sit at the same table for the first time, to establish binding arbitration.

Irish women workers, previously paid at lower rates than women in Britain, won pay awards at equal levels for the first time. Wages boards to improve women’s rates of pay in “sweated” industries were set up in Irish jam and confectionery, linen embroidery, shirt making and eventually for agriculture where civil servants, employers and workers’ representatives fixed wage scales across the industry. War bonuses were paid to meet cost of living increases and excessive profits. When civil servants got a war bonus in September, women were awarded half the amounts in every male grade.

Local munitions committees were clamouring for shell factories to open in Ireland. Only Kynoch’s in Arklow did munitions work, making gun cotton and cordite. Mackies’ in Belfast and Pierces in Wexford took up shell-making with a trained workforce of women the following year.

The 1915 call from the Board of Trade to women to register for wartime “employment of any kind – industrial, agricultural, clerical, etc”, made little impact in Ireland. By summer fewer than 500 women had registered. When wartime registration became law later in 1915, Ireland was excluded. But the springtime proposals for women’s registration had reinforced fears of military conscription which by September had become acute.

Women in action

Women mobilised on an unprecedented scale. They established and maintained countless voluntary organisations across Ireland. Independent and experienced women were organising the purchase of ambulances, opening hospitals, running first aid training, nursing support, fundraising drives, workshops, welfare groups and relief committees.

There were grand fêtes and gymkhanas, flag days and concerts to organise. Such activity, dismissed as “war fever”, or claimed as “doing their bit”, was frequently spurred on by the plight of soldiers or the sufferings of Belgian women and children. Others who opposed the war, like Cissie Cahalan, the shop workers’ trade unionist and suffrage campaigner, joined the Women’s Employment Committee as an opportunity to improve women’s working conditions.

Voices that once expressed disapproval or discouraged women’s public role now sought out their time and energies.

The wartime nurse is the partner of the soldier. Both women and men conform to the conventional expectations of their sex. Nursing, it was generally felt, did not disturb traditional values and drew on a customary, even instinctive, female culture of caring. But wartime nursing would prove a much more radical choice for women. Pre-war physical intimacy between women and men was, by custom, strictly contained within strong, even rigid, family ties. Wartime nursing brought women into close physical contact with men across every social, economic or cultural barrier, unimaginable before this war.

Nursing was a relatively neutral response to war. From the outbreak of war until her return to Dublin in January 1915, Helena Molony nursed wounded soldiers in France alongside Maude Gonne McBride, and her daughter Iseult. In London Delia Larkin was reported back to Dublin as “nursing Tommies in the military hospitals in London”.  Women who never needed to seek out employment chose nursing as their war service, in paid military nursing for trained women in the Queen Alexandra Imperial Nursing Services, or in the Voluntary Aid Detachments, the county branches of the Red Cross and the Order of St John which trained and organised women into nursing and other hospital services, and the collection and preparation of sphagnum moss wanted for wound dressings.

The numbers of Irish women who enlisted or volunteered as nurses during the first World War has never been as assiduously argued over as the numbers of Irish men who fought. The British Red Cross Society estimated that 4,500 women from 239 VAD Irish units served at home and abroad. First aid training was no indicator of political sympathies. Cumann na mBan women took up Red Cross training in October 1914 and, shortly after, first aid classes began in Liberty Hall.  And knitting became the byword for women’s war work. Women suffrage campaigners were frequently exasperated at this aspect of women’s commitment. “We need have no qualms of conscience when we refuse to be drawn into the knitting and ambulance service,” one wrote.

Irish suffrage societies still held public meetings, kept their offices open, produced the Irish Citizen weekly, and ran guest speaking tours, to the admiration of sufragettes elsewhere. It was an achievement to survive. When home rule was suspended their campaign slowed. Springtime hopes for a united women’s peace mission were dashed when the Irish and British delegates were stopped by the British government from travelling to the women’s International Peace Congress in the Netherlands in April.

But the intractability of the war, the scale of the casualties, repeated recruiting campaigns, and public appeals of 1915 raised competing claims among women who had once submerged their differences. Susanne Day had left Cork to serve as a nurse in France, resigning as a Poor Law Guardian. Dr Elizabeth Bell, a Belfast suffragist once held in London’s Holloway prison, joined the British military medical services to work in Malta. Her only son was killed on the western front in 1917.

Long-time friends and associates complained about a new tone in the Irish Citizen. Helen Chenevix explained to Hanna Sheehy Skeffington she did not share her “anti-English feeling”.

They submerged differences in diverse programmes of activism. Louie Bennett kept up the peace work of the April Congress through the new International Peace League, although in London the young Patricia Lynch was impatient that Irish women were still represented as British delegates.

Hanna Sheehy Skeffington spoke from nationalist and labour platforms, against the Defence of the Realm Act and for Labour’s candidate in the College Green by-election.  Others joined the new women’s nighttime patrols, approved by the authorities, but drawn from suffrage circles. Long-standing complaints about the behaviour of young men and women in Dublin’s city centre reached a pitch in 1915. Suffragists like Clare Moser, out along the quays breaking up couples in the dark, saw themselves as a safeguard between vulnerable young women and the limitations of the all-male police force.

Nationalist home rulers like Lady Fingall or Mary Gwynn were prominent in public wartime committees or campaigns, and unionist women supported war work through their own party branches, inviting commentators to hope that such political labels would dissolve in their combined efforts.

Separatist women in Cumann na mBan had understood from the start that the Irish Volunteer’s vague promise of 1914 that “There will also be work for the women to do” meant “There will always be work for the women to do”.

By 1915 they were visible partners at the military displays at O’Donovan Rossa’s funeral, in the Aeridheacht Mhor, where they wore their new uniforms for the first time as a visible sign of their growing militarism. Their classes now incorporated military drills, including arms training.

They gathered information and carried messages, even as far as the United States. Feminist criticism that Cumann na mBan existed chiefly to collect money for the men to spend, which had so irked them at their foundation, was still being made in October 1915, by Constance Markievicz.

Personal and political loyalties were under great pressure. When Hanna Sheehy Skeffington joined anti-war platforms her brother stood on recruiting platforms as a member of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers. Jeering between groups on the streets hint at an increasingly partisan public.

Women were said to pressure men for and against enlistment. Women were prepared to challenge civilian men verbally in one report, by asking one young man if he would not be better-looking in khaki. In contrast one recruiting meeting blamed women for too few men enlisting, by hanging onto their men’s coat tails.

‘Separation’ women

The lives of working class women are, for the most part only glimpsed through the eyes of others. The largest group of women affected by the war, those women whose menfolk were doing the fighting and the dying, only make rare appearances at this time and then almost always appear only as a single identity – the “separation” women.

Women and their children dependent on an enlisted man’s income received a flat rate weekly payment with additions for each child. A simple, but novel transaction between the state and women was transformed, freighted with meanings. This stereotype made their most lurid appearances in the wake of the Easter Rising. They were already being monitored through the courts, where they appear as disorderly and disgraceful drunks, squandering their allowances in the public house while their husbands are away risking their lives.

For every admonished woman there is an admired warrior. Mothers were fined for overstating what their sons had paid over to them, or prosecuted for saying a son lived with them, even though he had left home years earlier. Mothers receiving separation allowances get a special mention in child neglect cases. On Sundays “separation” women were preached at as well. Patriotic songs of the allies filled the music halls.

The pace of life on the streets had changed. There were noisy recruitment meetings in cities and county towns. Both the 36th and 16th army divisions were preparing to leave for the front. Irish hospitals nursed the wounded, maimed and disturbed servicemen who eventually returned home after the battles. The pity of war came directly to Ireland as the survivors and the dead of submarine warfare, in the Lusitania earlier in the year and that autumn the Hesperian, reached Irish shores. Kathleen Tynan could not have been alone when she noticed that autumn of 1915 the growing numbers of black clad women at Mass on Sundays.