Some young women grew frustrated with the slow progress of suffrage agitation in Ireland after many decades of constitutional lobbying led by the Irish Women’s Suffrage and Local Government Association. Influenced by the militant strategies of the British Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), two university graduates, Hanna Sheehy Skeffington and Margaret Cousins set up a new suffrage group in Dublin in 1908. Named the Irish Women’s Franchise League (IWFL) it was impatient for change and ready to challenge social conventions. Although women-only, men could be associate members and two of the early male recruits were the husbands of the founding members – Francis Sheehy Skeffington and James Cousins.
Aiming to win the vote for women, on the same terms as men, the IWFL, whose leaders were nationalist in their political sympathies, vociferously lobbied to have female enfranchisement included in the Home Rule Bill. Although the IWFL described itself as militant, members did not engage in militant activity during its early years. It was frustration caused by the failure of the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP) to support votes for women in the Home Rule Bill of 1912 that finally sparked the outbreak of militant agitation in Ireland.
The opposition to female enfranchisement by the IPP and its leader John Redmond had a wider political cause. The IPP had forged an alliance in the British parliament with the ruling Liberal Party under prime minister Herbert Asquith. It was feared that if women were given the vote, Asquith, a vehement opponent of women’s suffrage, would resign. In any ensuing general election it was thought the Conservative Party would sweep to power, thus delaying any chance of Home Rule. This gave the IPP a vested interest in supporting the Liberal government and keeping Asquith in power.
The IWFL decided that militant action was the only way to get the attention of the Irish Party and the British government. On June 13th 1912 eight women were arrested for throwing stones at Government Buildings in Dublin. When Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington, Marguerite Palmer, and sisters Jane and Margaret Murphy, came to trial, 200 women, including the other arrested suffragettes, Kathleen Houston, Marjorie Hasler, Maud Lloyd and Hilda Webb, packed the court room. The women were each sentenced to either a fine or two months’ imprisonment. All refused to pay and opted for prison, where they were soon followed by the other four.
However, the IWFL never achieved the levels of militancy associated with the Pankhursts and the WSPU in Britain. Not only were Irish women involved in less militancy, but the nature of their actions was usually milder than those of the British suffragettes. IWFL tactics rarely involved more than heckling politicians or breaking windows in government offices. The vast majority of Irish suffragists were constitutional, opposing any form of militancy. Unlike the British movement, Irish suffragism was not polarised by a militant versus non-militant divide.
Research on suffrage activism has focused largely on the pursuit of the vote. Thus the movement may be misunderstood as a single-issue pressure group. We need to go beyond a focus on enfranchisement to uncover the complexity of identities, actions and motivations behind the suffrage movement.
The study of historical movements often fails to uncover their true dynamism, the lively discussions and debates underpinning their activism. One way of analysing and assessing such debates and the breadth of activity and campaigns undertaken by suffragists is through their newspaper, the Irish Citizen, published between 1912-1920. While edited for much of its life by Francis and later Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington, the paper was not simply a mouthpiece for the IWFL.
Though a paper cannot give voice to all divergent views within the movement, with only the most literate and articulate being likely to be included, it is remarkable how many suffragists were represented in the pages of the Irish Citizen over its eight years.
In addition to the invaluable letters pages and “activities notice board”, which provide an insight into the views and activities of all suffrage groups, regular articles were penned by men and women representing a broad spectrum of groups, local branches and supporters.
On Saturday June 8th, 1912, the Irish Citizen editorial outlined its aims: “(a) to form a means of communication between Irish Suffrage Societies and their members, (b) to provide a reliable source of publicity for suffrage activities in Ireland, (c) to provide a means of cheap and effective propaganda.” To achieve these ends the editors requested that, “(a) all responsible officers of societies will send reports of meetings and notices of forthcoming events, (b) all suffragists should induce newsagents to display copies and posters, (c) those who have the power of expression will send us articles, notes and letters.”
Many contributors to the Irish Citizen described themselves as feminists and analysed the relationship between suffrage and feminism:
What is called the Votes for Women movement is but a side issue of a much greater and more far-reaching problem. It is true that the Votes for Women movement is the chief manifestation of feminism in these countries; but though public attention has been particularly focused on this one phase of feminism, the girl who first defied conventions by riding a bicycle . . . the poorest and meanest woman anywhere who is revolting against the conditions of her life and longing for a chance to relieve its monotony – all these are part and parcel of the great uprising amongst women
(Margaret Connery, the Irish Citizen December 28th, 1912)
As part of its feminist agenda the Irish Citizen discussed a wide range of issues affecting women and girls. Socialist voices argued that working-class women needed trade unions, better working conditions and to lead themselves and decide their own priorities.
Contributors such as Mrs Priestly McCracken and Marion Duggan regularly wrote articles on the incidence of domestic violence and sexual assaults in Irish society. They argued that the legal profession and the judiciary did not take such offences seriously. The fact that women were barred from practising as lawyers or sitting on juries (until 1919) resulted in male-dominated institutions. Mistrust of the legal system led a number of suffragists to set up a Courts Watch committee to monitor court cases involving girls and women, and their reports appeared regularly in the Irish Citizen. However, the women’s presence in court, especially in cases involving “indecency”, was not always welcomed. Attempts to eject “ladies” from some Dublin courts prompted the Irish Citizen to ask:
When will men realise that women are part of the public, that they are fully entitled to be present at all cases open to the public
(June 19th, 1915)
The articles and letters dealing with domestic violence and sexual assault reveal a hidden aspect of Irish society in the early 20th century, and also provide an insight into the diversity of issues taken up by Irish suffragists.
This was far more than just a “votes for women” movement. Critiques of legal institutions, and the male-defined morality underpinning them, reveal sophisticated feminist analysis of gender power dynamics. The Irish Citizen provides an insight into the courage and audacity of these pioneering feminists who challenged social conventions and powerful institutions in early 20th-century Ireland.