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Irish women and revolution

Sally Ricardson examines the intertwining of feminism and revolution in Ireland

THE EASTER Proclamation was as revolutionary in its inclusion of women as it was in other respects. It made its appeal to Irishwomen as well as Irishmen, and promised universal suffrage, 'equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens'.

The seven signatories were, of course, all men. However, they had appointed a woman -- the feminist and socialist Hanna Sheehy Skeffington -- to the Provisional Government. We have it on the authority of Kathleen Clarke, wife of Tom Clarke, that all the signatories agreed with the inclusion of women on an equal basis with men, except one. She refused to say who it was, except to ensure that it was not her husband.

James Connolly, Thomas MacDonagh and Padraig Pearse had all made explicit their commitment to equal rights for women. Eamonn Ceannt and Joe Plunkett both married women who were active in republican and feminist politics, and are unlikely to have had any problem with women's rights. Sean MacDiarmada seems to be the most likely dissenter, if only by the process of elimination. Kathleen was very fond of Sean, which may explain her reluctance to name the culprit.

James Connolly's commitment to women's rights is well known. However Pearse (who drafted the Proclamation with help from Connolly and MacDonagh) may have been responsible as much as Connolly for the automatic inclusion of women. Pearse had long worked with women on terms of equality in organisations such as the Gaelic League and accepted them as his intellectual and social equals. He supported the aims of women's suffrage (if not always the more militant methods) and promoted women's right to equal education.

So what was behind this unprecedented and overwhelming endorsement of women's rights -- not to mention the progressive and open-minded attitudes that the leaders of the Easter Rising displayed in other areas?

It is important to understand that the radicalism as well as the inclusiveness of the Easter Proclamation was a culmination of extensive women's involvement in political campaigns going back several decades.

The Irish Parliamentary Party tried to defend their role in helping to defeat the Conciliation Bills of 1910 and 1912 (which would have given limited suffrage to women) by asserting that to rock the Parliamentary boat and annoy prime minister Asquith might put back the cause of Home Rule. But many women (and men) were not convinced.

The fact was most of the Irish Parliamentary Party (including its leader, John Redmond) were opposed to votes for women on principle. The issue of the women's franchise exposed the Irish Parliamentary Party's reactionary nature for what it was almost as much as the Woodenbridge incident did a few years afterwards.

There had been a moderate, non-militant and mainly Unionist women's suffrage movement in Ireland since the 1860s. This had achieved the franchise for Irish women in local government in 1898, six years after similar rights had been granted to British women. The militant Irish Women's Franchise League was founded in 1908.

Women were increasingly a presence in Irish political life in other areas. The Gaelic League and Sinn Fein admitted women on the same terms as men and allowed them to take an active and equal part. Even so, the Gaelic League, for all its merits, had a staid image, and many women were looking for something different.

Republican women formed their own group, Inghinidhe na hEireann (Daughters of Ireland) in 1900. Independent and autonomous, they scorned the whole idea of demanding votes for women along with Home Rule. Instead, they put their considerable energy and enthusiasm into campaigning for an independent Irish state, in which they would as a matter of course take equal citizenship.

Their magazine, Bean na hEireann, founded in 1908 and edited by Helena Molony, became 'the ladies' paper that all the young men read'. It tied together the issues of feminism, republicanism and eventually socialism into a coherent and integrated message.

As an editorial in June 1910 put it, 'the expression of militant nationalism by women must do much to command the respect of men and compel them to re-adjust their views on women as a possible force in the fight against foreign domination.'

Inghinidhe were colourful, theatrical and anti-authoritarian, and the seriousness of their mission was combined with humour and a great sense of fun. A characteristic prank was the affixing of an anti-recruitment leaflet to the Viceroy's car.

The foundation of Cumann na mBan in 1914, in response to the formation of the Volunteers, was seen by many feminists as a retrograde step. Although Cumann na mBan took pains to insist right at the start that they were a separate and independent organization, in effect they were an auxiliary force, making themselves useful to the Volunteers in whatever way they could. What is clear is that the organisation was set up as a response to women's exclusion from the Volunteers and that many Cumann na mBan women would have joined the Volunteers had they been allowed to do so.

There was uncertainty about their role to begin with. Early Cumann na mBan literature even suggested that as well as nursing and first aid, women could 'do all the embroidery that may be required, such as badges on uniforms' but as their confidence increased, so did their perception of what women were capable of doing.

The Ladies' Land League had been formed in order to step into the breach while the (male) Land League activists were in prison; in the words of Constance Markievicz, 'it ran the movement and started to do the militant things that the men only threatened and talked of' -- and was eventually forced to disband. As Tim Harrington MP put it, 'some of us found they could not be controlled'.

Anna Parnell was one of several women who proved to be capable administrators and courageous campaigners and set a pattern for subsequent women's political involvement. As the Land League came to realize, women's activism was inherently revolutionary as it challenged the very structure of society and their role within it, and women would continue to take the radical lead.

Editorials in The Irish Citizen (paper of the IWFL) referred to Cumann na mBan as the 'Slave Women' for putting themselves at the service of men without demanding anything for themselves, while Cumann na mBan pointed out that a vote in a British parliament would be of little use.

But the divisions were not as deep as the verbal mud-slinging would suggest. Many Cumann na mBan women were or had been members of women's suffrage organisations. Mary MacSwiney had left the Munster Women's Franchise League because it was Unionist-dominated, and Kathleen Lynn was one of quite a few who came to republicanism from the background women's suffrage.

The effect of this debate, heated as it often was, was not negative; it forced women to clarify both their feminism and their republicanism, and brought their concerns to the attention of men as well.

In the confusion following Eoin MacNeill's countermanding of the order for mobilization on Easter Sunday, the women who had taken part in the preparations were frequently forgotten. They turned up anyway, and found work for themselves to do. Even so, the impression gained from the accounts written by participants is that there was a real sense of comradeship, the men for the most part accepting the women and valuing their contribution.

It is true that most of the women of 1916 performed duties that accorded with the conventional view of women's role; they tended the wounded, they did the cooking. But they also commandeered supplies and carried dispatches, frequently under fire. If they were reluctant to complain about being sidelined into 'women's work', it was largely because above all they wanted to serve the republican cause and were prepared to make themselves useful in whatever way they could.

They certainly showed remarkable resourcefulness and initiative. Chris Caffrey, captured and strip-searched by British soldiers, ate the dispatch she was carrying to prevent it falling into enemy hands. Eighteen-year-old Rose Anne Murphy was given the job of mobilizing the Volunteers in Dundalk; finding her railway journey interrrupted by a blown-up bridge, she disembarked and walked the remaining forty miles.

The surrender of the insurgents brought out instincts of chivalry and protectiveness even in the most progressive men, who were anxious that the women should be evacuated before the surrender took place. The women were reluctant; they were anxious to share the burden of responsibility and had no wish to avoid the consequences of their actions. Most agreed to leave only because they wanted to avoid causing more stress and worry to the men.

Even if there was sometimes a tendency to slide back into the conventional gender roles it should be remembered that even the most progressive-minded Irish republicans were operating in a society where old structures were still in place. However, women brought a radical edge to the struggle that could well have been lacking in an exclusively male campaign. Perhaps their own experiences of exclusion had helped to radicalise many of them. They challenged authority in ways that broke down many of the old gender roles and social boundaries, and opened the way to a genuinely egalitarian, open and tolerant society.

If, as James Connolly said, the cause of labour and the cause of Ireland could not be dissevered, then the causes of women and republicanism are undoubtedly equally indivisible.

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This document was last modified by Mick Carty on 2003-12-23 20:35:39.
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