What’s the difference between a suffragist and a suffragette? Apparently the latter is a more militant version of the former. In which case Ireland boasted plenty of suffragettes.
It is a slight misconception that Irish women didn’t get the vote until 1918. In 1898 they were granted the vote in local government elections. But the object of suffragists was to secure the franchise for adult women in parliamentary elections and the right of women to present themselves as candidates. In the self governing colony of New Zealand women had been entitled to vote since 1893 and full voting rights had also been secured in Australia in 1902. So the UK, which included Ireland, was well behind the colonies.
In the early 1900s a rather genteel organization with the ungainly name of the Irish Women’s Suffrage and Local Government Association was in the vanguard of the struggle for votes for women. But it was not the kind of group that demanded universal suffrage. It preferred to ask politely. Male politicians liked politeness but that didn’t mean they listened to gentle persuasion.
In 1908 a rather more muscular combination calling itself the Irish Women’s Franchise League was established by, among others, Hanna Sheehy Skeffington and Margaret Cousins. The latter was a remarkable woman who went on to greater fame in India where she composed the music for that country’s national anthem. Sheehy Skeffington, a secondary teacher, a socialist and a nationalist was from a political family. Her father, David Sheehy, was a nationalist MP. In 1903 she married Francis Skeffington and took his name. She insisted, however, that he take hers at the same time. He was one of the co-founders of the IWFL.
The newly formed Irish Women’s Franchise League was based on the Pankhurst-led – and Pankhurst-ruled – Women’s Political and Social Union but the homage of imitation did not include any desire for affiliation. The Irish suffrage movement remained resolutely separate from its British counterpart. In part this distinctiveness was expressed in the use of the colours orange and green in the organisation’s insignia.
Their differences were seen most clearly at the outbreak of the Great War when the bulk of the British suffragists sided with the war effort. The same was, however, not true of the Irish Women’s Franchise League, which resolutely opposed the war and the drive for recruits in Ireland.
Irish suffragette leaders were required to address numerous public meetings. Margaret Cousins, to whom public speaking was as a closed book, described how she would practice in an open field with only a donkey looking on. There were obviously quite a few male donkeys who attended Irish women’s suffrage meetings because Sheehy Skeffington recalled in later life that speakers had to be ‘capable of keeping their temper under bombardments of rotten eggs, over-ripe tomatoes, bags of flour [and] stinking chemicals ‘
Sheehy Skeffington was prominent in the militant actions carried out by members of the Franchise League. She was jailed in 1912 for breaking windows in government buildings. She threw a hatchet at British Prime Minister Herbert Asquith, though it probably did not have the effect of waking him up. She lost her teaching job for throwing stones at Dublin Castle and assaulting a policeman. Bear in mind, in relation to the latter charge, that your average member of the Dublin Metropolitan Police would have been close to six feet in height . Hanna was five foot two.
Like many other early 20th century feminists Sheehy Skeffington went on hunger strike while in jail. She was temporarily released under legislation especially devised for hunger striking suffragettes. It was officially entitled the Prisoner’s Temporary Discharge of Ill Health Act, but better known under its colloquial name, the Cat and Mouse Act. As the name suggests this allowed the authorities to release a hunger striker and then re-arrest her when her health recovered.
The Irish Women’s Franchise League was founded one hundred and eight years ago, on this day.
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