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Column: The life and times of the great Irish suffragette

Throughout her career, Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington strove simultaneously for national freedom and women’s rights, writes Leah Butler.

Leah Butler

The Women’s Museum of Ireland aims to promote the recognition of the role of women in Irish history as well as the role of Irish women abroad. The museum celebrates the contributions of women to cultural, political and social history in Ireland. Further exhibits from the museum can be found at www.womensmuseumofireland.ie. Follow their progress on Facebook or Twitter.

HANNA SHEEHY-SKEFFINGTON, born 24 May 1877, was one of Ireland’s most ardent promoters of women’s rights. She was an influential figure during the suffragette movement, tirelessly campaigning for the equal status of men and women in Ireland.

Skeffington was exposed to the republican struggle from a young age due to her father’s involvement with the Irish Republican Brotherhood and later his career as an MP. Her uncle, Fr Eugene Sheehy, was a renowned Land League priest. Hanna’s father had, however, consistently voted against all female suffrage bills, giving her a profound insight into the extent to which women were marginalised within social movements.

Much of what she had learned through being surrounded by political thinkers in her younger years helped shape Skeffington’s future political motivations. Throughout her career she strove simultaneously for national freedom and women’s rights.

The struggle for women’s rights

Skeffington had actively involved herself in many different avenues of the struggle for women’s rights. She was responsible for founding the Irish Women’s Franchise League in 1908 with her husband, Francis Sheehy-Skeffington, and Margaret Cousins. The Irish Women’s Franchise League was a militant suffrage organisation that played an important role in the pursuit of civil rights. Additionally, in 1911 Skeffington became one of the founding members of the Irish Women’s Workers Union, an autonomous branch of the Irish Transport and general Workers’ Union (ITGWU).

As a talented writer, her skills were utilised in the Irish Citizen, a paper that she and her husband had established, at a time when print was central to the dissemination of political theory. Here she had the freedom to write articles relating to the lives of Irish women and to attempt to radicalise the population in the hope of inspiring new ways of viewing gender roles, including the place of women in contemporary society.

In her fight for women’s emancipation, however, Skeffington did not restrict her activities to print. Like so many who decide to go against the grain, Skeffington forwent the security that conformity brings. Her participation in the events of June 13th, 1912 demonstrates this clearly.

The exclusion of women from the franchise of the third Home Rule Bill

Along with many other women in Dublin city that day, Skeffington took part in the act of symbolically smashing male rule in Ireland by throwing rocks at Dublin Castle’s windows, a reaction to the exclusion of women from the franchise of the third Home Rule Bill. This resulted in the loss of her teaching job, but she was one among many who risked arrest to fight against the curbs placed on women’s freedom of lifestyle.

With regards to Irish independence, the constitution and the place of women within this framework, Skeffington lived to be disappointed with de Valera’s vision for modern Irish society. She chose to take a firm stance with the anti Treaty advocates, feeling those who were pro Treaty were playing it safe and would never see the truly free Ireland that she envisioned.

Furthermore, Skeffington felt that the constitution did little to signal that women would enjoy any greater amount of freedom under Irish governance than English. Article 41.2.1 claims that the state “recognises that by her life within the home, a woman gives to the State a support without which the common good cannot be achieved” and article 41.2.2 that the state shall “endeavour to ensure that mothers shall not be obliged by economic necessity to engage in labour to the neglect of their duties in the home”.

The constitution maintained the same boundaries for women

In reality, the constitution maintained the same boundaries for women that the previous ruling elites had and in no way reflected the progressive efforts made by Skeffington and her comrades to increase opportunities for women in Ireland and bring them out of the confines of the kitchen. Skeffington felt that independence had been won for Ireland in name, but the wives, daughters and sisters of Ireland saw little change in their prospects.

Although the constitution fell short of her visions for full gender equality, Skeffington considered the Easter Rising the first point in Irish history where both the struggle for women’s citizenship and national freedom converged. She hoped that the involvement of women in the Easter Rising would create a new sense of autonomy for Irish women and clear the way for a radical shift in the public view of gender roles.

While she was a dedicated republican, committed to obtaining national freedom, this was never to be done at the expense of the struggle for women’s rights. Skeffington had first hand experience of the marginalisation of women within social movements and strove to resist this, maintaining that gender issues be prominent when considering the future of an independent Irish state. She was willing to push the boundaries of what were considered socially acceptable forms of dissent, while at the same time playing key roles in progressive organisations such as the IWWU. Skeffington should be remembered as a remarkably enlightened thinker and a pioneering force for the cause women’s rights in Ireland.

“Until the women of Ireland are free, the men will not achieve emancipation.”

– Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington, 1909

This article by Leah Butler first appeared on The Women’s Museum of Ireland’s website.

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