Maud Gonne

WOMEN AND THE STRUGGLE FOR IRISH FREEDOM : A HISTORICAL REVIEW.

 

 

"None so fit to break  the chains as they who  wear them, none so well equipped to  decide what is  a fetter.  In its march towards freedom,  the working class of Ireland must cheer on  the  efforts of  those women who,  feeling  on  their  souls  and  bodies  the fetters   of the ages, have arisen to strike them off,  and cheer all the louder  if  in  its hatred  of thralldom  and passion for freedom the women's army  forges  ahead of  the militant  army of labour".(1)  James Connolly, 1916.

 

In attempting to examine historically women's contribution to the struggle  we are  faced with a  major problem by  way of adequate information but while this problem is exacerbated by  the lack of

resources available within this prison,  it is a problem which is not unique  to  ourselves.  It is with these  limitations in mind that we attempt to write this article.

 

It has been our experience that most accounts of history,  and in particular,  Irish  history,  have been deceptive,in  that it has been  written from  the point of  view that history is   made  by great  men, rather than is actually the case, that the underlying social and economic  forces  at  work  in  society  are reflected through  them.  All  others are deemed as  being of  little or no consequence and are incidental to the course  of   history,  thus the   mass  of the people are dismissed  as   being  little  more than  sheep.  Therefore,  in order to place  women's contribution into  perspective we must take  account of  two factors;  Firstly that  Ireland has  been,  and  still  is  a   conservative,  male dominated society and as  such  women's  position  in  society is defined in relation to this;  secondly,  as a consequence of this reality, history, with some notable exceptions,  has been written with a  male bias.   This distortion  of  history is  so complete that one could get the impression  that  women  consciously chose not  to  involve themselves  in  the  major events of  our  past. Those that did so,   only coming to the fore in order  to aid men in a  time  of  crisis.   On  those  occasions  on   which  their permitted activities were documented, they were done so minimally that the impression  is  given that  the  only  women  worthy  of mention in  Irish history were  either so exceptional  and unique that they rose above the mass  of  women to almost  equal men, or that they  merited a mention on  the  strength  of  their beauty, charitable deeds,  or because of  their  relationships  with  the male leaders of the struggle.   To all intents and  purposes they are Hidden From History. (2)

 

Therefore,  before  we  can  begin  to  examine  women's  role in history, or more specifically, in the struggle for Irish freedom, it is essential to understand the major constraints  within which they have,  and still do, work and live. This is the family;  for in  a patriarchal   society such  as  our  own,  women   are seen primarily and often solely, as wives and mothers.  It  is to this point,  that  is the centrality and importance  of  the family to Irish society and how within  the social  structures prevalent in Ireland it constrains women's involvement in  the  struggle, that we now wish to address.

 

According to the dominant ideology  which has prevailed  in Irish society,  this  is,  one based upon a  conservative, capitalistic Christianity which is in essence patriarchal,`The Family'  is the building block of society. Its structure was perceived to be a  natural formation.  the roles of its members, their abilities and the activities they could engage in,  were said to be predestined by biology.  It  was a view  endorsed  by both church  and state. Therefore,  for  women to  deviate from  their established gender roles was considered to be in defiance of nature and a  threat to the whole structure of society and in particular,  although often unacknowledged,  a  threat  to  male  power.   This   naturalness represented an  unalterable  and  permanent   formation,  however cross- cultural studies and historical  comparisons have  clearly demonstrated  that  the  family   and    by   extension,   gender roles,  are socially constructed.   Therefore,  it  follows  that the constraints imposed  on  women can be  removed.  As  Connolly stated  "In Ireland the soul  of  womanhood has been  trained for centuries to  surrender its rights,   and  as  a  consequence the race has lost  its chief  capacity  to  withstand  assaults  from within. Those  who preached to Irish womankind fidelity  to  duty as the only  ideal to   be  striven after,   were, consciously or unconsciously fashioning a slave mentality,  which  Irish mothers had perforce to transmit to the Irish child "(3) It is  therefore

essential,  if  we  accept the validity of  Connolly's  analysis, that  in  order  to  bring  about  a  successful   revolution  in Ireland, women must also be liberated.

 

In Ireland today,  as  since the  earliest  Christian  times, the family is based  upon monogamous heterosexual  marriage, in which the man and woman are said to  pool their  combined resources  in

equal partnership,  thereby placing the needs and  wishes  of the individual in second  place to that of  the family  unit  :  that is,  the  collective  needs  of  the  man,  woman  and  children. However,  by the very fact that Ireland is a  patriarchal society then the reality of  the family is that  it is not  structured in terms  of  equality  but  in  terms  of   male   dominance/female subordinance.  Engels in  the  `Origins of  the  Family'  clearly defined power relationships within the family, and in relation to society,  when  he  said:  "The  modern   individual   family  is founded on the open or concealed domestic slavery of the wife and modern  society  is  a   mass   composed   of   these  individual families  as  its molecules".(4)   Connolly not only  echoed this belief  but put it  in  to   an Irish context  when  he said:"The worker is the slave of capitalist society,   the female worker is the slave of  that slave..  The daughters of the  Irish peasantry have been the cheapest slaves in existence -  slaves to their own family,  who were in  turn,  slaves to all social parasites  of a landlord and gombeen ridden  community."(5)  Therefore, there  is in  Irish  society  an  inter-relation   between  capitalism  and patriarchy  and as  such,  when we  are  defining  our revolution today,  and describing  our objective as  a `32  County Socialist Republic' we must come to the conclusion that Socialism must mean the  end   of  Patriarchy.   In  trying  to   achieve    national reunification and the removal  of  capitalism,   our  struggle is fought against outside  forces,  but  against patriarchy  we must struggle   within   ourselves.   Given  that    the  family   is, culturally,  the accepted format for the rearing  and socialising of children  into  society  and  that  it  provides  an essential function in the maintenance  of the  economy,   what  changes can be  made to its internal  function and  external societal  roles, which will allow for equality in all spheres of women's lives ?

 

As previously stated it has been,  in the historical sense a fact of life in  Irish society that  women's lives are centred  on the private  sphere,   while  the  male  has  dominated  the  public. Nevertheless,  despite this,  women have at  different periods in Irish  history  have  not  only  had  a  direct  input  into  the economic support of the family  but on many occasions  have been, through  necessity its  primary  support  .This  reality  has not changed  their subordinate status  in  society.   Furthermore, on those  rare  occasions on  which they  have   been   allowed   to contribute to constitutional or revolutionary  politics,  it  has been in a limited and secondary sense and which neither reflected their potential or  percentage of the population.  Having briefly outlined the primary constraint imposed on women by  society,  we can now look critically at  the struggle  for Irish  freedom  and thus assess  women's  contribution  to  it.  This  examination we believe will  allow our present struggle  to  be advanced through the knowledge of past experience.

 

Although Ireland has been dominated  politically and economically by a foreign  power  for  centuries,  this  article  cannot  be a `total'  history of  women in  the Irish  struggle,  therefore we have selected as our point of departure and conscious that  it is in a  sense arbitrary,  The  Ladies Land League  of  1881.  Prior to this there were no structures through  which women could  come together as a group and engage   in political activity  and those women such  as  Mary  Ann  McCracken  and  Ann  Devlin   who have received historical  recognition,   received   it   more  through their relationship with their male  relatives  and friends,  than through  their  own  conscious,   yet  constrained   attempt   at furthering the struggle  for freedom.   Therefore   we   take  as our starting point the aforementioned Ladies Land League.

 

In 1881  the Ladies  Land  League  was founded,  born  out of the incompetent and  insincere handling by the  Parnellite leadership of the campaign to bring about the abolition of  high  rack rents

This campaign brought about an alliance  of the constitutionalist Irish Party (under Parnell)  and the Fenians. However, while this alliance was  strictly  tactical,  with   both   using  the  land issue to  different ends,  the constitutionalists to  bring about reforms and the Fenians to bring  about  a  revolutionary  change in  Ireland,  their attitude towards  women was not in  any sense progressive.  The British Government,through  its introduction of the  Coercion  Act,    aimed   at   leaving   the   Land   League leaderless  and traditionless,    by    imprisoning    its   male leadership,  unwittingly  not  only  exposed  the  male  directed campaign  as  ineffective    (and    who    later    seized   the opportunity of imprisonment as a way of absolving themselves from the  blame  of   the  campaigns  failure)but  it    created   the circumstances  under which women could play  an   active  role in politics It was in an effort  to breath life   into this campaign and  to  maintain  an  organisation,   that Michael Davitt,  with great difficulty,   convinced  the leadership  that the  solution to the  Land  League's  problems  lay  in  the setting up   of an alternative Land League which  would solely consist  of women and because the British held  the position  of  women  in  society no higher  than  their  Irish  counterparts,  in  that  women   were unpersons and fell outside the realm of the Coercion Act.

 

For women to become involved in  Land League activities  they had to overturn  the many  societal  norms which  constrained  them - women  were  constrained by  social  circumstances;  their family orientated life;  commitment to  husbands  and  children;lack  of education and organisational  skills,  all  worked  against them. Furthermore,  in order for the Ladies Land League to be effective organisers needed to work at a national level,   to travel around the country co-ordinating the   Leagues   activities.    However, because of the aforementioned social constraints they  found that very few women had the freedom to engage  in this  type  of work, even those who cold fulfil these tasks,  both national and local, found that their activities contravened  every social expectation of women.  Yet inspite of this the women were  able  to carry out the necessary tasks to set in motion and intensify  the campaign. It should also be stated that the Ladies  Land   League  was  not the  sole  preserve  of  the  middleclass   or   educated  women, admittedly  these women were  the  ones   who  had  the necessary social skills to organise nationally   and   internationally  but the   mass  of  its   membership  ordinary   women  from  farming backgrounds who  found political expression   by  organising  and agitating locally around  the land  issue.   As a result  of this activity  and not  an  inconsequential  addition  to  the Women's Struggle  was  the breaking  down  of  the barriers   to  women's involvement in public  debate.  As Margaret  Ward  pointed out in her book Unmanageable  Revolutionaries  the mass meeting had been "..an  exclusively  male  practice  ,   in   terms   of  speakers and audience..but  now that  women    had come into the political arena, observers noticed that the ordinary women no longer viewed the proceedings ` at a respectful distance'  but thronged  around the platform  as if she had a right to  be  there".(6)   As their campaign   progressed  their   effectiveness   was    not    only recognized and feared by the British Government, who subsequently

introduced legislation in  order to   imprison  women  activists, but also  by  Parnell who recognized   that  `The    League'  was not being  used for something  that  he  approved   of,  but for, in  the words of  Michael  Davitt  "a   real   revolutionary  aim and  end"(7).  Finally both   the British   and  the  Parnellites reached  an   agreement    which   took    the   form    of   the Kilmainham Treaty;  prisoners    were released and the  Land  Act reformed.   First  amongst    Parnell's   priorities    was   the dissolution  of  the  Ladies   Land   League,    for   while  his attitude to this organisation changed through recognition of  its radicalism,  from  a  reluctant  yet   opportunistic   acceptance of the  necessity   to   use  women   -   to   hatred   of  their political objectives.  Parnell and the Irish Party, however, were faced  with  a dilemma -   how to neutralise the   women? Fearing that the  activities  of  politically  motivated  women,  working independently of male control,  could embarrass and undermine the position their position,  the  male  leadership  embarked  upon a strategy whereby in order  to defuse any potential  threat,  they distanced  themselves  from  the  women.   League  finances  were denied,  support  withheld  and  requests  for  consultation on league activities were deferred and  postponed.  Evasiveness  was the  order of the  day,  yet the work was expected to  be carried out.   As  bills    went  unpaid  and   expenses   mounted,   the efficiency of  the Ladies  Land  League  became  impaired.  After several months of uncertainty the male leadership   presented the women with an ultimatum, if they did not disband as  organisation and transfer their work  from  radical  political  activities  to the purely supportive relief and charity work,   then money would not be  released  from  the male   controlled purse in  order  to cover the outstanding   debts   and   the   Ladies   Land  League would collapse in  disarray.   It was obvious that  they were  to be scapegoats   for   the   male   leadership's    duplicity  and subsequently excluded from political life.

 

With  the dissolution of  both  the National Land League  and the Ladies Land League there  appeared on the scene  their successor, a new organisation which consisted of the old  leadership and old values:  the  Irish  National  League.  This  `new'  organisation stated  unequivocally  that  women  would  be   prohibited   from joining.  Thus,  for  women,  their  exclusion  from  politics at

virtually all levels was complete.  It was not  until   20  years later that  another group of  women activists  were to  form  and fight for political and social equality.

 

In 1893,  the Gaelic League was formed and which undoubtedly had, at  that  period  in  time,  a  `revolutionary'  attitude towards women,  in that they were accepted into the organisation on equal terms with men.  However,  it should be stated  that  while  this was  in  its  day  a   significant  development   it    was  only revolutionary  in  a very  limited sense,   for  as Margaret Ward asserted  in  her lecture Women and  Irish  History  they  did so "because  they  felt  women  were  the  mothers  of   the  future generations, that it was their role to  teach children  Irish and it  was  in   that  capacity  that   they    encouraged   women's membership rather  than  the  individual  person.   All  of their members  tended  to  reinforce  their  domestic   role   to   the detriment of their political one".(8)  In addition to  the Gaelic League women attempted to join many of the  cultural and literary

societies which had sprung up in the country.  They  were, on the grounds  of  their sex,   barred  from  these.   However,   as  a result of their persistence,  they were, while still being denied membership,  allowed to  attend  meetings   on  special occasions such as poetry  recitals.   This isolation proved unacceptable to this new generation of women activists amongst whom  was numbered Maud Gonne,  and they, in direct response to their exclusion from the  Celtic  Literary  Society  organised a  similar grouping for women. As with the Ladies Land League the women's  participation, spurred on by their freedom to organise without male constraints, overshadowed the efforts of the original male society.

 

By 1897  preparations  for the 1798  centennial celebrations were underway when politically  motivated women came  together to form an Irishwoman's  Centenary Union.  It  was  women,  who  had been active in this single issue group and who had  been excluded from the  main  nationalist organisations who  were  to  utilize Queen Victoria's visit   to Ireland in 1900 to assert their nationalism and  in doing  so helped propel  women in to the  political arena once more.  It was proposed that as a party for   5,000  had been planned  in  honour  of  the British  Queen,   that  nationalists should seize the opportunity by organizing an alternate event for nationalist children,  thus  demonstrating   that   the  national question was still as  relevant  as    ever.  In  June  1900, the committee organised to undertake this task successfully  held the counter event.  It involved 30,000   nationalist children. It was in the wake of this   event that  the  organisers  came  together to formally  conclude  their work.   However, disbandment was not something with which they were at ease  and it was   decided that there  was   need   of  a  permanent  women's    committee.   The children's party,   while it  was  organisationally  a repetition of the domestic role,   it was a decision  that  paved   the  way for Inghinidhe na h-Eireann.

 

This new  organisation,  Inghinidhe na h-Eireann, being dedicated to the objective of a United Ireland,  took on board strict rules of  membership.   The  seriousness  with  which   they  committed

themselves to  their work  can be  judged  by  the fact  that the Inghinidhe would not accept  women on  the basis that  they could drift  in  and out of  the organisation,  rather they  had  to be proposed and seconded by existing members and that they must give a  definite commitment to  the group.  The tactics employed,were, like the Ladies Land  League,  to be confrontational  as  opposed to passive protest meetings. Their campaign  initially focused on the recruitment drive for  the  British   Army,   in   that  they followed Recruiting Sergeants,  soldiers  and  their  girlfriends around  Dublin  distributing anti-recruitment leaflets.  It was a successful,   although   a   dangerous   protest,   which   often resulted   in  violent  confrontation with  the  soldiers.  Other aspects  of  their work  included  the  promotion  of  the  Irish language and various cultural  activities.  It was their  work in opening  up avenues  for this type of  activity that led   to the formation  of   the   National   Theatre.    An   indication   of Inghinidhe's developing  consciousness can be   seen  from  their relative failure to  repeat their success  in organising  another party  for  children,   this  time   in   protest  against   King

Edward's visit to  Ireland in  1903.   It was a  shadow  of their former protest,   however,   this  apparent  inability to  repeat the protest  successfully,   even on  a  smaller  scale,  was not through inactivity or  inability,  indeed Inghinidhe na h-Eireann were more active than ever.  It was simply a  reflection of their political maturity.  The  1900  protest had allowed   the  women, previously   excluded  from  political   activities,   to  assert themselves.  It was a milestone in their   development.  However, for them  to  channel all  their  energies  into  repeating their former protest,  at a time when they had developed  to  the point where they  now engaged in  direct   political  agitation,  would have been a regressive step and one which they chose not to take.

 

Inghinidhe na  h-Eireann,  in  order to express  and define their concept of Feminism and Nationalism was responsible for Ireland's first  women's  paper  Bean  na  h-Eireann,  which  had   obvious socialist  sympathies  and  were  pledged  to  achieving  women's freedom  in  a  nationalist  context.  However,  because  of this ideological position it often found itself  in  conflict with the suffrage  movement of the period.  Both groupings  being militant in their pursuance of  the same  ultimate  aim,  sexual equality, differed in  their approach  as to  how   emancipation  could  be achieved.  The  suffragist  approach was  to  prioritise  women's demands for  franchise within  their immediate  conditions,  that is,  under British rule  and they  argued  that  if agitation for their  demands was not carried out immediately,  then  they could not   assume   that   a      newly     established      sovereign

government   would,   automatically   and    without    pressure, introduce  progressive legislation such  as  equal  franchise and status for both  men and women.   Rejecting  that   true equality could  be achieved under  a   British   parliamentary  system  at any time,  but  particularly    while   nationalists  aspirations for self determination  were  being denied,   Inghinidhe believed that the vote  was not the key to  equality  but participation in the national struggle;  the greater the participation,  hence the better representation of women in what  they perceived  to be the primary struggle,  was they believed,  their guarantee that their voice would be heard and the countries  political development, in a post British withdrawal period, influenced accordingly.

 

Given  that Hanna Sheehy Skeffington,  at the  time co-founder of the Irishwoman's Franchise League stated (  here in  the words of Margaret Ward)  "..that  a person holding  nationalist views  was not automatically transformed into a new being,  freed  from  all the cultural prejudices that  had been  inculcated  from  birth", was Inghinidhe na h-Eireann's analysis that equality of the sexes would  come  automatically   through   Nationalism   a  realistic expectation? Especially  given the opposition  women faced  as  they  tried to become politically active ?

 

By 1910  Inghinidhe  na  h-Eireann had ceased  to  function as an organisation,  by relying on individual  acts as opposed  to mass action,  it did  exist,  in name only,  for a little longer.  Its raison d'etre  had been overtaken  by events in  the country, the suffrage campaign,  and  in  particular  on  the  issue  of equal franchise  for men and women,  had been  waged in  the absence of Inghinidhe.  While on  the nationalist side,  because  Inghinidhe viewed the national question as the primary  one,  it  had  close affiliation with nationalist organisations (which  often involved dual  membership)  this relationship finally  culminated with its complete absorption into them. Members of Inghinidhe na h-Eireann were   active  in  Sinn   Fein,    others    gravitated   towards Connolly's labour movement  and  the  Citizen   Army,  while  the mass of the organisation,   which in reality  was,  by this time, a small group,   became  in  1915,  a  branch of Cumann  na mBan. The experiences and actions of Inghinidhe,  while they once broke down some of the barriers excluding women from  the participation in struggle, was soon to become an almost forgotten memory.

 

In her book on the militarisation of women's lives, Cynthia Enloe suggests that "In the midst of revolutionary warfare there  are a variety of  formulas that can be  employed  by insurgent military leaders in order  to mobilise women in  the name  of basic social change while simultaneously maximising military  efficiency.  For instance  to  the  dual  roles  of  mother/wife  and agricultural producer,  can be  added that  of  military  participation.  Hard pressed liberation leaders can simply  make  women's new military role,  an extension of their existing  dual roles"  (10) She also poses the questions which are  both  timeless   and borderless in their  relevance.  She asks  "What  happens  to  a  liberation or guerrilla force after the  war,  if it manages to  topple the old state?  Does the revolutionary  `post   war'    era,   deal  with gender any differently  to   conventional   `post  war '  eras? ..Is the demobilisation  of  women  an  integral   part  of  post war transformation?   In  the  State  building,  State  defending process,  do women lose the status they enjoyed during the war of

liberation?"  (11)  It is questions such as these which should be to the fore of our of our minds as we examine  our struggle since the early years of this century.(12)

 

Cumman  na  mBan,  founded  in  1914,  was  to  differ  from  the previously  mentioned  organisations  in  that  its  constitution stated that its aim was "to assist in arming and equipping a body of Irishmen." Thus women were placed , by their own constitution, in an  auxiliary role  in the  national struggle.  In a very real sense  this  was this was  merely a repetition of  their domestic role.  They were trapped in the role of the `supportive  female'. Furthermore,   given  their   lack  of  autonomy   most  feminist organisations  viewed  the formation  of  Cumman  na  mBan  as  a retrogressive step.  Their belief being that women who  choose to limit  themselves,  as well  as accept male  imposed limitations, could not further their struggle to  be  treated  as  equals.  In Unmanageable Revolutionaries Margaret Ward  described the make-up and role of Cumman  na mBan  well  when  she   said   "Cumann  na mBan  members   were  generally    the   sisters,     wives   and girlfriends of the Volunteers  and whereas  inside the  home they washed,  cooked and  cleaned,   outside the home  they  now sewed haversacks,  learned first aid,   and raised money for their men. It   was   a   division   of    labour    that   duplicated   the differentiation  of  sex  roles   in   the  wider   society   and discouraged the  expression   of   any   alternative  views."(13) This was an  opinion strongly   rejected  by  the  membership  of `Cumann',  their contribution they believed was the equal of  the men's but in  a  different form.   Defending  their own  position in relation to feminism  and the nationalist  movement,   just as the Inghinidhe had done  before them,  they asserted that nothing must be allowed to  detract from  the national  struggle.  Of her personal  memories  of  the period,  one  time  executive  member Louise Gavin Duffy said that "There were  women on  the Cumann na mBan committee who were suffragist; others of different opinions, but  so  urgent,so important was the  work   of   the volunteers, that we could not afford  to  divide.   Everything  was put aside and we were ready to  do  what  we  were   told:  carry messages, give first aid,  make meals,   in short any work  ..we  knew that there would be a rising,    what  time,  where,  how?  ..we  left it  to  the leadership."(14)   As can be   seen  from  the  above statement,  Cumann  na  mBan  differed  in a major  way  from the Inghinidhe.  na h-Eireann was  avowedly  a  feminist organisation and  has  a  common   purpose  women's   emancipation   within  a nationalist  context,   Cumann na mBan was not.   In effect apart from the most  obvious  common  denominators   of   being   women and nationalists,  the membership of Cumann na mBan had no shared vision of  the future,  not  within  their  own  organisation and certainly  not with  the male  volunteers.  This lack  of a clear ideological  position manifested itself  in both male  and female organisations  and was responsible  for  the  lack  of direction, which was,  at times,  so apparent. They saw themselves as  being engaged in a military struggle,  the political  they  trusted  to the  good  faith of  a future  leadership.   However,   an honest assessment of  their actual  position  in  Irish society  of  the early 20th century,  would have revealed that  their optimism was not  well founded.  This position is clearly  illustrated through the events of Easter Week  and the opposition   that  women faced as they  tried to  contribute  to  the struggle   in  Dublin.  At leadership level,  and essentially because  of  the  influence of Connolly,  Hanna  Sheehy  Skeffington  was  designated  to   be a future member of the  provisional  government,   it would  appear that women's equality had been established and the women's  faith in the `nationalism  first'   strategy,  proved correct. However, this recognition of women's right  to equality was not  shared by the majority of the  nationalists,  even at leadership level, and women  had to  fight for the right  to  perform  their supportive tasks,  even as their male comrades fought the British.  Many  of these `comrades'  wanted women to be excluded totally   from  the battle and it  was only  when  Connolly,   Clarke and Pearse were made aware  of  the  women's  exclusion   from   Republican  held positions,  that they were allowed to   assist  in   any respect. Even  inspite of  this directive,there   were  difficulties,  for example De Valera refuse to allow women to  infringe  on  what he perceived to be the male arena.

 

In the wake  of  the Rising  much  work  had to  be  done, public ignorance   of  Republican's  motivation   was   widespread,  the executions of  the leadership  had been  carried out and  while a

small  proportion  of  women activists were  imprisoned, the vast majority of their male comrades were  interned. Republican forces were in disarray  and in  this situation the  task of  supporting the dependants,  as well as publicising the  struggle,  once more fell upon the women.  Later,  as the internees were released, the nationalist organisations began to   regroup    and   reorganise. It  was  through  this  reorganisation  and  in   particular  the republicanisation of  Sinn   Fein  that  women's    equality  was defined as a constitutional right.  In  1917-1918  Cumann na mBan amended its constitution to read that they  would strive   to arm and equip "the men  and women of Ireland".(15) Early 1918 saw the suffragists finally winning the right to vote (for women over the age of  30).  These would appear  to  have been major  changes in women's   position  in  Ireland.   Equality   had  been  formally established  within   the   constitutions   of   the  nationalist organisations and under British  electoral  law.  But  was formal equality actual equality?

 

By 1919  when the opportunity arose to demonstrate their strength electorally,  Sinn  Fein  had  become  the  voice  of nationalist Ireland.  73  of its members were elected and subsequently formed

Dail Eireann. However inspite of Cumann na mBan's insistence that Sinn Fein  should field a  number of women candidates,   only two were nominated,  one was elected.  In Dublin,   Cumann  na  mBan, along with the Irishwoman's Franchise League,  worked together to ensure the election of  Countess    Markievicz  to the Dail.  She subsequently  became  Minister  for  Labour  in  the   Sinn  Fein cabinet.  In the years  since  the Easter  Rising   the political changes which took place in the country were not confined  to the establishment of  nationalism as   the  primary  political force. This factor combined  with  the   factor  of   the   introduction of  the  franchise   for  women  (over   30)   placed   political expression  for women in   a new  context and  as  a   result  of this the suffragist  movement   was  to  become   a  less  potent force.  Politically motivated women began to identify  more  with the republican struggle.   "Cumann  na  mBan  capitalised  on the spent forces of the  franchise groups by acquiring  speakers like Hanna Sheehy   to speak on their platforms,  thus identifying the nationalist cause with  that of women.  (16)  However  as  can be seen from  the  events  of  the  Tan  War,  Treaty  debates,  the subsequent division  and the civil war,  the  actual  position of women  in  the republican  movement of the period,   had  changed very little.  Throughout the war against  Britain  in  1919,  the women  of  Cumann na mBan  fought the same  `supportive'   war as they  had  done  in  1916.   "Its   members  undertook  scouting, dispatch carrying,  intelligence work  and first  aid,   often in high risk zones.  Several had been wounded and a  number of women had served jail sentences as active members."(17)  With the Truce and the elections to  the Second   Dail,   women found that their representation in the Dail had increased to six.   Apart from the Countess, the remaining women were all  relatives of male leaders who had been  killed in the struggle.  This assembly  was, in the words  of  Sean  Cronin  "..composed  of  I.R.A.   volunteers and members of  Sinn  Fein,   lower middle  class for the  most part, with   a   sprinkling     of    farmers,     shopkeepers,    shop assistants,  teachers,   journalists  and  lawyers.   Apart  from Markievicz  there  were  no  socialists  among  them."(18)   Liam Mellows,  who Cronin  debatably  classifies   as   "..   a Fenian radical not a  socialist"(19)   was   "the   only   person  apart

from herself  (Countess  Markievicz)    who  spoke  in  the  Dail for `a government which looks  after the rights  of people before the rights of property."(20)

 

In  the  midst  of  the  debate  surrounding  the  acceptance  or rejection of the treaty,  a further debate was carried out within this essentially conservative body and that  was on  the question of equal franchise for men and women.  This involved the lowering of  the voting  age for women from  30  to  21  and  in  doing so politically active  women,  the majority  of whom fell  into this category, would have an opportunity to have  a say in  the future of the country.  It  was a  debate  which  parallelled  the  main treaty debate in every respect: pro treaty  forces  opposing  its introduction,  republicans  arguing for it.   However, given that all six women delegates to   Dail  Eireann plus the   majority of Cumann  na  mBan  were  unflinching  in  their  support  for  the republic.  Franchise and  the issue of   women's equality  became defined in terms of votes for   or against the  Free  State.  One year later, with the establishment of  the Free  State,  and when the   women's   vote   was    no    longer    crucial    to   its establishment,  equal  franchise  was  introduced.   This  action clearly  illustrates the  opportunistic  way  in   which  the pro treaty forces used women ;   but if the label  of opportunist can be attached to the  Free  State  forces  can   it  not   also  be applied  to  republicans?   In   the  Treaty   debates  the  more radical  and  progressive   elements   in   the  Dail,   such  as Markievicz  and  Mellows,   took  the  republican  position   but looking at   the  republican  movement   as   a  whole,   did the status of women change or did it merely  mirror the  values of  a

conservative society?   By the very   fact  that  women continued to play a supportive  role  during  the Civil War  and  were  not even consulted on the decision to `dump arms',would  suggest that this  was the case.  For  all  the  constitutional  and electoral changes  their  secondary  status  in  Irish  society  was  never altered.  Women were still  regarded "as little more  than useful reservoir of support."(21)

 

It is not possible,  or desirable in this article, to itemise the various  political activities  undertaken  by women  up until the present  phase of  the struggle,  rather we wish to  examine  the framework  with  in  which they worked.  In doing this it  is not sufficient  to  look  at  the  Republican  Movement  and  to make observations that  the status  of  women has  always  remained an subordinate  one.  We  must  examine both  the  male  and  female perceptions  of  what  our  struggle  is  and,  where  necessary, redefine  it.  But  how?  As we saw from  the Treaty  Debates,  a settlement was brought about in a 26 county context which met the needs  of  those who already had,  in  the words  of   Mellows "a stake in the country." Working class men,  and women  as  a  sex, were excluded.  In the years following the  establishment  of the Free State,  the remaining republican members of the Second  Dail divided again on the tactics to  be  used to achieve  a Republic; Fianna  Fail  was formed.   Given  that  many   of   these former members of the Republican  Movement  were  of    a   right   wing political persuasion  and as  De  Valera's  constitution of  1937 clearly  demonstrated   -    anti   women   ;   why   did   these socially, politically and economically oppressed people not  only give their allegiance to those who did not  represent their class interests  but  also  those  who  continued  to   belong  to  the Republican  Movement,   belonged  to  movement  which  lacked  an ideologically similar membership and whose ultimate  goal was not clearly defined? The answer to this question can be found in  the problems which surfaced in Cumann na  mBan of the 1930's  and was indicative of the whole Movement.

 

In 1933  Cumann na mBan's constitution was altered once  again to define its aims  in a more specific  manner,  that is, that their purpose would  be to "..organise and train the  women  of Ireland

to put into effect the  ideas and obligations contained   in  the Proclamation."(23)  It was  a significant change   for Cumann  na mBan for it  allowed the women to  "embark  upon  a  programme of political  education  based  upon  the  teachings   of  Connolly, instead of remaining trapped within  the sterility of  the Second DAil tradition,  with  its insistence  upon the  primacy of oaths and  allegiances,  which  offered  no  solution  to  the  peoples immediate situation."(24)  This decision created the condition in which a small group of right wing  republicans split  from Cumann na mBan to form Mna na Poblachta,   but allowed the main group to pursue  its objectives  unhindered.   However,  by this period in time,  the membership of Cumann na mBan  was in decline,  reduced to an organisation  of just several hundred  women.  Furthermore, it should be pointed out  that its leadership,  whilst being more radical than  it  had been  in  the past,  was  not  effective in transferring its radicalism to the  membership. Ideologically the country  areas were  isolated  from the  Dublin based leadership. Directives  from  the  top  were  only  words  and  an  education programme,   while  it  was   seen   as   essential,   was  never implemented.  Individuals  from  the  Cumann  na  mBan  executive attended  the 1933  Republican  Congress  but because  of  I.R.A. opposition to  this  body they later withdrew.  Ideologically the make up  of  Cumann  na mBan and the I.R.A.  were   similar,  and linked together in such a way that the fortunes  and influence of the  male  organisation  reflected   the   fate  of   the  women. Therefore,  as with  the I.R.A.,Cumann  na  mBan   also  drifted, directionless,  up  until  the  present  campaign.    Politically relevant  but   ineffective.   Having   briefly    outlined   the historical  background  to  women's involvement in  struggle,  we shall now turn our attention to our struggle today.

 

As we can see from the experiences of  politically  active women, equality is not something which has been afforded to  women -  as of  right -  rather it has been the object  of  struggle.  It has been fought for,  primarily by women and in many  respects it has not yet been achieved. Modifications in the structures of  power, in   the relationships  between  men  and  women  in  the social, economic  and  political  fields,  have  on  occasion   given the illusion  of  equality.  However,  an objective  study  of  these changes reveal them to  be mere reforms,    reluctantly  conceded and derived solely from  struggle.  Viewed relatively in terms of class  and gender,  it can be seen that  the status  of women has changed little.  As republicans we accept readily that oppressors will not give up their power until they are forced to  relinquish it; that a Socialist Republic  must  be  fought  for  and  as  we now realise  we  must   build  its  foundations    as  we  fight. Similarly gender based inequality must be fought against now, but if  women's oppressor,  consciously or unconsciously,  is man and the  Republican  movement  is  a  male   dominated  organisation, existing in  a patriarchal society,  how is  this  battle  to  be fought?  In her book Does Khaki Become You? Cynthia  Enloe  makes observations,  which are not only  relevant to ourselves   in the Republican Movement  today but  also   draws  attention   to  our failures in the past.  She suggests  that  in  order   to  ensure that "..revolutionary  militarisation  does  not  co-opt  women's labour and  symbolic  value  while  reinforcing   the patriarchal social order"(25)  a number of lessons must   be learnt."One such lesson might be that liberation  armies   are  not  automatically non   sexist   merely    because    they    are    non   statist, decentralised and reliant on women."(26)   With this  in  mind as we reflect on our present day struggle,   we find that it is only in  recent  years that  we have begun to  question  the roles and status  of  women in  our movement;   our struggle  and  in Irish society as a whole.   But how sincere are we in  doing  this  and what do our objectives  and actions today tell us of tomorrow? Do we as a movement have the structures   to  overcome the personal bias instilled in us by the ideology which we wish  to overthrow? What can be  said,  is that our  politics after a  long period of stagnation are now beginning to develop. But to what end?

 

In  the early 1970's  the gender divisions  within the Republican Movement had  been  long  established.  They  were  determined by tradition.  Women's energies  were  essentially  channelled  into Cumann na  mBan,  men's into Oglaigh na  h-Eireann and  both into Sinn  Fein.  However,  these energies had but one  purpose  - the maintenance of  the  Armed  Struggle.  It  was  our  inability to achieve victory through this  tactic  alone which forced   us  to apply ourselves to the task of Revolution  and in  doing so begin to develop a new strategy.  Thus our  present  struggle  could be described as having two distinct   phases.   The  first  was  the purely militaristic  approach  to the  national reunification and the second  being our present  phase  which  originated  with our realisation that  our concept of   struggle  was  too narrow  and inadequate to  bring   it   to   a  successful   conclusion.  The contradictions thrown  up  by  the former phase  has created  the latter  and political   development   instigated.    But   it  is only a  beginning;   how  do  we  ensure  that  this  development advances in  all areas but particularly   in relation  to  women? Samora Machel,    speaking  of   the   struggle   in   Mozambique once described  the  liberation  of  women   as   "a  fundamental necessity for the revolution, the guarantee of its continuity and the precondition for its victory"(28). He also posed the question "if more than half the exploited and oppressed  people consist of women,   how   can   they  be  left  on  the   fringe    of   the struggle?".(29) In Ireland 52% of the population  are  women  but what    is the fringe of our struggle? Is it, irrespective of how active individual women are,  the supportive role   to which they have been assigned by society?  Is it the  gender divisions which have determined  that  women,   who  bear  the brunt of  the time comsuming  family  responsibilities   and  which  curtail   their participation in struggle;   limiting them to the supportive role so that  men can mobilise   at  their   expense?   This  was  the historical position in  which women in  the Irish  struggle  have found  themselves.  How  much  revolutionary  potential  have  we allowed  to  be  wasted  and more   importantly,  what structural changes have   taken   place   in  our   movement  to   encourage a revolutionary development?  In  the past it has  been suggested that  creche  facilities  should  be  established  for  activists families  -  how  seriously did  we,  as  individuals   and  as a movement,  treat this proposal or seek out alternatives? A member of the A.N.C. Zanele Dhlamini once wrote "A more constructive way to deal with the feminist problems amongst  the   oppressed,   is to launch  a revolution  within  a revolution,   so that women in the..  struggle can participate as a massive, conscious and equal partner   in  solving   all   the  problems   that   affect   the re-education and consciousness raising  of  both  men   and women

towards   a transformation of social roles  affecting both public and private lives."(30)  Do we recognise this as a necessity, and if not - why not?

 

In  conclusion,  as the historical  and contemporary  evidence in this document shows,  our revolutionary potential is inextricably linked to the development of  structures,  organisational as well

as educational,  which can enable us to  overcome the historical, cultural  and  ideological  origins  of  oppression,  which still permeate throughout our Movement.  It is a struggle which must be undertaken now.  The  logic  of  this   argument  is  clearly and articulated in the following quote from Samora Machel.  It is one to which we  should  all    pay heed:"There are among  us..people who believe that  we must concentrate    all our  efforts to  the struggle against colonialism and the task  of women's liberation, in this  case is  purely  secondary,   since  it  is   a  useless and time consuming  task..(that)..we   must  await  independence, the construction of  an  economic,   social and  educational base before undertaking the battle.  (However)..  it  is  erroneous to believe  that  we  must  postpone  the liberation  of women until later,  for that would mean  that we allow reactionary  ideas  to gain ground and to combat us when they are strong."(31)

 

REFERENCES

 

 

(1)  Reconquest of Ireland by James Connolly. Chapter 6. Page 53.

 

 

(2)  Title of a book by Marxist feminist Shiela Rowbotham.

 

(3)  Reconquest of Ireland by James Connolly. Chapter 6. Page 51.

 

 

(4)  Origins of the Family by Fredrick Engels, quoted on page 31 of  Breaking the Chains (published by the C.P.I. Northern Area Women's Committee.                               

 

(5)    Reconquest of Ireland by James Connolly.  Chapter 6. Pages 49/50

 

(6)  Unmanageable Revolutionaries by Margaret Ward. Page 23.

 

(7)  Unmanageable Revolutionaries by Margaret Ward. Page 30.

 

(8)    Women in  Irish  History,  a  lecture  by  Margaret Ward , published under the title Terence Mac Swiney Memorial Lectures 1986.  Page 74. 

 

(9)  Unmanageable Revolutionaries by Margaret Ward. Page 71.

 

(10) Does Khaki Become You? - The Militarisation of Women's Lives by Cynthia Enloe.  Chapter 6  Women in Liberation Armies. Page 164.  Original Emphasis.

    

(11) Does Khaki Become You? - The Militarisation of Women's Lives by Cynthia Enloe.  Chapter 6  Women in Liberation Armies. Page 160. Original Emphasis.

    

(12) Unmanageable Revolutionaries by Margaret Ward. Page 93. Our Emphasis.

 

(13) Unmanageable Revolutionaries by Margaret Ward. Page 98.

 

(14) Women, The Vote and Revolution by Margaret Mac Curtain. Published in Women in Irish Society: The Historical dimension. Pages 52/53.

 

(15) Unmanageable Revolutionaries by Margaret Ward. Page 127. Our Emphasis.

 

(16) Women, The Vote and Revolution by Margaret Mac Curtain. Published in Women in Irish Society: The Historical dimension. Pages 54.

 

(17) Women, The Vote and Revolution by Margaret Mac Curtain. Published in Women in Irish Society: The Historical dimension. Pages 55.

 

(18) Irish Nationalism, its Roots and Ideology by  Sean Cronin Page 147.

 

(19) Irish Nationalism, its Roots and Ideology by  Sean Cronin Page 147.

 

(20) Prison Letters of Countess Markievicz introduction by Amanda Sebestyen. Page xxvii.

 

(21) Unmanageable Revolutionaries by Margaret Ward. Page 224.

 

(22) Frank Ryan - The Search for the Republic by Sean Cronin.

 

(23) Unmanageable Revolutionaries by Margaret Ward. Page 225.

 

(24) Unmanageable Revolutionaries by Margaret Ward. Page 225.

 

(25) Does Khaki Become You? - The Militarisation of Women's Lives

by

      Cynthia Enloe.  Chapter 6  Women in Liberation Armies. Page 168.

 

(26) Does Khaki Become You? - The Militarisation of Women's Lives by Cynthia Enloe.  Chapter 6  Women in Liberation Armies. Page 168.

 

(27) Does Khaki Become You? - The Militarisation of Women's Lives by Cynthia Enloe.  Chapter 6  Women in Liberation Armies. Page 169.

 

(28)  Revolutionary  Thought in  the 20th  Century  edited by Ben Turok. Chapter  14   Women's  Liberation  is   Essential  for the Revolution by Samora Machel.(March 1973). Page 157.

    

(29)  Revolutionary Thought in  the 20th  Century  edited  by Ben Turok. Chapter   14   Women's  Liberation  is  Essential  for the Revolution  by Samora Machel.(March 1973). Page 158.

    

(30)  Revolutionary  Thought in  the 20th  Century  edited by Ben Turok.  Women's Liberation article by Zanele Dhlamini.(1972)

 

(31) The African Liberation Reader - Volume 1 - The Anatomy of  Colonialism edited by Aquino De Braganca and Immanuel  Wallerstein. Chapter 8. Pages 130/131.

 

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