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)
(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
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.