The revolutionary women’s movement, Cumann na mBan, was set up 100 years ago this week. It maintained the struggle for independence following the Easter Rising and in 1921 became the first organisation to reject the treaty which partitioned Ireland. Sally Richardson looks at their stand for equality and unity.
The Easter Rising lit the touch paper of revolution, but in the immediate aftermath it was left to women to prevent it from fizzling out. Of the seventy-seven women arrested after the rising, all but six (all Citizen Army) were released almost at once. While the men were forced to pursue their further education at the University of Revolution, Frongoch internment camp, the women were left to reorganize and regroup.
If the Volunteers’ dependents’ fund provided a conventionally charitable outlet for their activities, women also maintained the revolutionary momentum with vigorous and imaginative propaganda campaigns. These took several women to the United States, including Hanna Sheehy Skeffington who got access to president Wilson to present him with a Cumann na mBan petition.
The Conference of Women Delegates, set up in April 1917 by women including Kathleen Clarke, Aine Ceannt, Kathleen Lynn and Helena Molony, demanded adequate representation of women on Sinn Fein’s Executive not just in the light of the Easter proclamation’s commitment to equality and the women’s efforts during the Rising but also on account of ‘the necessity of having their organized cooperation in the further struggle to free Ireland and the advantage of having their ideas on many social problems likely to arise in the near future.’
In other words, women’s inclusion was not only their right; their contribution was of particular value, too. A Convention of Women Delegates resolution affirming women’s equality within Sinn Fein was passed at the Sinn Fein convention in 1917.
The General Election of 1918, in which Constance Markievicz was elected, did not appear to be much of a triumph at the time. One seat in the Dail seemed a pitiful harvest. Many women had assumed that their hard work and commitment would automatically lead to nominations for winnable constituencies. Markievicz’s nomination for the Dublin constituency of St Patrick’s was followed only by that of Winifred Carney for a largely unionist Belfast constituency which she had no chance of winning. Hanna Sheehy Skeffington refused the equally unwinnable constituency of North Antrim. Kathleen Clarke, then in Holloway Prison with Markievicz, found her hopes of standing dashed by the machinations of Richard Mulcahy.
Sinn Fein were mindful of the impact that newly-enfranchised women could have on the election and were prepared to use this in their publicity (‘You can save Ireland by voting as Mrs Pearse will vote’). The resulting landslide owed much to women’s efforts, although there was anger at the lack of resources given to Markievicz’s campaign.
Cumann na mBan’s separate status gave it autonomy and gave the women the chance of leadership. If it had been absorbed into the Volunteers it is likely women would still have been confined to their traditional roles and would have had no voice of their own. If, like the Irish Citizen Army, the Volunteers had been established with the principle of gender equality at the outset, perhaps more progress would have been made. However, Cumann na mBan had grown in confidence; they aspired to be more than just ‘animated collecting boxes’ and sought to ‘participate in the public life of their locality and assert their rights as citizens.’
Looking through the records of this amazing period, one cannot help but be struck by the modernity of these women. For all their studied antiquarianism and the plundering of Ireland’s distant past for inspiration, these women were very much of their own time. Many were highly educated (three out of the six women in the Second Dail were graduates). They earned their own living (and demanded equal pay); they were independent minded, bold and confrontational; they were prepared to defy convention and break rules. It was to warlike heroines such as Granuaile and Maeve rather than more conventionally ‘feminine’ women like Emer that they looked for role models.
According to IRA commandant Michael Brennan, the flying columns would have collapsed without Cumann na mBan. “In despatch carrying, scouting and intelligence work, all of which are highly dangerous, they did far more than the soldiers . . . the more dangerous the work the more willing they were to do it.”
They were anxious to prove their worth and determined to show that they could share the dangers and responsibilties of war. If women accepted traditional ‘women’s work’ and did it willingly and without complaint, it was not because they ‘knew their place’ but because they were prepared to do anything that needed to be done. If they weren’t given the chance to fight, then they could still cook, launder, nurse and carry despatches.
IRA memoirs are dominated by men’s activities, but women get some positive mention. Tom Barry, while relegating Cumann na mBan to the “sole purpose of helping the Irish Republican Army”, acknowledged that they were “indispensible to the Army” and paid tribute to their work. If women were given the drudgery of the armed struggle, at least they were not taken for granted. It is worth mentioning that Barry’s wife, Leslie Price, served in the GPO during Easter week while he was in Mesopotamia with the British Army.
Women also set up a network and framework of safety and security for the IRA to operate in. Housewives provided safe houses and went short themselves to feed the Volunteers. Cork IRA man Connie Neenan’s mother (a “fighting type”) and aunt were two of many who transported and hid IRA weapons. Volunteers’ mothers gave much support, often in the absence of or without the knowledge of their husbands. The ‘separate spheres’ culture that then still largely obtained meant that while fathers usually involved themselves little in family life, mothers were often close to their children and shared their subordinate position. Perhaps this fostered the rebelliousness which they taught their children -- instead of the ‘slave mentality’ that Connolly so despised, these women were transmitting rebellion down the generations.
Women’s hardline stance, evident before the Easter rising, continued after it. Cumann na mBan members opposed the Treaty by a huge majority. Women certainly stood to lose by a compromise settlement; it was clear that their rights would only be guaranteed by a Republican victory. The General Election of 1921 saw the election of six women to the Second Dail. It is perhaps significant that strongly Republican Cork and Limerick selected and returned women candidates (Mary MacSwiney and Kate O’Callaghan). Republican strongholds -- especially in urban areas -- had a more progressive attitude towards women.
These women all voted against the Treaty. It was remarked on (then and ever since) that four had lost brothers, husbands and sons in the Easter Rising and the Tan War; but the assumption that they were little more than the mouthpieces for dead men was patently unfair. As Kate O’Callaghan explained, she had been a separatist since girlhood. Mary MacSwiney and Kathleen Clarke were also committed republicans of many years’ standing.
The vote against the Treaty was lost in the Dail, but the women scored an important victory in securing the franchise for all women over twenty-one. The vote had been granted in 1918 only to women aged thirty or over. Thus Irish women were fully franchised from 1921 onwards; Thus Irish women were fully franchised from 1921 onwards; women in Britain had to wait until 1928 before they got the vote on equal terms with men.
The occupation of the Four Courts by the anti-Treaty IRA -- “Easter week in reverse” as Desmond Greaves called it -- echoed Easter week in more ways than one. Women like Maire Comerford carried despatches under fire and Linda Kearns risked her life tending the wounded. Though wishing to share the discomfort and dangers equally with the men, the women were disconcertingly treated with a rather touching chivalry and shielded as much as possible from danger. On surrender, Comerford tore off the Red Cross band placed on her arm by a priest.
Louie Bennett and Rosamond Jacob were among a number of republican women who joined the campaign set up by feminists to oppose the First World War that was to become the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (the ‘Peacettes’ as the Daily Express derisively called them). Irish women, at least, unlike feminist peace campaigners in Britain, were able to oppose the war and conscription without accusations of being unpatriotic. As the women at Greenham Common would find out, objections to men’s right to kill one other without good cause brings down opprobrium onto feminist heads.
If women tended to fill gaps left by men’s absence, or to do the work men would not do, Ireland’s fight for freedom gave Irish feminists an arena to continue to operate in which prevented the feminist movement from fizzling out once the vote had been won. Often engaged on several fronts at once, women played a vital role in bringing together the different strands of the revolutionary movement: the military, political, feminist and socialist causes were thus integrated.
Much had been achieved. The most progressive republican men had on the whole been ready to treat women as comrades and to accept them as equals. The conservatives who took power in the Free State did their best to exclude women from public life and power. It was a cold climate for a lot of men as well. But precedents had been set. Women’s voices had made themselves heard. They still speak to us today.