Ireland has always had more than its fair share of feisty women. By 1908 there were already numerous Suffragist groups in Ireland, full of women who wanted equality, the ability to vote, and more freedoms. Many of these groups focused on petitions, publicity, and spreading their message through polite channels and discourse, and they attracted many prominent socialites who used their influence to further the cause. This was not good enough for Hanna Sheehy Skeffington, her husband Francis, and their radical friends. 108 years ago today, they founded the Irish Women’s Franchise League, a group dedicated to equal rights that used agitation and action to spread their message.
Their group was a bit of a departure from the Sheehy Skeffingtons’ life-long dedication to pacifism. The Irish Women’s Franchise League was more proactive and aggressive than many other groups at the time. Their statements and articles were more harsh and demanding, and their actions were more controversial. Hanna lost her job as a teacher after she was arrested for breaking windows of a government building while leading an IWFL campaign. She and many other members spent months in prison. They went on hunger strikes and continued to agitate both inside and outside the prison system. Many of the female members of the IWFL were also involved in the Labour movement. They went on to participate in the Dublin Lockout, and were later active in women’s Nationalist organizations like Inghinidhe na hEireann and Cumann Na mBan. Others joined James Connolly’s Irish Citizen Army and many of the men poured into the Irish Volunteers. These more violent and militant Nationalist groups slowly overshadowed the Suffragist movement, and placed equality second in their quest for freedom.
Hanna and Francis Sheehy Skeffington did not follow this path. They refused to be sidelined by Nationalism and remained singularly devoted to equality even though they were sympathetic to the Nationalist goals of an independent Ireland. Fighting for equal rights and justice through acts of vandalism and protest was far different than violence against other people, and both were unwilling to cross that line. This made Francis’ tragic murder during the Easter Rising all the more ironic. He had only been trying to stop the looting that had begun in Dublin when he was arrested and executed.
Hanna continued to fight for women’s rights and equality for the rest of her life through the IWFL and other political groups. She did not support the Anglo-Irish treaty which partitioned the island and she battled both the English and the Irish governments to reach her ultimate goal of equal status. Women were able to vote in Ireland with limitations in 1918, and without restrictions by 1922 but are still fighting for true equality to this day. This long struggle for female identity, equality, and sovereignty is not confined to Ireland either, but is continuing all over the world, even now.