Republican, socialist, feminist:Connolly and the women's movement

In the second part of her series on the Irish women's movement in the revolutionary period, Sally Richardson looks at the key role played by James Connolly in linking suffragism and socialism

Sally Richardson

"WHEN TRIMMERS and compromisers disavow you, I, a poor slum-bred politician, raise my hat in thanksgiving that I lived to see this resurgence of women."

Thus James Connolly addressed English suffragettes in a message of support in 1913. It was remarkable that this slum child who left school at eleven grew to be a leading socialist writer, theorist and activist. That he also became, in the words of trade unionist Louie Bennett, "a thorough feminist in every respect", was perhaps even more remarkable.

It is necessary to remember that the late nineteenth and early twentieth-century labour and trade union movements both in Britain and in Ireland were bastions of male supremacy in which women made slow progress. The older craft unions were particularly backward, with protectionist policies that excluded women. The skilled working class promoted its own interests which included the 'family wage' that would enable a working man to support a family without the need for his wife to engage in paid employment.

The women's suffrage movement encountered much opposition amongst labour activists who were satisfied with the 1884 Reform Act, which had enfranchised most skilled male workers. The 'family vote' (exercised by the man) equated with the 'family wage' (earned by the man). Although most suffragists supported universal adult suffrage they recognized the need to establish the principle of women's right to vote by getting the vote for women on the same terms that men currently had it.

Suddenly they were confronted with a new-found enthusiasm amongst labour and trade union activists who objected to the possibility that middle and upper-class women might get the vote before many working men did.

Connolly was scathing: "The attitude of most socialists… is beneath contempt. All glory to the women, say I," he wrote in 1913. His unequivocal and wholehearted support for women's suffrage was much appreciated. He was a frequent speaker at Irish Women's Franchise League meetings, and travelled regularly to Dublin from Belfast to support them at a time when they were constantly harassed and subjected to organised and random acts of violence.

The trade union movement was also crucial. Many labour and trade union men resented women workers, who provided cheap labour for employers and undercut men's wages. This unhelpful attitude came under attack. A writer in a 1910 issue of the Irish women's political magazine Bean na hEireann criticised this stance: "While generally admitting the needs of the unorganized female worker, the male members of the wage earners look with suspicion on their sister slaves and are seemingly loath to offer any practical help."

Connolly, however, understood that this hostility to women workers damaged the entire working class. Women were a necessary part of the trade union movement; their militancy and revolutionary fervour invigorated it, and improvements in their working conditions and wages would benefit those of men as well.

As far as Connolly was concerned, women's right to play an equal part in the struggle for socialism and Irish self-determination and to share in its fruits was more than a simple matter of fairness and justice. As women's subjection was an integral part of both British rule in Ireland and capitalism, so their liberation would be crucial in freeing both Ireland and the working class. This position was developed throughout his work and writings, and its most mature and explicit analysis is in the chapter 'Woman' in The Re-conquest of Ireland.

Women, taught from birth to fulfil their duties without demanding their rights, had had a 'slave mentality' ingrained into them. The inculcation of this slave mentality had demoralized the Irish people and had played a vital part in maintaining British rule in Ireland. In addition, the capitalist system depended on women as a pool of cheap, unorganized and submissive labour, and the subjection of women was in its interest as well.

The subjection of half the population of Ireland - the women - had facilitated the subjection of the other half - the men.

Women's militancy threatened all this. In claiming their rights, and throwing off what Connolly called 'an almost damnable patience', they were undermining British domination of Ireland and the capitalist domination of the working class.

Here is the traditional dictum of the political right, 'no rights without responsibilities and duties', turned on its head. For Connolly, there could be no duty without "its necessary counterpoise, a high-minded assertion of rights".

Pay and conditions of work for women were especially bad, and the capitalist system took its toll on women's health and wellbeing even more than it did on men's, but the remedy was to be found in supporting women's rights in the workplace, not in taking them out of the workforce altogether. Connolly never subscribed to the traditional view that women should find fulfilment in the home only, recognising that women experienced drudgery in the home as well as on the factory floor.

In his study James Connolly and the Irish left, W K Anderson suggests that Connolly's feminism may have developed during his time in America, where he came into contact with women such as IWW activist Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, although he had shown support for women's suffrage as early as 1896 when he drafted the manifesto for the Irish Socialist Republican Party. The ISRP had no women members, although Eleanor Marx sent a message of support from England.

That the ISRP was an all-male affair was not surprising, although its rules did not prevent women from joining. As Fintan Lane has pointed out, "Irish socialism cannot, until the twentieth century, be seen as anything other than an entirely male enterprise", although many male activists were actually in favour of women's suffrage.

The socialist movement in Ireland encountered much hostility from the Catholic church, which was particularly concerned with socialism's association with atheism, and its imputed threat to traditional family values. Connolly admitted privately to a friend in 1908 that 'he had not the slightest tincture of faith left', although this was a stance he was unwilling to make public. He was anxious to make it clear that there was no real conflict between socialism and the teachings of the Catholic church.

His own expressed traditional views on marriage and the family must be examined in this light, although he believed strongly in monogamic marriage. English socialist William Morris and Connolly's fellow-Irishman Bernard Shaw could say publicly in England that marriage was legalised prostitution; Connolly did not feel free to say so in Ireland, and had no real inclination to. Happily married from the age of twenty, he took great pleasure in family life.

If the Connolly household appeared to endorse the traditional pattern, with Connolly earning a living while Lillie stayed at home with the children, Connolly was prepared to break down conventional gender roles inside the home as well as outside it. He no more thought it unmasculine for a man to look after children than he thought it unfeminine for a woman to learn to handle a gun. He was an active and involved father in a way that was unusual at that time. His daughter Nora has told of how he would frequently break off from his writing to discuss politics with his daughters or read them stories.

Elizabeth Gurley Flynn describes how, as a young and inexperienced mother, she did not know what to do with her fretful baby. Connolly, 'who was well experienced with babies', took charge and showed her what to do.

It is interesting to note that Connolly's fellow-Easter Proclamation signatory Thomas MacDonagh, also a supporter of women's rights, was one of the first men to be seen wheeling a pram through the streets of Dublin.

Lillie Connolly did not involve herself directly in political activity, but she reared a large family on very little money, endured poverty without complaint and never told her husband to 'get a proper job'. If she showed too much 'damnable patience', at least it was in a good cause. She should not be underestimated. Her daughter Nora oftem paid tribute to her courage, tenacity and resourcefulness.

Connolly was perfectly willing to learn from women activists and to acknowledge their influence on him. Imprisoned during the Dublin Lock-out of 1913, he eventually went on hunger-strike and was released after a week of it. It was a tactic he had borrowed from the suffragettes, as he readily owned. He set a precedent that would have great repercussions in the Irish republican struggle.

He was always ready to spot potential and give encouragement. He recruited Abbey Theatre actress and republican activist Helena Molony as general secretary of the Irish Women Workers' Union and taught her the ropes. She was one of many women colleagues who regarded James Connolly as a touchstone of integrity and sound values.

He certainly merited their esteem. He never patronised women; in his writings he included them and addressed them as a matter of course and in an unforced way that had nothing to do with 'political correctness.' He gave support to feminists when they were at their most beleaguered, brought their campaigns to the notice of his male colleagues, and integrated them into his political philosophy.

If Connolly was not absolutely unique at the time in his acceptance of women as equals and in his promotion of their rights, he was far ahead of his time in his analysis. He forged a coherent synthesis of socialism, feminism and Irish republicanism, and understood that the freedom of Ireland and of the working class could not be won without women's full contribution. That is something that men as well as women should be grateful for.

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This document was last modified by David Granville on 2006-05-25 16:58:49.
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Copyright © 2004 Sally Richardson