History’s rebel girls – Hanna Sheehy Skeffington

Irish suffragette Hanna Sheehy Skeffington (1877-1946) was at the forefront of the fight for women’s rights as equal citizens of Ireland. As a republican, Sheehy Skeffington also fought for an independent Ireland, but always related this struggle to how it would impact on women.

Hanna Sheehy Skeffington in 1916 (source wikimedia.org)
Hanna Sheehy Skeffington in 1916 (source wikimedia.org)

In 1909 she was quoted saying ‘Until the women of Ireland are free, the men will not achieve emancipation.‘ Historian and biographer of Sheehy Skeffington, Margaret Ward, stated that Hanna Sheehy Skeffington ‘challenged both the imperial connection with Britain and the patriarchal domination of women in Ireland with great courage and consistency.’

Women’s fight for gaining equal rights, which at the beginning of the twentieth century focussed on gaining the vote, was not merely a figurative fight. It often resulted in the public demonisation of suffragettes, loss of employment, imprisonment and sometimes even loss of life. British suffragette Emily Wilding Davison threw herself in front of King George V’s horse at the Epsom Derby on 4 June 1913. It is believed, this was done in an attempt to draw attention to the fight for women to receive the vote. Davison subsequently died from her injuries.

Like many other suffragettes, Hanna Sheehy Skeffington was imprisoned many times for her activism. Today it is difficult to believe, what forceful opposition women encountered who demanded to enjoy the same rights as men.

Sheehy Skeffington came from a privileged household and belonged to a new generation of Irish women who were able to graduate from university. After studying French and German, she worked as a teacher. Thanks to her father David Sheehy, a member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, who had been imprisoned several times in his life for revolutionary activities, Hanna was introduced to political activism from a young age. In 1902 she helped to found the Women Graduates’ and Candidate Graduates’ Association, which aimed to promote the advancement of women in university education.

Francis Sheehy Skeffington (source wikimedia.org)
Francis Sheehy Skeffington (source wikimedia.org)

In 1903 she married Francis Skeffington, a fellow suffragist, pacifist and writer. In a move that was very unusual for the time, they took each other’s surnames to highlight the equality of their relationship. The couple had one son, Owen, born in 1909. Joining forces in the fight for women to receive the vote, the Sheehy Skeffingtons, together with Margaret and James Cousins, founded the Irish Women’s Franchise League in 1908. In addition, Hanna was a founding member of the Irish Women’s Workers Union (1911). She also contributed to Ireland’s first feminist newspaper, The Irish Citizen, the official organ of the Irish Women’s Franchise League.

The first militant activity by Irish suffragettes ocurred in June 1912, when the Irish parliamentary party failed to support women’s suffrage. In protest against the exclusion of women from the franchise of the Third Home Rule Bill, Sheehy Skeffington and other women gathered outside Dublin Castle throwing rocks at its windows. The women, including Hanna, involved in the militant protest were arrested and imprisoned for a month.

Sheehy Skeffington was imprisoned again in 1913 for protesting against Edward Carson. During her trial, she was accused of assaulting a police officer during the protest. The sergeant claimed that he was still able to feel the pain hours after the alleged assault. A claim that caused laughter in the court room, since the policeman was of much bigger statue than Sheehy Skeffington.

While in prison, the women would use hunger strikes as a means to protest against the treatment of suffragettes by the Irish authorities. In turn, the authorities responded with force-feeding the hunger strikers, a procedure that was described by the women who had to endure it as a degrading violation of their bodies. In addition to the hardship of imprisonment, Hanna also lost her teaching post due to her political activism.

suffragettes
British suffragettes Annie Kenney & Christabel Pankhurst in c. 1908 (source Wikipedia)

In 1916 Sheehy Skeffington had to endure a great personal tragedy when her husband Francis was executed without trial on 26 April for his involvement in the Easter Rising. Although a supporter of Home Rule, Francis was a pacifist and concerned by the growing militarism of the movement. During the Rising he attempted to organise anti-looting bands to limit the destruction of local businesses in Dublin. With no clear reason given for his arrest and without receiving a trial, Francis, wearing his Votes for Women badge, was murdered by firing squad.

After Francis’ death, Hanna worked on making public the facts surrounding the arrest and killing of her husband. She went on a speaking tour in the United States from October 1916 to August 1918. One of her speeches from that tour, British militarism as I have known it, was published as a pamphlet in 1917. Since Sheehy Skeffington was forbidden by the British authorities to return to Ireland, she was arrested again after her US speaking tour came to an end. Her release was granted after she went on hunger strike.

In the 1920s and 1930s, Sheehy Skeffington continued to be politically active as an organising secretary of Sinn Féin and member of numerous committees and organisations, such as the Irish White Cross, the Women Prisoners’ Defence League and the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. She supported herself and her son by working as a journalist, as well as giving public talks and lectures.

Statue of Hanna Sheehy Skeffington in Kanturk, Co. Cork, where she was born. (source wikimedia.org)
Statue of Hanna Sheehy Skeffington in Kanturk, Co. Cork, where she was born. (source wikimedia.org)

In the 1943 general election Sheehy Skeffington stood unsuccessfully as an independent candidate in support of the Women’s Social and Progressive League, which she hoped would emerge as a women’s party. She died on 20 April 1946 and was buried beside Francis in Glasnevin cemetery in Dublin.

Thanks to the tireless and brave campaigning of women like Hanna Sheehy Skeffington, Irish women were granted the vote in 1922. Make sure you use that hard earned privilege this Friday!