Global Lives: Hanna Sheehy Skeffington
By Margaret Ward
Hanna Sheehy Skeffington ‘always looked out for the forward part of the women’s movement’ when visiting other countries. Her commitment to women’s equality, social justice and international solidarity never wavered in a lifetime of feminist activism spanning two world wars. During the years of the Irish revolution she insisted that women’s equality was as important as national freedom. Her subsequent disillusionment was based on a conviction that ‘there can be no true democracy where there is not complete economic and political freedom for the entire nation, both men and women.’ As a key figure in the suffrage movement she was pivotal in ensuring Irish women played their part in a global sisterhood as part of the International Woman Suffrage Alliance. Feminists read of international events in the Alliance journal Jus Suffragii, with the Irish Citizen reprinting articles of interest to Irish women.
During the Great War a global sisterhood of 1,136 delegates from 12 countries came together in a Women’s Peace Congress at the Hague in May 1915, to argue for mediation or conciliation rather than warfare as a means of resolving disputes. It was presided over by the American feminist Jane Addams. Seven delegates, including Hanna, were chosen to represent Ireland. Although the British government closed the North Sea to shipping, preventing the Irish and British delegates from reaching the Hague, the Irish women remained involved with the feminist peace movement, terming themselves the ‘League of Irish Women’, affiliated to the International Committee of Women for Permanent Peace which had been established in Amsterdam. When demands for inclusive peace negotiations began in 1918, they hoped that they would be recognised as a ‘National organisation’ with the same status within the League as other small nations. This, they argued, would enable Ireland ‘to make a contribution to the cause of permanent international peace by a clear and uncompromising advocacy of the principle of nationality.’
Despite the horror and disruption caused by the Easter Rising and the brutal murder of Francis Sheehy Skeffington, editor of the Irish Citizen, the Irish suffrage movement maintained its international links. Generous donations to the Irish Citizen Fund poured in from suffrage supporters around the world. Hanna returned to the editorship of the Citizen for its September 1916 edition. Her influence was apparent, particularly in an open letter to President Wilson, in which ‘the League of Irish Women affiliated with the International Committee of Women for Permanent Peace’ addressed an appeal to the President as ’head of the great American Republic…to use your good offices on behalf of our small Nationality…to have Ireland included as a small nation in any international conference which may be formed on the conclusion of the war…Of all the subject nationalities none has suffered longer or more keenly than Ireland has under England’s rule.’
During 1917-18 Hanna travelled to America in order to tell the world the truth of her husband’s murder and to campaign for support for Ireland to be included in future peace negotiations. A speaker at more than 250 meetings in 21 states, as a university graduate in French and German and a frequent traveller to Europe, her preference was a future in which European countries would be closely aligned – an alignment in which Ireland would play its full part:
At the end of the war we hope to see a ‘United Europe’ on the model of your own United States, where each state is free and independent, yet all are part of a great federation. We want Ireland to belong to this united Europe, and not to be a vassal of Great Britain, a province of the British Empire, governed without consent.
In her time in America she formed friendships with radicals like Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, organiser for the International Workers of the World, the anarchist Emma Goldmann and the radical feminists of the Heterodoxy Club of New York, as well as supporting causes such as that of Tom Mooney, a trade union activist of Irish background accused of having caused an explosion at an anti-labour 'Preparedness Parade' in July 1916. Her presence on platforms with controversial figures like Mother Jones, the Cork-born labour organiser, gave her opponents the opportunity to charge her with being anti-American as well as anti-British but she refused to sacrifice principle for political expediency, challenging all attempts to curb her activities. She never forgot the unjustly imprisoned Mooney, visiting him again in 1923 and 1934. He was not released until 1939. In January 1918 she succeeded in obtaining an interview with President Wilson; the only Irish exile to be granted such an honour, presenting him with a petition on behalf of Cumann na mBan, appealing for Ireland to be included among the small nations for whose freedom America was fighting.
American feminism gave considerable support to Ireland over the following years. Jane Addams became a member of the American Commission on Conditions in Ireland during 1920-21, hearing from witnesses regarding atrocities committed during the War of Independence, one of the few sources to provide evidence of crimes committed against women. Addams also presided over the Women’s International Peace Congress in Dublin in 1926, when feminists from over 40 countries heard of the bitter divisions caused by the Anglo-Irish Treaty.
On her return from America Hanna became a leading figure in Sinn Féin while continuing a feminist activism that retained deep friendships with British feminists, unaffected by the escalating hostilities between Britain and Ireland. Refused a passport for the 1919 Women’s Congress in Zurich, she travelled to Women’s Congresses in Paris and Prague in the 1920s, making common cause with anti-imperialist feminists like Hoda Shaarawi of Egypt. As a result of her European travels she saw at first hand the impact of fascism on women’s lives – warning of the ‘virus of an anti—woman complex’ poisoning the body politic. In 1934 she wrote of the evidence of fascist power in Germany and Italy where, by 1936, members of the Women’s International League were being persecuted with the organisation forced to work underground. That year she was an Irish delegate to an International Peace Congress in Brussels.
In August 1939 Hanna was in a Paris ‘full of soldiers and uniforms’, hating the prospect of war, ‘I don’t see any reason to quit just yet’, but she had to leave. It was her last visit to Europe. In her final years she stood unsuccessfully for the Dáil on a Worker’s Republic platform, reminding the electorate of the promises to women that had been made in the 1916 Proclamation, which were now no more than ‘empty formulae’. When war ended she observed with interest the advances made by women in the British Labour Party, retaining her hope for a future in which the ‘nation’s woman-power be mobilised to full strength’.
Dr Margaret Ward is Honorary Senior Lecturer in History at Queen’s University, Belfast. Her latest book is Hanna Sheehy Skeffington: suffragette and Sinn Feiner, her memoirs and political writings, UCD Press, 2017. Her updated biography Fearless Woman: Hanna Sheehy Skeffington, Feminism and the Irish Revolution is forthcoming UCD Press, 2019.