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23 April 2016

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Women’s role made 1916 Rising truly revolutionary

THE 1916 RISING is of huge significance for Irish women. The Proclamation of the Republic read out on Easter Monday 1916 is remarkable for its radicalism, inclusiveness and endorsement of equality for women. The participation of women was an integral part of what made the Rising truly revolutionary.

With the exception of Constance Markievicz, the role of women in the 1916 Rising was largely forgotten for many years. This was a deliberate action by a reactionary Free State which stood in opposition to everything espoused in the Proclamation, including in particular its commitment to equality.

Around 220 women took part in the Rising, acting as couriers, dispatch carriers, snipers as well as providing medical care to the wounded.

Women participated in the Irish Citizen Army on equal grounds as men and Constance Markievicz, Helena Molony, Madeleine ffrench-Mullen and Dr Kathleen Lynn were prominent in it during Easter Week. Markievicz, who was second-in-command at the St Stephen’s Green/College of Surgeons garrison, was sentenced to death for her role in the Rising. Her sentence was commuted to penal servitude for life “on account of her sex”.

Among the last people to leave the GPO were Cumann na mBan members Winnie Carney, Julia Grenan and Elizabeth O’Farrell. Julia Grenan was a dispatch carrier during Easter week and brought information from the GPO to garrisons around the city.

Carney, Grennan, O'Farrell

● Winnie Carney, Julia Grenan and Elizabeth O’Farrell

The 1916 Rising represented a culmination of the dynamism created by the coming together of the struggles for national independence, women’s equality and labour, and the cultural revival movement. These movements were intrinsically intertwined in a manner which we should be striving to emulate today.

In 1921, Markievicz recalled her first political activism as member of the Sligo Women’s Suffrage Society, saying:

“It was one of the first things I worked for since I was a young girl. That was my first bite, you may say, at the apple of freedom and soon I got to the other freedoms – freedom to the nation, freedom to the workers. The question of votes for women, with the bigger thing, freedom for women and the opening of the professions to women, has been one of the things that I have worked for.”

Ireland had a vibrant women’s equality movement at the beginning of the 20th century. It was a militant movement where activists were involved in direct actions, suffered imprisonment and in some cases went on hunger strike. 

Many of those involved in the struggle for women’s equality regarded militant feminism in Ireland as part of the historical tradition of resistance where the vote was only one stage in a feminist revolution aimed at bringing to an end the social and economic subordination of Irish women, something which would reach new heights following the establishment of the Free State.

Many of those active in the Irish Citizen Army and Cumann na mBan were also active in the women’s movement and in socialist organisations. For instance, Winifred Carney (a member of Cumann na mBan and the Citizen Army who took part in the Easter Rising) was involved in the suffrage movement, was a trade union activist and a member of the Gaelic League. Margaret Skinnider, who was born in Ireland and grew up in Scotland, was deeply involved in the women’s suffrage movement in Glasgow and was a member of Cumann na mBan. Skinnider, who was reputedly an excellent shot, came over to Dublin to participate in the Rising and worked as a courier in the course of preparations for the Rising.

In addition to acting as a courier she joined the snipers on the roof of the College of Surgeons during the fighting and was seriously wounded when going out to burn some houses on Harcourt Street to cut off the retreat of British soldiers who had planted a machine gun on the roof of the University Church. Speaking of the incident in which Skinnider was shot, Nora Connolly said:

“When they were going out to attack the nest of snipers, she was in charge of the squad. William Partridge, a very famous man in the working-class movement, was there and he and other members of the squad accepted that she was in charge.”

Women in the Citizen Army had equal rights and duties as their male comrades. James Connolly, Commandant of the Citizen Army, was a champion of equal rights for women. Many women who joined the Irish Citizen Army had been active in the Irish Women Workers' Union, the entire membership of which had come out on strike during the 1913 Lockout.

Nora Connolly

Nora Connolly

By their involvement in the Citizen Army and Cumann na mBan, women were not only rebelling against British rule, they were rebelling against the accepted norms of women’s place in society. By attending meetings, going on training exercises and by their involvement in the events of Easter week they were breaking the confines of what was generally considered acceptable for women at that time.

Perhaps to some, the struggle for women’s rights does not seem as pertinent today as it did in the early 20th century when the women who were to take part in the Easter Rising became politically active. But winning the vote should not be mistaken for the achievement of equality. A myth is peddled that equality for women has largely been won. This is akin to telling us that national independence has been won. Even if many of the reactionary anti-woman policies pursued in the decades following partition have now been overturned, equality for women remains unachieved.

Women continue to experience higher levels of poverty, have significantly inferior pension coverage, continue to carry the burden of unpaid caring work, continue to earn less than their male colleagues. Domestic abuse and sexual violence against women persists. Women trafficked into Ireland for sexual exploitation are trapped in slavery.

Now, more than ever, the fight for women’s equality must remain a distinct and integral part of the struggle for political and social change, a distinct part of republicanism. The part played in the Rising by strong, independent, ideologically-driven women should serve as positive role models for young women today. 

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