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Suffragette Unionists

Before the outbreak of the Great War it was believed by some political theorists that, in consequence of the “natural solidarity” that was supposed to exist between the industrial working classes of various countries, workers would not make war on other workers and that the capitalist desire for war would be thus frustrated. This was one of a number of illusions to dissolve in the heat of wartime national solidarity.

Around that time solidarity between British suffragettes and certain other militant groups, in particular the advocates of Irish independence, also became a casualty of patriotism. Up to a certain point, leading British suffragettes lent strong support to the cause of Irish independence. Christabel Pankhurst was quoted in the Freeman’s Journal on November 7th, 1917 by one Irish suffragette as having said at a meeting in Donegal the previous year:

You Irish are an oppressed people. We women are oppressed. Therefore we can understand and sympathise with you. You are struggling to be free. We are also struggling to be free; so our cause is the same. Let us make common war against the Government that oppresses us.

The Irish suffragette drew attention to this because a change in the position of leading British suffragettes had emerged in the previous week when Jessie Kenney wrote from Knightsbridge to the editor of the Freeman’s Journal  to inform his readers that the Women’s Social and Political Union had become The Women’s Party. Kenney enclosed the programme of the Women’s Party, which she said was “entirely patriotic”. The editor quoted elements of the programme which he felt were particularly relevant to Ireland:

The union between Ireland and the remainder of the British Isles to be maintained in view of the German peril and German designs upon Ireland as a German naval base, and in view of the full equality enjoyed by the Irish people as regards voting for and being elected as representatives in the British Imperial Parliament.

The programme was signed by Emmeline Pankhurst, Christabel Pankhurst, Annie Kenney and Flora Drummond. The editor of the Freeman, an anti-Sinn Féin and pro-IPP journal, commented that Irish suffragettes should now cease their attacks on the Irish Parliamentary Party and direct their critical attentions towards The Women’s Party.

Following a long period of militant suffragette activity women over thirty were finally granted the right to vote in Britain in 1918.

19/4/2016