National Sections of the L5I:

Chapter 6: James Connolly and women’s liberation

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While no discussion of the struggle for women’s emancipation in Ireland seems complete without quoting Connolly’s work, rarely has any attempt been made to evaluate his contribution and thought on the question as a whole. Attempts have been made to mould his image after Lenin, as by Reeve & Reeve in Connolly in the United States, or to enlist his support in differentiating between socialists and feminists. But as with religion, there are profound weaknesses in his analysis which have enabled contradictory conclusions to be drawn. That Connolly, the supporter of women’s rights, was also opposed to divorce is only the most obvious example.

His early years of socialist activity in the 1890s coincided with the period in which the Marxist theoretical understanding of women’s oppression began to be translated into practice. Its foundations had been elaborated in Engels’ Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (1884), Bebel’s Woman Under Socialism and other writings. By the time Connolly was active on the Scottish left the practical, organisational and political development of socialist work among women had begun. The centre of activity was Germany, where Clara Zetkin had founded the paper Die Gleicheit (Equality). In Austria the work had begun with the publication of Arbeiterinnenseitung (Working Women’s Journal) under the editorship of Louise Kautsky with contributions in 1892 from Eleanor Marx and Laura Lafargue (Marx’s daughters, both).

This essentially continental development only emerged with the maturing of the socialist movement and the defeat of backward traditions, most significantly in Germany. The working class tradition of Lassalle’s followers during the 1860s and 1870s was heavily male-dominated and opposed both the entry of women into capitalist production and also women’s suffrage rights. Marx and Engels had fought such trends in the years of the First International (1864-72) and and subsequently in relationw with the growing mass organisation in Germany in the 1870s, e.g. in the Critique of the Gotha Programme. The classic publications of Engels and Bebel have to be seen against this background. The recognition that women were entering the world of wage slavery—and were there to stay—did not come about automatically. This was often masked by concern over the appalling conditions under which women (and children) were sucked into industrial production in the interests of capital accumulation.

Eleanor Marx, in creatively applying the ideas of Marx, Engels and Bebel during the 1890s, had to reckon with the tendency towards conservatism of the trade unions which expressed itself in the exclusion and ghettoising of women workers into separate unions. This tendency, which persisted in the formation of the New Unions of unskilled workers, echoed the previous male craft exclusiveness of the older unions. She expressed this in one of her contributions to the Austrian Working Women’s Journal:

The new Union of women cigarmakers, which I mentioned in my last letter, was founded about three years ago. Its members do not belong to the men’s union, although the two unions work together. To the outsider it seems deplorable that the two unions do not merge, albeit working together. The reason adduced by the men against amalgamation is that the women almost always view their work as a temporary thing and regard marriage as their real trade, one that frees them from the need to earn their own living. Of course, in the vast majority of cases marriage does not reduce the woman’s work but doubles it, since she not only works for wages but also has to do hard unpaid ‘household’ labour into the unholy bargain. In spite of all this, the women unfortunately do look on their work as temporary all too often, and defend this attitude of the men, who regard their wage-labour as ‘lifelong’ and are therefore much more eager to improve the conditions they work under. (May 1892).

It was in a period of struggle to organise the mass of the working class in Britain and in Europe generally, that the fight for equality at work, equal pay for women, was taken up by Eleanor.

Politically, the development of a socialist programme for women was centred in German-speaking countries. So developed was the German Socialist Women’s movement that the Erfurt Congress of 1891 passed the following resolution on the franchise, calling for:

Universal equal and direct suffrage, with secret ballot, for all citizens of the Reich over 20 years of age without distinction of sex. (Thonessen, The Emancipation of Women; the rise and decline of the women’s movement in German Social Democracy 1863-1933, Pluto Press, London, 1973, p.XXX).

The position was far in advance of what the English Suffragists were demanding up to the first world war as they did not agitate against the property qualification. Moreover, the foundation of Die Gleicheit in 1891 was just the beginning. By the time of the 1913 lockout in Dublin, it was selling 112,000 copies in Germany and its role in recruiting and organising proletarian women was inestimable. It is notable also that during that war, in spite of the capitulation of the majority of the German Social Democratic Party to the imperialist war effort, Die Gleicheit and Zetkin were on the left of the party, proletarian anti-militarists. This, again, contrasts with the disintegration of the bourgeois suffragettes in Britain and Ireland in the face of the same events.

We refer to these developments in order to situate our evaluation of Connolly in its proper context. While this remarkable movement was on the rise in Germany and Austria, he was variously in Scotland (1889-96), Ireland (1896-1903) and America (1903-10) before returning finally to Ireland. He would have been largely cut off from what was going on in Germany and Austria. His eventual confrontation with Bebel’s book, Woman Under Socialism, would take place only in 1904 when the American Marxist Daniel DeLeon translated it into English and published it in the SLP paper for the first time - although it had seen many editions over the previous 20 years. By that time the book had become a staple Marxist text and part of the traditions of continental Marxist women.

Connolly like the Social Democratic Federation in general in Britain, was very much outside that whole tradition. But when we consider the views of SDF leaders Hyndman and Bax on the question of women’s emancipation it is clear that his healthy impulses enabled him to rise above his peers. In a letter to one of his acquaintances in 1904 Hyndman wrote that women who advocated their own emancipation as a “sex question” ought to be sent to an island by themselves. Bax’s views were even more woeful. He was against extending the franchise to women and belonged to the “Anti-Suffrage league”. This chauvinist club apparently discoursed on the “inferiority” of women and her “sex-privileges”. He continued his reactionary views as late as 1909. (See Tsuzuki, Hyndman and British Socialism, Oxford, 1961, p.191).

The SDF, under pressure of events, had to make some accommodation to the struggle for women’s suffrage and the trade unionisation of unskilled women workers. An important figure in turning its attention towards the socialist women’s tradition was Dora Montefiori. In the beginning of the 1900s she worked along with the Pankhursts’ Women’s Social & Political Union (WSPU), but soon developed criticisms of it on class lines under the influence of the continental movement. The WSPU confined its demands strictly to the extension of the franchise to women within the existing property qualification. Montefiori, to her credit, irritated Hyndman greatly. He said she was worse than the ‘imps’—the ‘impossibilists’ who had broken from the SDF in 1903 to form the Socialist Labour Party on the principle that it was impossible to get to socialism via parliament. After being in the thick of agitation in 1905-7 alongside the WSPU, she attended the first International Socialist Women’s Conference, held in Stuttgart in 1907 as a delegate of the Adult Suffrage Society. It was against any property qualification on votes for women. This brought Montefiori into direct contact with the continental movement. Under this influence, in 1909, she published a pamphlet, The Position of Women in the Socialist Movement.

Montefiori is known in Irish socialist tradition for her role in the 1913 lockout when her effort to offer British accommodation to children of locked-out workers was sabotaged by Irish clerical backwoodsmen. Her role as a propagandist has, perhaps, been unfairly overshadowed by this. The following quotation from her 1909 pamphlet very definitely anticipates the words Connolly was to use in The Re-conquest of Ireland in the period 1912-14 and which are almost ritually quoted by Irish socialists:

The working woman is more sweated, more despised, more downtrodden in the last resort than is the working man, because, though under capitalism, the working man is the wage slave, yet his wife is the slave of the slave”. (Tsuzuki,, p.191).

Connolly possibly read the pamphlet some time after his return to Ireland in 1910. At any rate it seems fair to suggest that his contact with the theory and practice of the European Marxist women’s movement was very tenuous and late. In none of the countries in which he was active did he come into living contact with this movement. Its developed political culture, tactics on union organisation, on relations with bourgeois and petit bourgeois feminist movements, on sexuality, marriage, divorce and democratic rights etc., largely passed him by. Before going on to examine the often unhappy nature of such contact as he did have with that tradition, it is worth stressing that this rich heritage, and its further development in the Bolshevik and early communist movement, remains largely unacknowledged by the Irish Marxist left today. The degeneration of Social Democracy, leading to its capitulation to the imperialist bourgeoisies in the first world war, banished this healthy movement and replaced it after the war with a vulgarised idea of ‘women’s issues’—effectively a domesticated women’s movement. The Stalinist degeneration of the young Comintern after 1924 put paid to the high hopes and real gains made through the work of Zetkin and Kollontai after the October Revolution.

Family, Monogamy, Divorce

It is against this background that the one major point of confrontation between Connolly and the revolutionary Marxist perspective on women’s emancipation becomes especially important in illustrating his outlook and the tradition still associated with his name. We refer to the polemic Connolly was to wage against DeLeon in the United States over August Bebel’s Woman Under Socialism.

Again, while touring this country in 1902, I met in Indianapolis an esteemed comrade who almost lost his temper with me because I expressed my belief in monogamous marriage, and because I said, as I still hold, that the tendency of civilization is towards its perfection and completion, instead of its destruction. My comrade’s views, especially since the publication in “The People” of Bebel’s “Women”, are held by a very large number of members, but I hold, nevertheless that such works and such publications are an excrescence upon the movement. The abolition of the capitalist system will, undoubtedly, solve the economic side of the women question, but it will solve this alone. (Wages, Marriage and the Church, in The Connolly-DeLeon Controversy, Cork Workers Club, p.8).

Thus Connolly opened his polemic against Bebel’s classic work. He added in the same article that such a book could only be popular:

… because of its quasi-prurient revelations of the past and present degradation of womanhood, but I question if you can find in the whole world one woman who was led to socialism by it, but you can find hundreds who were repelled from studying socialism by judicious extracts from its pages. (p.9).

His comments reveal a depth of personal feeling on the issues, but his claims about the effects of Bebel’s book seem a desperate grasping at straws when set against the reality that Bebel and Engels were the standard socialist works on the question for at tens of thousands of organised women in Europe. He cannot have been unaware of the stature it had acquiring over 20 years. Evidently it fundamentally challenged key certainties of his personal psychology. Bebel had critically exposed all of the prevailing ideology which viewed the existing patterns of sexual life and the family as ‘natural destiny’. By carefully citing evidence of the profound changes that the family and sexual life have experienced throughout history, he established the economic, social and historical roots of the oppression of women:

Conditions lasting through a long series of generations, finally grow into custom; heredity and education then cause such conditions to appear … as ‘natural’ ...

For the purposes of this work a cursory presentation of the elations between the sexes, since primitive society, is of special importance. It is so because it can therby be proved that, seeing that these relations have materially changed in the previous course of development, and that the changes have taken place in even step with the existing systems of production, on the one hand, and on the distribution of the product of labour, on the other, it is natural and goes without saying that along with further changes and revolutions in the system of production and distribution, the relations between the sexes are bound to change again. Nothing is “eternal” either in nature or in human life; eternal only is change and interchange”. (Bebel A., Woman Under Socialism, New York, 1971, pp 9-10).

Today it is easy to fault Bebel on many points of detail and to see changes that he failed to envisage. What keeps his work astonishingly fresh is the way in which he linked the evolution of property relations to the available data on relations between the sexes, showing how much variety has existed. In so doing, Bebel was fleshing out the basic elements sketched by Marx and Engels in various writings. In broad historical terms he was wholly consistent with Engels in relating the emergence of monogamous marriage to the development of private property. Though discursive in form, the great merit of the book was its frank exposure of the layers of cant and hypocrisy which sanctified the contemporary civil, political and intellectual denial of women’s existence. The bourgeois form of marriage and the hypocritical concepts of adultery and illegitimacy that flow from it have their roots in the fact that marriage serves to secure the transmission of private property and wealth to legitimate heirs. As such it runs contrary to the notion of marriage based on voluntary love and is hostile to legalising divorce. The main burden of this social function of marriage is borne by women who, in the property owning class, are dependent on the property of their husbands. Furthermore,

... under pressure of social conditions it is forced even upon those who have nothing to bequeath: it becomes a social law, the violation of which the state punishes by imprisoning for a term of years the men or women who live in adultery and who have been divorced. (p.346).

Thus the proletarian family under capitalism bears the form of the bourgeois family—but only as an impediment. However, the absence of property and the emergence of women into socialised capitalist production on a large scale outside the home pose the question of the socialisation of domestic toil. Co-operation, albeit under capitalist production, flies in the face of the privatised family and sexual world of monogamous relationships. Of course, working class men and women may well choose a monogamous relationship. In a future socialist society this may also be the case. If this does turn out to be the case under socialism and communism then it will be so as a result of choice and not, as it is under capitalism, as a consequence of the existence of private property and the use of the family as the mechanism whereby men effectively take possession of women to ensure the transmission of wealth:

In future society there is nothing to bequeath, unless the domestic equipment and personal inventory be regarded as inheritance: the modern form of marriage is thus devoid of foundation and collapses … Woman is accordingly free, and her children, where she has any, do not impair her freedom: they can only fill all the fuller the cup of her enjoyment and her pleasure in life. (Woman Under Socialism, pp 346-7).

It is clear from the tone of Connolly’s attack on the book that he was reacting with all the indignation of someone whose sense of ‘decency’ and ‘morality’ had been deeply offended. He found it impossible to concede that it was inspired by scientific interest and scientific socialist interest in particular. Railing against Bebel he wrote:

I have used the word ‘pruriency’. Let me make it stronger and say indecency, and explain what I mean by indecency in this respect. I consider that whosoever tells of the sexual act needlessly or in any other manner, but as a scientist would speak of his investigations or a surgeon of his operations, is acting indecently. (The Connolly DeLeon Controversy, p.30).

He regarded the suggestion that the “modern form of marriage collapses once its basis in private ownership of the means of production goes” as grossly unscientific:

He might as well say: The concentrated tool of production is the result of bourgeois property relations; in future society these relations will have disappeared, therefore the concentrated tool of production will collapse (The Connolly DeLeon Controversy, pp 30-31).

He missed the essential point. In Bebel’s terms the family would be free to evolve more ‘naturally’, i.e free from the dictates of property. Connolly referred to anthropologist Lewis Morgan in an attempt to complete his refutation:

Bebel declares openly and avowedly that under socialism the modern monogamic marriage will collapse, and yet his work we we are told is based upon that of Morgan, and Morgan declares as unreservedly his belied in the beauty and permanency of modern marriage. (The Connolly DeLeon Controversy, p.30).

What Morgan actually wrote, however, in his major work Ancient Society, was:

When the fact is accepted that the family has passed through four successive forms and is now in a fifth, the question at once arises whether this form can be permanent in the future. The only answer that can be given is that it must advance as society advances, and change as society changes, even as it has done in the past. It is the creature of the social system and will reflect its culture. As the monogamian family has improved greatly since the commencement of civilization, and very sensibly in modern times, it is at least supposeable that it is capable of still further improvement until the equality of the sexes is obtained. Should the monogamian family in the distant future fail to answer the requirements of society ... it is impossible to predict the nature of its successor (Morgan, Ancient Society, World Publishing Co., New York, 1963, p.499).

More significant still is the inflexible and undialectical understanding of monogamy that Connolly employed compared with Engels, Morgan or Bebel. Engels while exploring the possibility of monogamy’s survival in the future, argued that it must meet certain conditions as to its content and form—conditions absent in the bourgeois form of marriage. Under capitalism and societies based on private property in general, he argued, neither the man nor the woman is truly monogamous, for the man has possession of the woman because of his control of property and not by virtue of love or elective affinity. Thus he suggested:

If now the economic considerations also disappear which made women put up with the habitual infidelity of their husbands—concern for their own means of existence and still more for their own children’s future—then, according to all previous experience, the equality of woman thereby achieved will tend infinitely more to make men really monogamous than to make women polyandrous. (Engels, Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, Lawrence & Wishart, London, 1977, pp 144-5).

In sharp contrast to Connolly’s definition of monogamy as the indissoluble union, Engels counterposes one that is fundamentally free:

But what will quite certainly disappear from monogamy are all the features stamped upon it through its origin in property relations; these are, in the first place, supremacy of the man and secondly, the indissolubility of marriage. (Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, p.145).

This projection, and Engels was quite clear that it involved some speculation, did not merely envisage freer access to divorce for all; rather, freedom to separate would not even require wading “through the useless mire of a divorce case”. The emphasis may differ from Bebel at points but the two positions are fundamentally in agreement and completely at odds with Connolly’s beliefs. At root is a clear difference in method.

The key weakness in Connolly’s Marxism was that he narrowed its scope to the immediate economic conditions of capitalism. Here, as with nationalism and religion, the absence of a more complete materialist method weakened his grasp of the nature of women’s oppression and the family. Socialism would, he believed, quantitatively lessen the economic hardships of working class and family life. But qualitatively, sexual relations and conflicts would still be sustained by the same forces in exactly the same way as before:

The abolition of the capitalist system will, undoubtedly, solve the economic side of the woman question, but it will solve that alone. The question of Marriage, of divorce, of paternity, of the equality of woman with man are physical and sexual questions, or questions of temperamental affiliation as in marriage, and were we living in a Socialist Republic would still be hotly contested as they are today. One great element of disagreement would be removed—the economic—but men and women would still be unfaithful to their vows, and questions of the intellectual equality of the sexes would still be as much in dispute as they are today, even though economic equality would be assured. (Connolly DeLeon Controversy, p.8).

The rigid demarcation which he makes between the economic relations of production and the ‘private’ sphere of the family, sexuality etc., could not be clearer. His insistence that Marxists were confined to discussion of the economic ‘sphere’ alone led directly to the conclusion that the question of divorce, like religion, was not a question for socialists. His own attitude to marriage and divorce remained rooted in the combination of Catholic and Victorian ideology, under which he grew up, with their notion of a timeless “decency” and “morality”—actually bourgeois morality. His eagerness to make socialism relevant to Irish Catholic workers, both while in the United States and in Ireland, tended to reinforce this weakness and push him into adaptation to the very institutions that sanctified women’s oppression—the Catholic Church in particular.

The contradictions of this position are revealed in his anti-capitalist polemic Labour, Nationality and Religion (1910), written in reply to the Lenten pastorals of the Jesuit, Father Kane. In his attempt to simultaneously tackle Kane’s denunciation of the economic theories of socialism and steer clear of what he regarded as the legitimate terrain of the clergy—marriage, the family etc.—he conceded to the clergy on divorce. His only answer was to suggest that divorce was a social evil foisted on a society by an amoral capitalist class who could escape the criticism of the clergy while indulging themselves to the limit:

Who then are the chief defenders of divorce? The Capitalists. And who can come fresh from the divorce courts, reeking with uncleanliness and immorality, to consummate another marriage, and yet know that he can confidently rely upon Catholic prelates and priests to command the workers to “order themselves reverently before their superiors” with him as a type? The Capitalist.
The divorce evil of today arises not only out of socialist thinking but out of the capitalist system, whose morals and philosophy are based upon the idea of individualism, and the cash nexus as the sole bond in society. (Labour, Nationality & Religion, New Books, Dublin, 1972, p.38).

On these grounds Connolly opposed divorce. His answer to Kane’s suggestion that divorce would lead to women becoming the mistress of one man after another was to say that this was a slander on the virtue of womanhood—Irish womanhood in particular, and that such a thought was a reflection on Kane’s own imagination:

Aye, verily, the uncleanliness lies not in this alleged socialist proposal, but in the minds of those who so interpret it. (Labour, Nationality & Religion, p.39)

He clearly holds with Christian theology’s ideal of woman as a faithful wife and mother as a counterposition to its own darker portrayal of woman as unclean temptress. This is in line with his general approach to all criticism of the Church, namely to use aspects of Christian ideology against the hierarchy who have apparently forgotten it in order to serve mammon instead of God. One can only speculate about how Connolly would have stood on the Parnell crisis had he been in Ireland in 1890 when the greatest popular leader of the Home Rule movement was destroyed and his party split with the aid of the Catholic Church’s denunciation.

Marxism, contrary to Connolly’s assertions, defended unconditionally the democratic right to divorce. His protestations about the morality of women—“the superior morals of the women of the real people”—serve to evade the legal-democratic side of the divorce question to which socialists must address themselves—the unconditional right to end a marriage. From Marx through to Lenin and Trotsky, the scientific socialist movement defended this right, but without any illusion that it was the solution to women’s oppression. Not only did they fight for divorce as an important freedom in itself, but they regarded its legal attainment under capitalism as important in removing an obstacle to recognition that the fundamental root of women’s oppression is capitalist class society itself. As Lenin expressed it:

In most cases the right to divorce will remain unrealistic under capitalism, for the oppressed sex is subjugated economically. No matter how much democracy there is under capitalism, the woman remains a “domestic slave” a slave locked up in the bedroom, nursery, kitchen.
The fuller the freedom of divorce, the clearer will women see that the source of their “domestic slavery” is capitalism, not lack of rights ... Under capitalism the right of divorce, as all other rights without exception, is conditional, restricted, formal, narrow and extremely difficult of realisation. Yet no self respecting Social-Democrat will consider anyone opposing the right of divorce a democrat, let alone a socialist. This is the crux of the matter. All “democracy” consists in the proclamation and realisation of “rights” which under capitalism are realisable only to a very small degree and only relatively. But, without the proclamation of these rights, without a struggle to introduce them now, immediately, without training the masses in the spirit of this struggle, socialism is impossible. (Lenin: Collected Works, Progress, Moscow, 1981, Vol. 23, pp 73-74).

The difference between Lenin and Connolly could hardly be clearer. In terms of theory and general method it is further evidence of the latter’s failure to grasp the importance and distinctness for socialists of the democratic programme. On the other hand, it should be pointed out that Lenin and the Russian Social-Democrats, had behind them the tradition of struggle of two decades of the German Socialist Women’s movement.

Irish Womanhood

To grasp more fully Connolly’s understanding of the “woman question” it is necessary to go further than pointing to his distance from the tradition of a working class women’s movement. We must also point out the significance of what we have termed his populist regression from Marxism. In relation to women this implied that Irish women needed to be emancipated from the legacy of the English conquest and centuries of English rule. For Connolly this is nowhere posed as a distinct tasl from liberating women from their oppression by capitalism.

The chapter entitled “Woman”, in The Re-conquest of Ireland, illustrates this clearly. This pamphlet, published in 1915, contains his only attempt at a rounded statement of his perspective on women’s emancipation. In Re-conquest he repeats his schematic version of Irish history and draws a picture of a communal democratic Gaelic society destroyed by the English and replaced by the greed and tyranny of this “alien system”. In his chapter on women he considers the implications of the conquest for Irish womanhood:

The daughters of the Irish peasantry have been the cheapest slaves in existence—slaves to their own family, who were, in turn slaves to all social parasites of a landlord and gombeen-ridden community …

The system of private capitalist property in Ireland, as in other countries, has given birth to the law of primogeniture under which the eldest son usurps the ownership of all property to the exclusion of the females of the family. Rooted in a property system founded upon force, this iniquitous law was unknown to the older social system of ancient Erin, and, in its actual workings out in modern Erin, it has been and is responsible for the moral murder of countless virtuous Irish maidens…

Just as the present system in Ireland has made cheap slaves or untrained emigrants of the flower of our peasant women, so it has darkened the lives and starved the intellect of the female operatives in mills, shops and factories. Wherever there is a great demand for female labour, as in Belfast, we find that the woman tends to become the chief support of the house. Driven out to work at the earliest possible age, she remains fettered to her wage-earning,—a slave for life. Marriage does not mean for her a rest from outside labour, it usually means that to the outside labour, she has added the duty of a double domestic toil.

Of what use to such sufferers can be the re-establishment of any form of Irish State if it does not embody the emancipation of womanhood. As we have shown, the whole spirit and practice of modern Ireland, as it expresses itself through its pastors and masters, bears socially and politically, hard upon women. That spirit and that practice had their origins in the establishment in this country of a social and political order based upon the private ownership of property, as against the older order based upon the common ownership of a related community. (The Re-conquest of Ireland, p.42).

For him, therefore, “Irish womanhood” refers to working and toiling women of town and country, “the real women of the people”. This conception distinguishes them from bourgeois women. But at the same time it obscures the uniquely important features of working women, and working class women in general, upon which the continental movement was founded. Under Zetkin, this had meant a programme fighting for the right to work on equal terms with men, unionisation, maternity leave, divorce and political equality—all backed up by industrial muscle.

But it was not the working women of Ireland, rather the mainly bourgeois and petty-bourgeois women of his own day who were conducting the agitation for women’s suffrage rights in Ireland and Britain. Connolly recognised the progressive elements of these women’s struggle and thus sought to relate positively to them. To do this, however, he avoided explicitly acknowledging their bourgeois and petit bourgeois class character, following a pattern which, as with the national struggle, blurred the independent working-class interest.

He noted how in Ireland the “women’s movement” arose not out of the working class but at a time, nevertheless, when women were being drawn into factory labour. In making this association he hoped that the middle-class women’s movement would develop a social conscience about the conditions of working and toiling women:

It will be observed by the thoughtful reader, that the development of what is known as the women’s movement has synchronised with the appearance of women upon the industrial field, and that the acuteness and fierceness of the women’s war had kept even pace with the spread amongst educated women of a knowledge of the sordid and cruel nature of the lot of their suffering sisters of the wage-earning class.

We might say that the development of what, for want of a better name, is known as sex-consciousness, has waited for the spread amongst the more favoured women, of a deep feeling of social consciousness, what we have elsewhere in this work described as a civic conscience.

In Ireland the women’s cause is felt by all Labour men and women as their cause; the Labour cause has no more earnest and whole-hearted supporters than the militant women. (The Re-conquest of Ireland, p.40).

Nothing, however, in the history of either labour or women’s movements in Ireland justified such optimism. There were, of course, honourable exceptions within both movements, women like Helena Moloney and Louie Bennett who proved vigorous union organisers. Connolly himself was a stalwart supporter of women’s suffrage within the labour movement. But in truth the Irish labour movement showed no particular sympathies to the women’s struggle and the franchise agitation was led by middle class women who did not identify with the needs of the working class—even on the limited issue of the franchise.

The conjunction of forces did, momentarily, lead to mutual benefits. The 1913 lockout saw a deepening conversion of some militant suffragists to the cause of trade unionism. Connolly’s own support for the feminists during 1912 when they were fiercely attacked by reactionary elements, and jailed, is also on record. (See Smashing Times, by R. Cullen Owens, Dublin, 1985, pp 74-95).

The suffrage movement sought the vote for women, not the removal of the property qualification that would have enfranchised workers in general. In the debate at the Irish TUC & Labour Party in 1914, Connolly advanced a partially feminist case. As Cullen Owens writes:

At the 1914 Irish Trade Union Congress Larkin made the point that suffrage could be used for or against the working class. Connolly, however, stated that he was in favour of giving women the vote even if they used it against him as a human right! (Smashing Times, p.85).

Larkin was against the franchise for women if limited by property. Connolly’s support was unconditional although his position and that of the ITUC & LP was actually for universal franchise—“adult suffrage”. While debating the women’s suffrage struggle, he did not, however, have a perspective of mobilising for adult suffrage. In fact, he did not fight at all to mobilise the rank and file of the ITUC & LP—of which he was a leading figure—around any political action programme. Neither did he warn of the dangers of the limited aspirations of militant feminism. In other words, he failed to make his stance one of strictly critical support for the half-measure sought by the feminists.

On the other hand, when a Liberal, Geoffrey Howard, in 1909 introduced a private members’ Bill in the House of Commons to introduce universal adult suffrage without property qualification, the majority of the suffragettes refused to support it. In this instance the working class found a consistent socialist ally in Dora Montefiori and the section she had formed in Britain of the International Socialist Women’s Bureau and brought Clara Zetkin over from Germany to speak to a rally in support of the Bill. The class character of the suffrage movement was beyond dispute, but Connolly’s position left him unable to move at all in the direction of Montefiori’s attempt to build a proletarian women’s movement.

In fact Connolly settled for the view that the middle class “women’s righters” (as they were described by Zetkin) were a healthy example to the mass of toiling women of Ireland:

In Ireland the soul of womanhood has been trained for centuries to surrender its rights, and as a consequence the race has lost its chief capacity to withstand assaults from without, and demoralisation from within. Those who preached to Irish womankind fidelity to duty as the only ideal to be striven after, were, consciously or unconsciously, fashioning a slave mentality, which the Irish mothers had perforce to transmit to the Irish child.
The militant women who, without abandoning their fidelity to duty, are yet teaching their sisters to assert their rights, are re-establishing a sane and perfect balance that makes more possible a well-ordered Irish nation. (Re-conquest p.43).

In Connolly’s paradigm, then, militant women from the “more favoured” and “educated” sections of society have earned their moral right to be counted in the ranks of those who will re-construct the nation after the Re-conquest of Ireland from the grips of an English-originated and English-maintained capitalist enslavement. The maximum goal is “a well-ordered Irish nation”—a slogan which, in subordinating the proletarian slogan of the Workers’ Republic, underlined his belief that the two were identical, because only those forces which had at heart the interests of the oppressed and exploited would play any role in the reconquest. The phrase “a well-ordered nation” clearly fudges class boundaries and legitimises fusion with the militants of another class and their programme in the struggle of the “real Irish”.

The militant separatist nationalist movement of his second period in Ireland did not identify itself with the emancipation of women. In order to write the equality of women into his programme he needed the militant suffragist women. For, it is clear he had no perspective of mobilising working class women in a specific struggle, using class action, for women’s emancipation.

He was correct in seeing that historically the women’s agitation coincided with the rise of militant trade unionism in the first 15 years of the century. But it was essentially a temporary coincidence. In fact, as Margaret Ward points out, the collapse of the suffrage movement in Ireland was inevitable for a single issue movement. She adds:

The pity was that in losing the suffrage movement, Irish women lost their only independent voice, as nothing emerged in its place. With no organisation to give priority to women’s needs post-partition Ireland was able to implement, with little resistance, highly reactionary policies in relation to women, whose domestic role within the family became endowed with almost sacramental qualities. (An account of the Irish Suffrage Movement, in Feminist Review, No. 10, Feb. 1982, p.35).

The consolidation of women’s oppression in partitioned Ireland happened in spite of the extension of the franchise. The Free State ban on introducing divorce legislation and the outlawing of contraception as well as the introduction of reactionary censorship legislation all served the interests of the Irish bourgeoisie and its ally—the Catholic Church.

But Connolly didn’t anticipate these dangers. He effectively offered a separate minimum programme of adapting to, and indeed “cheering on”, the efforts of the non-working class suffrage movement, contenting himself with the promise that in the last analysis, the working class would have its say:

None so fitted to break the chains as they who wear them, none so well equipped to decide what is a fetter. In a march towards freedom, the working class of Ireland must cheer on the efforts of those women who, feeling on their souls and bodies the fetters of the ages, have arisen to strike them off, and cheer all the louder if in its hatred of thraldom and passion for freedom the women’s army forges ahead of the militant army of Labour.

But whosoever carries the outworks of the citadel of oppression, the working class alone can raze it to the ground. (Re-conquest , p.45).

The separation of immediate struggles centred on the vote for women from the goals of socialism and the workers’ republic could not be starker. There is no perspective here for bridging the gap between the goals of a liberal or radical feminist movement and those of working class women which go far beyond the limits of capitalism; no warnings about the inevitability that the Suffragists’ “alliance” with the working class will at some point turn into its opposite, and no concrete perspective for the class-independent organisation of working women around clear and concrete action goals.

If Connolly’s initial grounding in Scottish Marxism left him flawed on divorce rights and related questions, his populist adaptation to native plebeian traditions forced him to concede ever more ground to forces such as the Churches in Ireland which stoutly underpinned the “outworks” of oppression. In his celebrated chapter on “Woman”, Connolly called for the combination of the fight for rights with “the serene performance of duty”. What did this mean? From its context it is clear that each was to exercise a check on the other. As to “duties”, it is clearly linked to the bonds of marriage and the family, for it is these bonds he claims that have been undermined by the Conquest, resulting in the emigration of the daughters of Erin to America and England to undergo hardships and succumb to “temptations”, and in the “moral murder of countless virtuous Irish maidens”.

True, Connolly distinguished between “rights” as the term “is used by, and is familiar, to the Labour Movement” and “the thin and attenuated meaning of them to which we have been accustomed by the liberal or other spokesmen of the capitalist class, that class to whom the assertion of rights has ever been the last word of human wisdom”. However, his distinction lacks the sharpness found in Lenin, for whom the incomplete and indeed unrealisable nature of all rights under capitalism demanded that socialists fight all the harder for them as part of the task of showing the masses the limits of reforms within capitalism. By contrast, Connolly’s schema meant that women’s “rights” had to be checked by “fidelity to duty”, as a condition of the “well-ordered Irish nation”.

At the level of basic working class unity in the economic struggle, Larkin opposed allowing women into the one big union with men, i.e into the ITGWU, for largely chauvinist reasons. Connolly’s healthy class instincts led him to the opposite view. He got around Larkin at first by organising them alongside the Irish Transport as the Irish Textile Workers Union but was eventually compelled to usher them into the Irish Women Workers’ Union. In his concluding chapter of the Re-conquest, where he outlines the task of building Industrial Unions he writes:

With the Industrial Union as our principle of action, branches can be formed to give expression to the need for effective supervision of the affairs of the workshop, shipyard or railway; each branch to consist of the men and women now associated in Labour upon the same technical basis as our craft unions of today. (Re-conquest , p.62).

Despite these strengths, i.e his industrial unionism and his readiness to respond to working class women in struggle, his perspectives did not include a central role for working class women at the point of production. While it would be quite unfair to ascribe to him the reactionary view that a woman’s place is in the home, his views on marriage and his populist adaptation to left-nationalism prevented the transition to a consistently Marxist outlook. Hence, although the textile workers of Belfast were predominantly married women and Connolly sided with their fight against being sacked, there is no evidence that he ever raised the general demand for the right to work for married women or for the linked demands of child care facilities, paid maternity leave etc. Yet demands were high on the list of priorities in the German women’s movement of Zetkin. (See Clara Zetkin: Selected Writings, (ed.), P.S. Foner, International Publishers, New York, 1984).

It is notable that in his description of the conditions of Belfast’s working women in Re-conquest Connolly did not draw any implications for the strategic role of working class women. They are portrayed only as passive victims. This is all the more notable in view of his practical involvement with their struggles in the same period. In the end he simply exhorted toiling women to support the suffragists against the ‘outworks’ now, while supporting ‘Labour’ in its eventual razing of the “citadel of oppression”. Moreover, even these struggles were fused with the national goal of re-conquest of Ireland. If not entirely passive, it was certainly not a leading or independent class role for proletarian women.

Hence his silence about the socialist programme for socialisation of housework—significant in a socialist and militant trade union organiser who expressed such anger about the double burden of toil and labour on women. The 1910 anti-socialist polemical sermons of the Jesuit Kane quoted Bebel’s book on the socialisation of child-rearing. Kane, of course, twists it into a nonsense about the child growing up “a stranger to its father and mother”. Connolly, in his reply to Kane, under the chapter heading of “The honour of the home” clearly baulks at advancing any positive content of the socialist answer:

The reader will observe there is nothing whatever in the words quoted from Bebel which justifies this statement that the child is to be taken from the parents, or brought up a stranger to its father and mother, or without the influence of a home. There is simply the statement that it is the duty of the state to provide for the care, education and physical and mental development of the child. All the rest is merely read into the statement by the perverted malevolence of our critic. And yet this same critic had declared, as already quoted in this chapter, “the reason of civil society is in the insufficiency of the family alone to attain that fuller perfection of human nature which is the heritage of its birth”. But when he comes across the Socialist proposal to supplement and help out that “insufficiency” he forthwith makes it the occasion for the foulest slanders. (Labour, Nationality and Religion, p.40).

Like his reply to Kane on divorce in the same chapter, the content of this position uncritically accepts the existing conception of the family and evades any positive statement of the socialist alternative.

Many factors made for Connolly’s weaknesses as a socialist on the question of women’s liberation. These included his religious background, the Victorian world in which he grew up, and the flawed Marxism to which he had been apprenticed in Britain. Finally, his attempt to link the class struggle with the national question in Ireland further reinforced his conservative views of women, marriage, the family etc.

In identifying these political weaknesses we in no sense impugn Connolly’s class instincts or even his personal attitude towards women in struggle. In fact his personal qualities played a significant role in surmounting any acquired paternalism towards women. At this level, the evidence is ample that he sought to encourage women to take leadership positions at every possible moment, whether in trade union organisation or in the Irish Citizen Army.

The purpose of this assessment of Connolly’s view of the emancipation of women is not to damn him for failing to independently match the programmatic advances of his Marxist contemporaries in the more developed working class movements of the continent. We have aimed, rather, to evaluate him in the light of those advances while seeking to understand him in his historical, political and cultural context. Criticism of his legacy can reveal to women militants and socialists the richness and living relevance of the Marxist proletarian and revolutionary women’s tradition.

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