Decade of Centenaries and Dictionary of Irish Biography are collaborating on showcasing women of the early twentieth century who strove for Irish Independence; for female suffrage; to improve the lives of women in poverty; and to improve the standard of care for children. These women worked hard throughout their lives to improve the lives of others, but they have not always been accorded their due recognition.
Hopefully this series will bring their deeds to a new and wider audience.
Fifth in the series is Louisa Bennett.
Bennett, Louisa (‘Louie’)
by Frances Clarke
Bennett, Louisa (‘Louie’) (1870–1956), suffragist, trade unionist, and peace activist, was born 7 January 1870, in Garville Avenue, Rathgar, Dublin, the eldest daughter of James Cavendish Bennett, a prosperous auctioneer, and his wife Susan (née Bolger). She was brought up at Temple Hill, Blackrock, and educated at Alexandra College, and at an academy for young ladies in London, where she and her sisters formed an Irish League; she went on to study singing in Bonn, Germany. Already as a teenager she showed an interest in writing, her first literary effort being ‘Memoirs of the Temple Road in the 80s’; she afterwards published two unsuccessful romantic novels, The proving of Priscilla (1902) and A prisoner of his word (1908), the latter set in Co. Down in the aftermath of the 1798 rebellion.
She turned her attention to women’s issues and by 1910 had become involved in the suffrage movement, initially through her reading of the suffrage monthly Irish Citizen. In 1911 she co-founded, with her life-long friend and colleague Helen Chenevix, the Irishwomen’s Suffrage Federation, an umbrella organisation, which by 1913 had connected fifteen Irish suffrage societies and had established links with Europe and the USA. She and Chenevix were the organisation’s first honorary secretaries. She was also associated with the Irish Women’s Franchise League, for which she ran public-speaking classes. However, as the divide between militants and opponents of the use of violence became more pronounced, Bennett, as a confirmed pacifist, who endorsed what she called ‘constructive, rather than destructive action’, distanced herself from the league, and through her involvement in the production of the Irish Citizen sought to sideline the militants.
Bennett’s concerns were not limited to the question of women’s franchise. As founder of the Irish Women’s Reform League, she not only addressed the suffrage question, but examined many social issues concerning women. The league focused on working conditions, monitored court cases involving women, and demanded school meals and better education. She was among those who assisted in the relief effort at Liberty Hall during the 1913 strike and lockout in Dublin, and she appealed for funds for strikers’ families through the Irish Citizen. In the period that followed she maintained her links with the labour movement. She often opposed the direct, uncompromising approach of both James Connolly and Helena Molony, and argued that labour and women’s issues could only be hampered by any affiliation with nationalist politics. The aftermath of the Easter rising, and in particular, the murder of Francis Sheehy Skeffington, caused her to revise some of her views on nationalism. In late 1916 she accepted an invitation to reorganise the Irish Women Workers’ Union (IWWU), on the understanding that she would have complete independence from Liberty Hall. Assisted by Chenevix and Father John Flanagan, she re-created the union along professional lines, and by 1918 its membership had risen dramatically from a few hundred to 5,300. She consistently defended its separatist stance, arguing that women’s concerns in a male-dominated union would always be of secondary importance.
Throughout the first world war Bennett campaigned for peace, and she was selected as the Irish representative to the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. She led the IWWU in its opposition to the attempted introduction of conscription in 1918, and in 1920 she travelled to America to highlight Black and Tan atrocities (she later met Lloyd George and demanded the removal of the Black and Tans from Ireland). As a member of the Women’s Peace Committee, she acted as a mediator during the civil war.
In 1925 she was appointed to an Irish Trade Union Congress (ITUC) committee to promote a scheme of working-class education with the assistance of the labour movement; her interest in adult education later led to her involvement with the People’s College. A member of the national executive of the ITUC (1927–32,1944–50), she became the first female president of the congress in 1932; she served a second presidential term in 1947. Her knowledge of labour issues was officially acknowledged by the Irish government in 1932, when she was sent as a representative to Geneva to put forward the case of Irish women workers. In 1938 she delivered a paper entitled ‘Industrialism in an agrarian country’ to the International Relations Institute in the Netherlands.
Despite the depth of her involvement with the union movement she had ambitions outside trade unionism, and in 1938 she let her name be put forward by the IWWU as a congress candidate for election to the senate, but this came to nothing. In that year she was appointed to the government commission on vocational organisation (1938–43). In 1943 she was elected as a Labour Party member of the Dun Laoghaire borough council; as a councillor she consistently lobbied for improved housing and was instrumental in the establishment of Dún Laoghaire’s housing council in 1949. She had refused a labour nomination in the 1918 general election, but she stood for Dublin county council and the dáil in 1944, in both cases unsuccessfully. She was the only Labour Party member to criticise the party’s support for the Fianna Fáil minority government of 1932, arguing that it is ‘never right or wise to co-operate with another party with fundamentally different principles’. As an elected member of the Labour Party executive she represented Ireland at the International Labour Organization in Europe. She was also a representative at the League of Nations.
Throughout her public career Bennett consistently condemned colonialism, fascism, and armaments expenditure. She is possibly best remembered for her leadership in the laundry workers’ strike of 1945, during which IWWU members successfully fought for a fortnight’s paid holiday. Her management of the IWWU, which lasted until 1955, was marked by determination and diplomacy, though she often used threatened resignations as a means of controlling her colleagues. She died, unmarried, 25 November 1956 in Killiney, Co. Dublin.
R. M. Fox, Louie Bennett: her life and times (1955); J. Anthony Gaughan, Thomas Johnston (1980); Rosemary Cullen Owens, Smashing times: a history of the Irish women’s suffrage movement, 1889–1922 (1984); Ellen Hazelthorn, ‘The social and political views of Louie Bennett’, Saothar, xiii (1988); Mary Jones, These obstreperous lassies: a history of the IWWU (1988); Cliona Murphy, The women’s suffrage movement and Irish society in the early twentieth century (1988); Donal Nevin, Trade union century (1994)