Partner Helen Chenevix
Gayfield, Killiney Hill Rd, Hackettsland, Killiney, Co. Dublin, Ireland
Deansgrange Cemetery, 5 Park Ave, Kill of the Grange, Blackrock, Co. Dublin, A94 WP98 Ireland
St Stephen's Green, Saint Peter's, Dublin 2, Ireland
Louie Elizabeth "Bessie" Bennett (1870 – November 25, 1956) was an Irish suffragette, trade unionist, journalist and writer. Her longtime partner was suffragette Helen Chenevix. Katherine Lynch of the Women's Studies Centre at University College Dublin describes Madeleine ffrench-Mullen and Kathleen Lynn as partners, calling them part of a network of lesbians living in Dublin—which included Helena Molony, Louie Bennett and Elizabeth O'Farrell—who met through the suffrage movement and later became involved with the national and trade union movement.
Born and raised in Dublin, Louie Bennett began her life in the public arena with the establishment of the Irish Women's Suffrage Movement in 1911. She wrote two books prior to this, The Proving of Priscilla (1902) and A Prisoner of His Word (1908), and would continue to contribute to newspapers regularly as a freelance journalist. She played a significant role in the Irish Women Workers' Union once it was established in 1911. Bennett became Organising Secretary of the Irish section in the Union of Democratic Control (UDC) in 1915. In 1927 she was elected to the executive committee of the Labour Party. In later life she campaigned against nuclear power.
Bennett was born in the ultra-Protestant and arch-unionist Temple Road, one of the nicest in the new upper-class suburb of Rathmines in Dublin, into a Church of Ireland family. The eldest of nine surviving children of ten, she had four sisters and five brothers. Her father, James Bennett, ran the family business as a fine art auctioneer and valuer on Ormond Quay. Her mother, Susan Boulger came from a family of some social standing in Dublin. The family later moved to the terribly desirable suburb of Killiney, overlooking Dublin Bay at the south. Her parents' marriage horrified her mother's people; Susan Boulger came from a British Army family who did not approve of their daughter marrying "into trade". She was initially educated at home with her brothers and sisters, but later went to a boarding school in England, and for a time, to the unionist Rathmines school Alexandra College in Dublin, and briefly studied music in Bonn, Germany. As a young girl she immersed herself in English novels by Dickens, Meredith, Austen and Thackeray, and was introduced to the alien concept that women might have rights by reading George Eliot. Two worthy novels were published, The Proving of Priscilla (1902) and A Prisoner of His Word (1908).
The Suffragettes fought for the right for women to vote in elections, which was then limited to male property-owners. If women could vote, they reasoned, women would vote other women into power and influence. The term suffragette or suffragist is used to describe those who campaigned for the rights of women to vote in the elections in the United Kingdom. Louie Bennett and Helen Chenevix absorbed the Irishwomen's Suffrage and Local Government Association (IWSLGA) and scattered local suffrage societies into the Irish Woman's Suffrage Federation (IWSF), an umbrella group for most of the non-militant suffrage societies. How she became involved in the suffragettes movement was unknown but from the late 1800s suffragette societies were emerging in Ireland in response to changing social and political times. In 1911, the year when women refused to participate in the census in protest of their lack of a vote, Louie joined with Helen Chenevix to establish the IWSF. After Carrie Chapman Catt and Jane Addams formed a Women's Peace Party in the United States in January 1915, the suffragists divided on the correct stance for women towards war. People with strong English/Unionist connections abandoned or postponed all suffrage work. In the Irish Citizen Bennett stated unequivocally that "Woman should never have abandoned their struggle for justice, war or no war". The Irish women's suffrage movement was largely parallel to the independence movement; as the fighter for both suffrage and freedom John Brennan (Sidney Czira) put it in an interview with RTÉ Television, they pursued different aims, the suffragists wanting to get into the British parliament, and the independence movement wanting to get out of it!
In 1920 Bennett took over financial and editorial control of the Irish Women's Franchise League's paper, the Irish Citizen. It was founded in 1912 to further the cause of the suffragettes and feminists in Ireland. It was first edited by James Cousins and Francis Sheehy Skeffington. In March 1913 Cousins left to work in England and later India, leaving Sheehy Skeffington as the sole editor. Sheehy Skeffington was murdered in 1916 by British soldiers during the Easter rising, having been arrested while leafletting for a citizen group to prevent people from looting. Control of the paper was then given to Francis's widow Hanna Sheehy Skeffington, with Bennett's help. Bennett seemed an odd choice as editor; she had been outspoken against the policy of the Irish Citizen in the past. She had actually withdrawn her subscription to the paper the previous year. In 1916 Hanna Sheehy Skeffington had relinquished her role to travel to America and campaign for justice after the death of her husband. This left Bennett as the joint editor of the paper with fellow IWFL member Mary Bourke-Dowling. During the time that Bennett took over the paper had a number of debts, and had shrunk from its original eight pages to four, with one of these pages consisting entirely of advertisements. To combat this, Bennett wanted more space to be given towards trade unions (to increase sales) and in 1920 the IWWU and the Irish Nurses' Organisation started using the paper as their official journal – despite Skeffington writing in it that it needed to stay distinctly unaffiliated to any party. In 1920 Bennett told Skeffington that she would like to take over control of the paper and turn it into a feminist Labour paper. This proved the last straw for Skeffington, who ended their agreement. Skeffington's own interests started to shift away from the paper as a member of the Sinn Féin in 1920. Bennett was left in control of the paper until its demise a few months later. Funding decreased due to its dwindling support and the ethos of the paper changing from a suffragette paper to a trade union organ. The printing press was destroyed by the Black and Tans. The final issue was published in September 1920.
The Irish Women Workers' Union was founded at a public meeting held on 5 September 1911 in the old ancient Concert Hall on Great Brunswick Street (later the Academy cinema on what is now called Pearse Street). Following her attendance of the Trade Union Congress in Sligo 1916, Bennett became publicly identified with the Irish Women's Worker's Union. The union would not only give women a greater voice in the workplace but would also help to win them the vote and improve their status in society. On 20 November 1935, the Irish Women Workers' Union under Bennett staged street protests against discriminatory sections of Seán Lemass's Conditions of Employment bill. Helena Molony subsequently approached the pacifist Louie Bennett to become involved and they, along with Helen Chenevix and Rosie Hackett became key figures in the establishment of a re-organised, independent IWWU after 1916. Many of its battles centred on traditional attempts to win improved pay and conditions for women, its particular role as a voice for women was also at the heart of its work and it often found itself fighting for parity with male workers or, as in the printing trade, the right to apply for the same jobs and be accorded the same status as men. In 1945, however, the union organised a successful three-month strike for improved conditions and won the entitlement, subsequently enjoyed by all Irish workers, to two weeks' paid annual holidays. On the political front, the union was also an effective lobbying organisation that sought to make progress on a range of issues of direct relevance to Irish women by working to influence the wider trade union movement as well as successive governments.
Louie Bennett began a long association with the IWWU in 1916 alongside Helen Chenevix. Bennett served thirty-eight years as the general secretary in the Irish Congress of Trade Unions. Bennett served as executive committee member 1922–1931 and 1944–50. In 1932 she was elected as the first woman of the Irish Trade Union Congress, and was elected to the position again in 1948
Louie Bennett never married, but lived with her longtime friend and companion Helen Chenevix in the suburb where she had grown up, Killiney, County Dublin. Bennett died on 25 November 1956, aged 86. Her funeral was attended by many trade union and Labour figures including William Norton. She is buried at Deans Grange Cemetery, sharing a grave with her mother, father and brother Lionel Vaughan Bennett. In the year following her death, R.M. Fox published a book based on her reminiscences to him in the final year of her life titled "Louie Bennett, Her Life and Times". In 1958 a park bench memorial in St Stephen's Green was commissioned to pay tribute to her life and service.
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