Bennett, Louie (1870–1956)
Bennett, Louie (1870–1956)
Irish trade unionist. Born Louie Guillemine Bennett in Dublin, Ireland, in 1870; died in Dublin in 1956; daughter of James Cavendish Bennett (an auctioneer); privately educated in London; never married; no children.
Founded the Irish Women's Suffrage Federation and the Irish Women's Reform League (1910); founded the Irish Women's International League (1914); reorganized the Irish Women Workers' Union (IWWU, 1916); served as IWWU vice-president (1917); served as IWWU general secretary (1919–55); elected first woman president, Irish Trades Union Congress (1932). Publications: two romantic novels.
Though Louie Bennett was born in Dublin, Ireland, in 1870, she was educated in London and Bonn, Germany. By 1910, when the 40-year-old Bennett returned to the land of her birth, she was "in search of a crusade." At first, she became involved with the fight for women's suffrage as well as for world peace. However, in 1916, when she joined the struggle to improve labor conditions for the working women of Ireland, Bennett found the crusade to which she would dedicate the rest of her life.
Established in 1911, the Irish Women Workers' Union (IWWU) fell apart after the bloody Irish Easter Rising in the spring of 1916, when Irish rebels took on the British. British reaction to the Rising was swift and at times brutal. Because the fledgling women's union had allied itself with the cause of Irish independence, it suffered the loss of several key leaders—one executed, six imprisoned. By the end of 1916, Louie Bennett stepped forward, offering to reorganize the IWWU with a less nationalistic sentiment. While she was hardly unsympathetic to the fight for Irish independence, Bennett's ardent pacifism separated her from some of the more radical nationalists. Even more important, Bennett felt strongly that women's trade unionism would advance further and faster if it were not so strongly connected to Irish nationalism.
In the first year after Bennett's appearance, the IWWU did indeed grow. In 1917, the organization represented 2,300 women workers in a variety of trades—textiles, printing, laundries, and boxmaking. By 1918, the IWWU had added another 3,000 women to its ranks. Its credibility was further established through affiliation with the Dublin Trades' Council and with the Irish Trades Union Congress. This tremendous growth during World War I was due in part to the increased number of women in the industrial sector as well as to Bennett's cautious approach, one which emphasized conciliation rather than conflict. However, by 1920, as Great Britain accelerated its anti-Irish policies, Louie Bennett put her caution aside.
In 1920, Bennett went to America to help publicize British brutalities against the Irish, specifically the use of British police forces known as the Black and Tans. Once in New York, the 50-year-old woman was told she should replace her old-fashioned hat for a new, more fashionable model, "a pink feathered creation." When remembering this episode years later, Bennett remarked that "a woman in public life could afford to be neither dowdy or eccentric, so I took the hat home with me to Ireland." Ever the diplomat, Bennett was not above shaping both her argument and her image to suit the audience she wished to reach. Following her trip to the United States, she secured a five-minute appointment with British Prime Minister David Lloyd George. Still sporting the pink hat, Bennett delivered the same message to Lloyd George that she had brought to America: "take the Black and Tans out of Ireland." Peace, of a sort, came more than a year later with the partitioning of Ireland. However, by then, Bennett was once again focused on the issue of trade unionism for women, a task made even harder by the severe postwar economic depression.
During the 1920s, the IWWU was faced by rising unemployment and wage cuts for those still working. For women, already marginally employed at low wages, bad working conditions were made worse. At the same time, the IWWU was beset with political disputes, both internally and with the male-dominated Irish Trades Union Congress. In 1929 and again in 1930, Bennett threatened to resign her post as IWWU general secretary if internal staff problems were not resolved. Bennett was especially concerned about the association some IWWU leaders, such as Helena Molony , had with the Communist Party. At the 1929 IWWU annual convention, Bennett declared: "Communist affiliations are undesirable." A resolution to that effect passed 40 to 15, and Bennett was thus persuaded to stay on. The following year, she again threatened to resign but instead took a leave of absence while the IWWU staff reorganized itself. The widespread opinion—even among those IWWU leaders who disagreed with her—was that Louie Bennett was what kept the IWWU together. More important, her primary goal was the same as the goal of those who differed from her politically: the increased organization of Irish women workers as a way to improve their conditions of labor.
In recognition of her dedication to the labor cause, the Irish Trades Union Congress nominated Bennett for president of that organization in 1932. Upon election, she became the first woman to hold that office. However, debate at the time centered more on her class origins than her gender. One labor newspaper claimed, "the degradation of the labour movement was completed when it elected as President a person from outside the ranks of the working class." For Bennett, the issue of most importance was the cause of working women. During her term as president of the Congress and beyond, she championed the rights of women workers. As the Great Depression deepened during the 1930s, women were increasingly seen as a threat to the already limited employment opportunities for men. Nonetheless, in 1935, Bennett spoke out for "equal pay for equal work" for women and demanded that the Congress recognize "equal rights … for all citizens."
By the end of the 1930s, the now almost 70-year-old Bennett began to show the strains of constant struggle. Ill-health forced her to ask for another leave of absence at the end of 1938 which stretched into 1939. However, as the Irish economy revived somewhat with the coming of World War II, Bennett stayed on as IWWU general secretary. She saw the union through the crisis of war and postwar economic adjustment. In 1949, the IWWU had grown to represent almost 7,000 women workers including nurses, printers, laundresses, and boxmakers. Now almost 80, Bennett turned much of the day-to-day operations of the IWWU over to the staff. Even so, as general secretary, she continued to work on those issues she saw as critical for working women in the postwar era: emigration, equal pay, and factory conditions.
In April of 1956, Louie Bennett wrote what was to be her last letter to the membership of the IWWU. Forty years earlier, she had put aside her interest in world peace to devote herself to the interests of Irish women workers. Now, in her last public statement, she urged a new generation of working-class women to think in more global terms. Bennett asked them "to consider what they can do to help forward this great job of world cooperation." Seven months later, on November 25, 1956, Louie Bennett died at the age of 86.
Jones, Mary. These Obstreperous Lassies: A History of the Irish Women Workers' Union. Dublin: Gill and MacMillan, 1988.
Papers of the Irish Women Workers' Union, IWWU Archives, Dublin.
Kathleen Banks Nutter , Department of History, University of Massachusetts at Amherst