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Chevenix, Helen (1886–1963)

Chevenix, Helen (1886–1963)

Irish suffragist, labor organizer, and pacifist. Born in Blackrock, County Dublin, on November 13, 1886; died in Dublin on March 4, 1963; daughter of Henry Chevenix and Charlotte Sophia (Ormsby) Chevenix; educated at Alexandra College Dublin; graduated with B.A. from Trinity College, University of Dublin, 1909; never married.

Helen Chevenix came from a comfortable, south Dublin family. Her academic career at both Alexandra College and Trinity College was distinguished, and she won several prizes and scholarships. Graduating in 1909, one of the first generation of women to graduate after Trinity opened the college fully to women students, Chevenix soon became interested in the suffrage movement. In 1911, at the inaugural meeting of the Irishwomen's Suffrage Federation, she met Louie Bennett . She and Bennett, who came from a similarly comfortable middle-class family, became close friends and co-workers for the rest of their lives. Chevenix was impressed by Bennett's leadership gifts, her shrewd common sense and her persuasive abilities. They were both described after Chevenix's death as "two of the most remarkable Irish women of this century."

The Irishwomen's Suffrage Federation was an umbrella group that coordinated the various suffrage organizations active in Ireland at the time. In June 1912, Chevenix was on the platform at a mass meeting of women's groups that demanded the inclusion of female suffrage in the Home Rule Bill for Ireland then before the British Parliament. But suffrage was not the only concern for Chevenix and Bennett who were keenly interested in social and labor issues. They subsequently helped to set up the Irish Women's Reform League, which became an affiliated body of the Suffrage Federation, and used the League to highlight the various social and economic problems faced by women. They were also drawn to pacifism by the radical journalist and writer Francis Sheehy-Skeffington, husband of Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington . During the First World War, Chevenix was active in the Irish section of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, which was established in 1915. Francis Sheehy-Skeffington was subsequently murdered during the 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin, but his murder only confirmed Chevenix in her pacifism, and for the rest of her life she remained active in various pacifist organizations: the Fellowship of Reconciliation, the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, and the Irish Pacifist League.

In 1913, the mass lockout of workers belonging to the Irish Transport and General Workers' Union created major labor unrest in Dublin and mobilized women like Delia Larkin and Helena Molony to organize women workers. They were encouraged in this by James Connolly, the Marxist labor leader. The Women Workers' Cooperative Society was set up, but in 1916, following the Easter Rising, Helena Molony was arrested and the Society disintegrated. From jail, Molony urged Bennett and Chevenix to organize women workers again, as Connolly had wished. They got to work, beginning with the women in the printing trade and moving on to the laundry workers for whom conditions and pay were particularly bad. The working week for laundry workers averaged 60 hours; wages were between five to ten shillings a week; and health services, canteen and cloakroom facilities were non-existent. Bennett and Chevenix, through hard bargaining and persuasion of employers, secured an extra week's holiday and gradual improvements in pay and conditions.

The Irish Women Workers' Union was established in 1916 with Bennett as general secretary and Chevenix as assistant secretary. At the conference of the Irish Trade Union Congress (ITUC) the following year, the union was accepted as an independent union and not, as previously, as an affiliate of the Irish Transport and General Workers Union. Despite this acceptance, the new union was regarded with disfavor by a number of male labor leaders who were hostile to the organization of women workers and regarded them as a threat. Chevenix and Bennett were subsequently elected presidents of the ITUC, the first two women to be elected to the post. Chevenix was also an active member of the Irish Labor Party and was a regular delegate at its annual conferences.

When civil war broke out in Dublin in the summer of 1922, following the disputed terms of independence set out in the 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty, Chevenix and Bennett were active, through the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom (WLPF), in trying to mediate a settlement, though without success. For the second time in six years, the center of Dublin was reduced to rubble and, as both women were aware, the poorest people suffered the most. When the WLPF held its fifth International Congress in Dublin in 1926 (which was in part a tribute to the work of its Irish section), it was the first occasion since the end of the civil war in 1923 that leaders of the opposing sides met together.

Chevenix was for a time a member of Dublin Corporation where she worked hard on the housing committee to secure provision for working-class women. She was also a prominent member of the Irish Housewives Association and pressed for the reduction of retail prices, particularly during World War II when high prices in staples like bread affected the poor. She was interested in the problem of child labor and campaigned strongly for the provision of school meals as well as for the raising of the school-leaving age to 16.

After the Second World War, Chevenix continued her dedicated pacifism as vice-president of the Irish Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. This led to her being branded as a Communist, and at one trade-union congress there were protests when she presented a resolution on world peace on behalf of the Women Workers' Union. As her frail, gentle figure made its way to the platform and began to speak in a whisper, which gradually grew stronger, the hubbub in the hall died down, and she was listened to attentively. In recognition of her work, she was appointed to the consultative Health Council set up by the Irish government under the 1953 Health Act. Only a few days before her death in 1963, she would be appointed a member of the Industrial Accidents Commission.

When Louie Bennett died in November 1956, Chevenix succeeded her as general secretary of the Women Workers' Union. Chevenix wrote a tribute to her old friend that could equally apply to herself: "To her political labels mattered little. What mattered was human life; physical, cultural, spiritual. In her whole being was answered the prayer of Rabindranath Tagore: 'Give me the strength never to disown the poor nor bow my knees before insolent might.'"

sources:

Fox, R.M. Louie Bennett: Her Life and Times. Talbot Press, 1958.

Cullen Owens, R. Smashing Times: A History of the Irish Women's Suffrage Movement 1889–1922. Attic Press, 1984.

Obituary of Helen Chevenix, in Irish Times. March 5, 1963.

Deirdre McMahon , Lecturer in History, Mary Immaculate College, University of Limerick, Limerick, Ireland

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