Louie Bennett 1870 1956

Eldest daughter of James Cavendish Bennett, and Mrs Bennett, of an established firm of Dublin auctioneers. Within the family this branch was somewhat ostracised for being 'in trade' at a time when - in Viceregal Dublin - such distinctions meant exclusion in social if not economic terms. She was educated in London at an academy for young ladies, where she and her sisters were remembered for having formed an Irish League. As a young woman she travelled extensively on the continent and before returning to Ireland, in 1910, she wrote two novels - The Proving of Priscilla, a story of the rebellion of 1798; and A Prisoner of His Word. Between 1910-1916 she was Hon Secretary of the Irishwomen's Suffrage Federation; in 1915 she was also Organising Secretary of the Irish section, Union of Democratic Control (UDC). In her words,

"The UDC exists for the promotion of a definite line of policy at the end of the war'. It was anti-militant and 'seeks to combat it (militancy) by the creation of a rightly informed public opinion (of some significance in later employer/labour relations)."

In 1913 she worked in the soup kitchens alongside Markievicz, Delia Larkin, and Hannah Sheehy-Skeffington, but did so on humanitarian grounds rather than any republican or revolutionary sentiment. A key feature of her character was her desire for, and belief in, conciliation rather than conflict - would have been very much in the consensus mode if in contemporary times. By 1916 also she was sub-editing the Irish Citizen, the organ of the Irish Suffragist movement, and in 1917 wrote in that paper on trade unions for women and the need for action rather than rhetoric.

Could be very critical in class terms and wrote in the Irish Citizen -

"We welcome evidence that the leisured class begin to appreciate the value of the movement. But surely the time is passed for merely sitting listening to lectures on the subject. Let the educated and leisured women of Dublin come right down among the workers and learn by practical experience the meanings and purposes of trade unions."

In 1918 she undertook, with Helen Chenevix, the re-organisation of the Irish Women Workers Union, following the imprisonment, after 1916, of Helena Molony, General Secretary of the IWWU. Louie Bennett's work with the IWWU, despite the nearly 40 years she was to spend at the helm, was less as an organiser in a day to day sense, and more as a leader who, despite many endeavours to do so, was unable to secure any significant alternative position of public power. Her disposition was intellectual, individualistic and slightly evangelical. Although General Secretary of the IWWU, Louie Bennett continued to be active in other areas. In 1919 she was at the International Congress of Women, in Zurich; in 1920, she was in America to 'plead Ireland's cause' against the Black and tans. On a brief return to Ireland, she had been clearly influenced by the American conviction of the importance of image and 'suggested' to her IWWU colleagues that 'a woman in public life could afford to be neither dowdy or eccentric'. Despite her own advice to others on this matter, she donned 'a pink feathered hat', left routine work to Helen Chenevix and Helena Molony and headed to Downing Street to persuade Lloyd George to 'take the black and tans out of Ireland'. She was given five minutes of the British Prime Minister's time - which suggests something about

either feathers or hats. She believed, throughout her life,

"...in the eventual triumph of reason, coupled with a dash of diplomacy".

Louie Bennett was a woman of the Victorian era and had some ambivalence in relation to women in the paid workforce. In 1932, at a time of significant change politically, and of major change in the industrial process (See Context), she wrote in Watchword that,

"..this modern tendency to draw women into industry is of no real advantage to them. It has not raised their status as workers, nor their wage standard. It is a menace to family life, and, insofar as it has blocked the employment of men, it has intensified poverty amongst the working class..."

From that position, however, she could still advocate, in the same article, and with no inconsistency, the claim for equal pay - on the grounds that if women were to enter the paid workforce, they must do so on the same basis as men. To proceed otherwise would leave all labour vulnerable. This was not accepted by the vast majority in the trade union movement. Although this potted history of LB pre-dates the laundry strike it is essential in understanding her role in negotiations, and the extent to which, despite public deference to her leadership, the strike was led from below. By 1945, she was 75 years age, and, despite resigning her position several times from 1930 on, never let go of the reins of power and was still very much at the helm of the IWWU.

Source: http://ilhm.tripod.com/lbennet.html (Irish Labour History Museum)