Writer central to the women's movement

Sat, Oct 18, 2008, 01:00

JUNE LEVINE:June Levine who died this week at the age of 76, was a feminist and writer who played a central role in founding the Irish women's movement from the 1960s on.

She worked as a journalist in press and television for many years, and was the author of two best-selling books, on the history of the women's movement and the victimisation of women in the Dublin criminal underworld.

Women's rights campaigners remember her as a mother figure and inspiration for their struggle; friends, including many from outside the women's movement, recall a generous, welcoming companion always willing to lend a hand when times were hard.

The mother of three adult children, she was the long-term partner and later wife of psychiatrist Prof Ivor Browne.

Raised in a Jewish family that lived for a time in the part of Dublin off South Circular Road once known as Little Jerusalem, Levine grew up aware of her distinct and separate ethnic identity. Her preoccupations were visible already in the first articles she wrote for The Irish Timesin 1949 when she was still a teenager.

One described the fate of Jewish refugees in Ireland who were about to leave for Palestine; another focused on the problems faced by the wives of circus performers.

A career in journalism beckoned, it seemed, but not just yet. She met a young Jewish medical student from Canada, Kenneth Mesbur, and married at the age of 19. He took her to live in a small village in the Ontario fruit belt, where three children, Adam, Diane and Mike, were born.

However, the marriage was troubled and eventually broke down, as Levine would later describe in her book, Sisters: The Personal Story of an Irish Feminist.

"In those days I didn't know that I had a right to ask myself who I was and where I wanted to go quite apart from my husband and family and so I went mad," she wrote.

"How I escaped it all was that my husband went off with somebody else while I was in hospital and my mother insisted I come home to Ireland to rest up and get things in perspective, and when I got home my husband told me not to bother coming back."

Back in Dublin in the mid-1960s with three young children, she made her living as a freelance journalist for now-forgotten publications such as the Irish Women's Reviewand the Irish Bystander.

She also threw herself into the emerging Irish women's movement, alongside figures such as Mary Kenny, Margaret Gaj and Mary Maher.

"The women's movement started in Dublin and I discovered that I hadn't done anything awful, had not made any dreadful mistakes, and was not a colossal failure," she later wrote. "I had just been born a woman and had not understood the rules of the game. The women in the women's movement here rescued me. They made me realise that I was okay."

She is best known, perhaps, for taking part with Nell McCafferty, Kenny and other women in the so-called Contraceptive Train in 1971, when they travelled to Northern Ireland to import condoms at a time when they were banned in the Republic.

McCafferty this week described Levine as "astonishingly brave". She said Levine "mattered when it mattered, and she mattered more than most".

Sisters, described by journalist Elgy Gillespie in an Irish Timesreview as a "gossipy and garrulous and gushy, not to mention groupie-like, rerun of Irish sisterhood", was published in 1982.

The book also describes the abortion Levine had in Britain in 1967; in 1983 there was controversy when RTÉ banned discussion of the issue on radio. The author said she felt hurt and frightened at being censored.

Lyn: A Story of Prostitutionbegan life in 1983 as an article for Magillmagazine, then edited by Colm Tóibín, and was published in book form four years later. It told the story of Lyn Madden, the sole witness of the murder of former prostitute Dolores Lynch and two relatives by John Cullen, who threw a firebomb into their house.

Madden finally published her own account of the incident in a book published last year.

There was controversy in 1988 over an application for a grant from lottery funds for Levine and McCafferty to travel to a feminist book fair in Canada. However, it emerged the women had not applied themselves for the grant, which had been sought by their publishers.

Levine spent five years working as a researcher for RTÉ television's The Late Late Show, which gave prominent coverage to women's issues. "She was a smashing colleague with tremendous common sense and a sort of earth mother personality," recalled the then host Gay Byrne. "She educated me in the cause of feminism. Curiously, though, it was women who complained most about the show we did at her instigation."

Friends this week also recalled Levine's devotion to her four grandchildren, her expertise at cooking and her "open house" policy in Ranelagh for all manner of strays and needy cases.

She published a novel, A Season of Weddings, in 1992 and edited part of the Field Day Anthology of Irish Women's Writing.

Having lived together for more than 30 years, she and Ivor Browne married in 1999.

June Levine: born December 31st, 1931; died October 14th, 2008