A history of Irish feminism: past, present and future

Essays by 13 authors provide a much-needed record of ideas and campaigns that have invigorated Irish society for over a century, says Catherine Phil MacCarthy

Women on the platform of Connolly Station, Dublin in 1971 prior to bording the Belfast Train to buy contraceptives, which were illegal in the Republic in the 1970s and 1980s

Women on the platform of Connolly Station, Dublin in 1971 prior to bording the Belfast Train to buy contraceptives, which were illegal in the Republic in the 1970s and 1980s

 

Irish Feminisms: Past Present and Future, edited by Clara Fischer and Mary McAuliffe, is well researched and depends on the scholarship of many historians, both men and women. It is dedicated to two: Dr Mary Cullen, the first woman to teach on the staff at NUI Maynooth in 1968, and Dr Margaret MacCurtain, who lectured at UCD for more than 30 years.

Essays by 13 authors from a conference held in 2012 provide a much needed record of issues, ideas and campaigns that have invigorated and enriched Irish society since the early 20th century. The knowledge made available covers a wide terrain lucidly, sometimes brilliantly.

Books of essays, like anthologies of poetry, are contested spaces, more discussed for who is left out than who is included. Feminism is a political space and engrossed by different values, conflicts, personalities and styles, as any other movement. No attempt is made to quell the tensions and arguments. It is a valuable book for the witness it gives, the strands of writing style and the feminist perspectives that span 100 years in the form of scholarly essays, memoir, personal witness, interviews and diary.

The foreword from Anne Louise Gilligan & Katherine Zappone asks “…why it is that so much seems to have been forgotten or needs to be relearned by each succeeding generation?” Both Seamus Heaney and Adrienne Rich are quoted, as is Mary Robinson’s presidential inauguration speech in 1990 – her aim to represent “an Ireland that is open, tolerant, and inclusive” – and Eavan Boland’s insight from her poem, Singers: “the need for women who found themselves outside history to be written back into history” by “finding a voice where they had found a vision”.

Fischer’s introduction meditates on “wave” as metaphor to evoke “the peaks and troughs” of the feminist movement or rather, as she suggests later, its tidal “ebb and flow”.

Historian Margaret Ward takes the definition of feminism as “advocacy of equal rights for women coupled with organised and sustained action for the purpose of achieving them” and traces the beginning of the women’s movement back to the campaigns for the advancement of education for girls, the opening of higher education for women and the powerful suffrage movements that grew in Britain and Ireland at the end of the 19th century. There follows an enlivening account of unmanageable revolutionaries such as Constance Markievitz and Hanna Sheehy Skeffington, which ends with one woman being appointed minister and the granting of the vote in 1922 to women of 21 years and over.

Co-editor of this book, historian Mary McAuliffe, recalls the legislation enacted by the Free State government and the influence of the Catholic Church in blocking women’s continued advance into the public sphere. She cites many Bills introduced to shackle: the ban on women from taking civil service exams at the higher level; the marriage ban for women teachers introduced in 1932; the Conditions of Employment Act 1935 passed in 1936, that would restrict “how and where women workers could participate in the workforce”.

Gráinne Healy describes the second wave of feminism from 1970 when “changes leading to individual rights for women were achieved”. Healy describes the powerful wave of energy and activism that wrought change, including the abolition of the marriage ban. She describes the organisations set up to promote and implement justice, starting with the Council for the Status of Women in 1970.

Founder of the Irish Countrywomen’s Association (ICA), Mamo McDonald, who is a mother of eleven children, nine of whom are male, in her interview with Fischer contributes a perspective on ordinary women’s lives and the focus of that organisation between 1940 and 1980. She says: “I didn’t start out as a feminist. It was life that made a feminist of me.”

Ivana Bacik writes a dispassionate history of laws dating from 1861 that underpin Ireland’s unique, constitutional approach to reproductive health. She discusses its tardiness in legalising contraception (“the last country in Europe”) and how it is “the only country in the world giving a constitutional provision that gives equal rights to life to a pregnant woman and the foetus she carries”. This control of women, she points out, is deeply at odds with the needs of our largely secular, multiracial, 21st-century society.

Claire McGing discusses women’s role in Irish political parties especially since 1970. She traces Labour’s long-term commitment to equality, the party that has most welcomed women candidates as a ground for the current gender quota Bill passed into law as the Electoral Act 2012. She predicts a shake-up in 2016, and a dilemma for male candidates in constituencies that they have cornered.

Both Susan McKay and Kellie Turtle speak about feminism in Northern Ireland. Turtle traces its deep roots in Belfast, “a city built on the labour of women in the linen mills” and a commitment to equality and rights that began with women in the trade unions. This movement practically responded to extreme poverty caused by high unemployment; the difficulties brought about by the Troubles; and the violence against wome. McKay speaks about ways in which that violence masked “horrific levels of violence against women and children”, some of it carried out by men who saw themselves as heroes within their communities.

Activist and researcher Leslie Sherlock, speaks about the Irish transgender landscape, its history and the struggle for rights and freedom, its difficulties such as isolation, stigma, fear and family rejection. She asks how the positive impact of mental health “resilience” may be developed through acceptance and support from families, community organisations and services.

Anthea McTiernan considers the future of feminism in a lively chapter that examines wealth, the workplace and the media. Ailbhe Smyth, founder and former director of the UCD Women’s Education, Research and Resource Centre, has written a diary of her life during five days in 2002. The racism and violence experienced by migrant women in Ireland is addressed by Salome Mbugua, founder member of AKiDwA in Ireland, set up in 2001 to combat those problems.

Catherine Phil MacCarthy launched Irish Feminisms: Past Present and Future, edited by Clara Fischer and Mary McAuliffe (Arlen House). Her poetry collections include The Invisible Threshold (Dedalus Press, Dublin 2012). She is the recipient of the Lawrence O’Shaughnessy Award in Poetry 2014 from the University of St Thomas, St Paul, Minnesota

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