Chains or Change: the Irish Women’s Liberation Movement 50 years on

Author and activist Rosita Sweetman on a landmark date in history of Irish feminism

Before we launched Chains or Change – she’s 50 this year! – on The Late Late Show on March 6th, 1971 we had planned, drilled and endlessly discussed how civilised, calm and rational we would be. None of your crazy harridan schtick here please. We would be models of decorum and rational exposition. The Irish people deserved nothing less of us, the tiny fledgling grouping that was Ireland’s first stab at second wave feminism, the Irish Women’s Liberation Movement.

As part of this respectability drive we had only two members of the founding group, Nell McCafferty and Mairin Johnston, on the panel. The others were Senator Mary Robinson, TV producer Lelia Doolan and historian Mary Cullen.

Everything was going swimmingly until, of course, hot head Mary Kenny, yes, that Mary Kenny, lobbed a hand grenade into the mix by proclaiming no Irish politician – at that stage nearly all Irish politicians were male – would bring in legislation that disturbed the glorious benefits of the patriarchy. Of course they wouldn’t!

Garret FitzGerald, then leader of the Opposition, famously sitting peacefully by his fireside and glued to the telly along with the entire country in those pre-Netflix days, was so outraged by Mary’s slur that he leapt into a taxi, arrived at Montrose and was duly ushered in to the Late Late studio to explain to us laydees how silly we were and that of course good decent politicians like himself were only gagging to bring the patriarchy to its knees.


Naturally, all hell broke loose.

Mary screamed. Nell screamed. At one stage the entire studio seemed to be screaming, with Gay Byrne in the middle of it all, delighted. This was telly gold.

Afterwards we berated ourselves, and each other, for not being calm, rational, civilised etc. But really, was it such a bad thing? Calm and civilised was not at the best of times our modus operandi, and it almost certainly would have left the nation bored to the back teeth and none the wiser about what we were actually fighting for. As it was, Chains or Change sold out its first printing in the following few days, and feminism, rowdy and all that she was and is, had landed.

Chains or Change looks like a very archaic document in these hyper visual days with its black and white, gestetnered pages stapled together, the front cover featuring the Pope’s hands, Rosary replaced with chains, but when I went looking for it a couple of years back in the National Library it was filed next to the Communist Manifesto. At the time I was outraged but actually we discovered that the material we printed on those 31 gestetnered pages was revolutionary.

As a movement our demands were: equal pay, equality before the law, equal education, contraception for all, justice for deserted wives, unmarried mothers and widows, and one family one house, (yup, we were being bastards to each other about housing back then as well).

But crucially Chains or Change was the first time since the founding of the State that women’s lot had been examined on its own.

As you can imagine it was dire.

After 40 years of de Valera’s hand-in-glove rule with “control freak” and “spies everywhere” Archbishop John Charles McQuaid, Ireland had stagnated into a patriarchal, religious, woman-hating, damaged cowboys backwater. A “dreary Eden”. Every freedom for women that the revolutionaries of 1916 had fought for had been reversed by these two deeply repressed men.

From birth to death the Irish State legally enforced rules that hobbled women. Chains or Change was the first attempt at documenting just what that religiosity, coupled with patriarchy, had meant.

We looked at female education – dolls and cookery sets for the girls, guns for the boys. Domestic science and sewing for the girls, science and maths for the boys with higher maths not even taught in girls schools, because heaven knows our little lady brains would explode if we started in on algebra.

That mightn’t seem significant until you get to this: in 1968 only 161 girls took maths at Leaving Cert level, while 2,000 boys did. The consequences were immediate, and irreversible. Almost every profession, or career that offered decent money, interesting work and security demanded maths. Accountancy, engineering, science, medicine, veterinary medicine were all thus impossible for girls to enter. Other professions closed to girls included: airline pilots, bus drivers, police inspectors, bank managers, newspaper editors, compositors, lawyers, engineers not to mention judges, surgeons, technicians, accountants, higher civil servants. And that was just because they were girls, maths or no maths.

For the lucky ones who managed to get jobs, it was sorry ladies we’re only going to give you 54 per cent of what the boys get, and your careers in banks or the civil service will be short-lived: once you get married you have to quit. No ifs, no buts, it’s out the door with you Monica and take your hairspray and your shorthand typing notebook with you.

We discovered women were cheap labour. That women occupied the lowest-grade, least-organised, lowest-status, lowest-skilled end of the market. That only 1 per cent of higher professionals, doctors and lawyers, were women. One per cent! And only 12 per cent of mid-level professions like nurses and teachers. That 81 per cent of the female workforce was single. That all domestic servants were women. That all typists were women.

When it came to marriage, that save-all career option we women were herded so enthusiastically into, each of us desperately looking out for our own special Prince Charming, things were not exactly rosy. Once married, a woman entered into “civil death”, losing all her individual rights. By law a married man could go to England, divorce his missus, gain full custody of his and her children, and sell the family home. Without even telling her. By law.

Because there was no divorce, “desertion” was rife. The 1966 census showed 11,300 men were “absent from home”. The suffering of their families left behind hardly bears thinking about.

It went like this: girls were only half-educated so they couldn’t secure a proper job. If they did get a half-decent job they had to leave once they got married. Once married all of their rights, material and otherwise, were henceforth handed over to the man. As Nell McCafferty discovered when she first came to Dublin a girl couldn’t even sign a rental agreement for a TV without a man. Even though that girl had just been hired by The Irish Times.

For women who didn’t manage to land a Prince Charming, or whose Prince Charming had split and married another woman “abroad”, or whose Prince Charming had died, things were truly dire.

Of course this being an Ireland still ruled by a ferociously misogynistic Catholic Church, contraception was a huge issue. We didn’t even dare mention the word abortion in Chains or Change – here in Ireland where you couldn’t buy so much as a bloody condom. Here in Ireland where there was no sex education in schools on the very dodgey grounds of: what they don’t know they wont try.

Ignorance and fear of sex was rife.

Women having control over their own fertility -– are you joking? The Pill was not allowed, except as a “cycle regulator” for middle-class, married ladies if you were lucky enough to have a sympathetic doctor and lived in Dublin. “An Irish solution to an Irish problem.” The IUD was a no no, as were sheaths and spermicidal jelly. I remember coming home from London and bringing my Pill prescription to the local chemist, where the evil git, with an evil look on his horrible face, popped each pill out of its named and dated blister pack into a brown bottle. Let’s see how unpregnant you stay after that, sunshine. Oh yes, as Nell McCafferty said, we were all Damaged Cowboys. If I can’t have fun, then sure as unfertilised eggs you can’t either.

Eden wasn’t just deary, it was nasty, mean-spirited and hypocritical.

Because we were all meant to be dancing at the crossroads, then happily married, waiting hand and foot on Mr Right, having babies every year and loving every minute of it, the treatment of women who fell outside the patriarchal “normal” was grim. Life for women “on the outside” was ghastly. Widows and “deserted wives” faced absolute poverty with no help from the State. And these days we are all beginning to learn the truth of what happened to “unmarried mothers” in this lovely land of saints and scholars of ours.

Ah yes, the patriarchy, I wonder now why we kicked so hard against it?

I’m sorry to say we perpetuated our own bit of patriarchal smug towards “unmarried mothers” in Chains or Change when we wrote: “We need a central organisation which will help and rehabilitate the unmarried mother.”

“Help and rehabilitate”! It shows just how successfully the Catholic Church had kept hidden – up to 1971 and beyond – what it was actually doing to “unmarried mothers”. The scale of the abuse cloaked inside unscaleable Mother and Baby Home walls. Even the very recent Commission of Inquiry into Mother and Baby Homes, widely mistrusted by supporters and activists, says 9,000 babies died in the nuns’ “care”. Nine thousand babies. It’s unimaginable.

In a country where there was no sex education, no contraception, where rape within marriage was legal, where men, often the father of the family, raped with impunity, Mother and Baby Homes were deemed the “answer” to fertile young women “becoming” pregnant. Working-class young women, rural women, those already marginalised, were of course hit the hardest.

In these charnel houses run by the nuns babies died. Babies were stolen from their mothers and trafficked into (very lucrative) adoptions with false names and false birth dates so babe and mother could never find each other again. Children aged 10, and younger, were “boarded out” to work as unpaid labour in farms (the boys), to Magdalene laundries (the girls). Mothers were demonised, abused, shamed and damaged for life. Every step of their “process” through these institutions was a money spinner for the nuns: money from the parents, money from the State, lots and lots of money from adoptions, lots and lots of money from years and years of slave labour.

The scale is still hard to comprehend. As a young Irish girl/woman you didn’t know the mechanics of sex, you were foridden on pain of mortal sin from protecting yourself against the consequences of sex, you were forbidden on pain of mortal sin from buying anything that might protect you against the consequences of sex, and if you did get pregnant you could be thrown out of home, your baby taken, while you spent years of your life “repenting”.

It was sick.

The revelations still pouring out are so appalling they overshadow everything. But they also throw into sharp relief the absolute necessity of what we were fighting for back then – education for women, equality for women, bodily autonomy for women. Access to contraception for all.

Imagine telling the brilliant young women of today they couldn’t have contraception, that if they got pregnant they’d be thrown into a “home” run by nuns, their babies taken while they spent the rest of their lives working in a laundry as “repentance” for their “sin”. Imagine telling them they couldn’t work in any of the professions but only as lowly skivvies getting half of what the guys were getting and that they would be fired when they got married. Imagine telling them that they would not be able to divorce a husband who raped them because rape was legal within marriage and that they couldn’t lift a finger if their husband went to the UK, divorced them, married another, got full custody of their children and sold the family home from under them, without them even knowing? They would think you were mad.

They’d be right of course. We were mad. Our dreary Eden was filled with the darkest of beasts, the filthiest of secrets, the most heinous of crimes. Chains or Change was one of the first salvos signalling the collapse of old Ireland, horrible old Ireland where women were treated abominably, not because men were horrible creatures, but because the architecture of a religiously saturated patriarchy (isn’t it always?), ruled.

So I’m glad we made a show of ourselves on the Late Late. I’m glad we roared and shouted. Sometimes roaring and shouting is the only way.

And, happiest of happy 50th birthdays to our beloved Chains or Change, an honourable effort on the long road to equality, to freedom for all.

Rosita Sweetman is a founding member of the Irish Women’s Liberation Movement. Her books include Feminism Backwards (2020); Fathers Come First; On Our Backs; and On Our Knees.