Rosita Sweetman: As a wife and mother I learned feminism all over

Feminism Backwards: Rosita Sweetman on a lifetime fighting for women’s rights

At the beginning it was like rowing out into the middle of a lake in a boat that was too big, with oars that kept jumping out of their rowlocks, and me with no idea where I was going, or why.

Doubts crashed in – who gives a damn about feminism these days anyway? Money ran out – get a grip woman, write a Barbara Cartland for God’s sake. My laptop died.

But slowly a picture, and memories, began to emerge; why we had started fighting for women’s rights in the first place.

London feminist and artist Caroline Coon believes every generation of young women receives a psychic shock that catapults them into action. For her it was being at the famous Round House Dialectics of Liberation Congress in London in 1967 with Stokely Carmichael, RD Laing, Allen Ginsberg among others. When someone from the audience asked Stokely what was the woman’s place in the liberation struggle, his sneeringly misogynistic reply was: “Prone”.


Caroline Coon believes “It was a founding moment for the women’s liberation movement … a psychic shock as it is to each generation of young women who have to unbury the history of feminism over and over again”.

For us in the Irish Women’s Liberation Movement it was the shock of seeing the American and London-based “second wavers” taking on the patriarchy with such incredible gusto. The movement here was kickstarted largely thanks to the socialist Mairin de Burca, Mary Maher (then Woman’s Editor of The Irish Times) and lifelong activist Margaret Gaj.

In the US and in the UK many second wavers had cut their teeth in the civil rights movement, but as veteran feminists pointed out in Women, Vanessa Engle’s BBC TV three-part documentary on feminism, carrying guns and making tea for the big sexy male leaders of civil rights was fun, it definitely beat marriage in a frilly pinny in the suburbs, but at the end of the day you were still a conveniently polite wee lapdog to the big boys. It was the same here.

Mairin de Burca thought, why are we agitating for rights for everyone, and not for us women? In all the big cities women began to break away and to set up their own groups. Using the tactics and politics of civil rights, they started to interrogate the politics of their own lives.

Consciousness-raising groups sprang up everywhere. Cynics tried to dismiss them as coffee cabals, bitch fests, etc, but the genius of “consciousness raising” was to make the personal political; everything that had seemed personal, shameful and weird turned out to be what every other woman was also going through.

The architecture of the patriarchy, inside which women were separately imprisoned, was suddenly being laid bare.

Why do we smile so much? Why are we so afraid of being angry? Why don’t we get equal pay for equal work? Why shouldn’t we have control over our own bodies?

Why, why, why?

As June Levine wrote in her wonderful feminist memoir, Sisters, why became her favourite word. Consciousness-raising sessions in Mrs Gaj’s upstairs room in Baggot Street became both school and spur to action.

A lot of the time it was glorious. As Kate Millett wrote of her women’s lib days: “The happiness of those times, the joy of participation, the excitement of being part of my own time, of living on the edge, of being so close to events you can almost intuit them. To raise one’s voice in protest, just as the protest is expressed in life, in the streets, in relationships and friendships.”

We were young and full of it. Making stuff happen and then going back to our newsrooms and writing it up for the next day’s papers was amazing. Being shouted at, or denounced from the pulpit was mostly water off a young duck’s back.

Still, lowering myself down into the past was painful too.

I dug out my very battered copy of Chains or Change, our 1971 manifesto. Jesu! I’d forgotten just how terrible things here in Ireland were. Chains or Change was the first time in the history of the Republic that women’s rights under law, in education and crucially inside and outside of marriage were looked at. Marie McMahon, another founding member and then the youngest and only female printer in the country, laid out the pages and afterwards wept at the hideousness of the injustices we’d uncovered:

There was no contraception in Ireland apart from that available to middle class women who could persuade their GPs they needed a “cycle regulator”. “Rubber goods” were available via the postal service. Mairin Johnston remembers they arrived under plain cover, big enough and thick enough for bicycle repairs.

There was no divorce. No matter how vile the abuse, how chronic the alcoholism, how long the absences, as a woman you were stuck inside your crappy marriage for life.

Legally an Irishman could abandon his wife and children, get a divorce in the UK, sell the family home, and gain custody of the children. Legally.

Because there was no divorce in Ireland the UK refused to recognise Irish court orders trying to force absent Dads to pay up. Women and kiddies were left destitute.

Once a woman married she became a “chattel” of her husband with no rights of her own.

Women were barred from all of the higher professions, in reality barred from most jobs that amounted to a career, with job satisfaction, a proper salary etc. Women were cheap labour. Women earned 54 per cent of what men earned – for the same work.

Within the entire Civil Service, most banks and “respectable” employers, when a woman got married she got kicked out of her job. No ifs. No buts. Bye bye.

There was no support for “deserted wives”. No help for what were then termed “unmarried mothers”. If you were working class you were sent to a Mother and Baby home, often spending the rest of your life in incarceration, scrubbing for the nuns. If you were middle class and your parents were half decent you were sent to the UK, had your baby and had it adopted often within hours of being born. Neither you nor your baby had any rights to trace each other ever again.

We listed the stuff in Chains or Change that we thought we might have a chance of reforming. But we were keenly aware of how very small our band of sisters were in 1970s Ireland, how ferocious the opposition was, so we didn’t even mention abortion, didn’t mention gay rights, didn’t mention incest, didn’t mention rape within marriage (still then legal), we barely mentioned domestic abuse, and never even raised the question of the sexual, physical and emotional abuse of thousands of mothers, babies, young girls and young boys within Ireland’s vast and appalling network of institutions run by the Catholic Church, paid for by the Irish State.

When we went on to the Late Late Show to discuss Chains or Change, Garret FitzGerald, then in opposition, was helicoptered into the studio to assure us all in his big booming male voice that it was entirely insulting of Mary Kenny – then our lead and most flamboyant “feminazi” – to say Irish politicians cared nothing for women’s rights. When he got into power everything would change.

It didn’t, of course.

Despite our most successful direct action protest – taking the train to Belfast, buying contraceptives (and aspirin), coming back to Dublin and challenging the authorities to arrest us, it took another 20 years for contraception to be legalised in Ireland. Twenty years! With Archbishop McQuaid preaching there could be no such right as a right to contraception, with the Catholic Bishop of Clonfert, Joseph Cassidy, claiming that the most dangerous place for an Irish baby was in its mother’s womb, with Ann Lovett and her baby dying their terrible and lonely deaths at the foot of a grotto in Longford, with Joanne Hayes sacrificed on hypocrisy’s hideous altar, in an Ireland where you couldn’t even buy a bloody condom.

The ’80s saw a vicious backlash against feminism and liberalisation when a group of right-wing Catholics banded together and forced the government into adopting the infamous Eighth Amendment, shoving it into the Constitution, putting the life of a foetus on a par of that with a fully grown woman.

That was the past. It was disgusting.

Thrillingly, and cheeringly, as I was writing Feminism Backwards, Ireland’s new history was being written around me.

The wonderful and educated young people that Ireland so casually chucks off into emigration when there’s yet another economic crash decided enough was enough.

A coalition of civilised, likeminded folk got together to campaign for equal rights for gays in marriage and in law. Their rainbow grouping sought, and got, the support of middle Ireland, the Mums and Dads of all those gay children who’d suffered so appallingly under Catholicism’s nonsensical and draconian laws against homosexuality, as well as the support of Ireland’s young diaspora. The aim was the legalisation of same sex marriage but the resulting landslide in favour unleashed heretofore unseen tolerance, unbridled joy.

Ireland was the first country to legislate for same sex marriage! Ireland was growing up! Hurray, hurray! The emigres returned to their respective countries proud of their own.

Then Savita Halapanaver died her terrible death in Galway, her story brought to light by Kitty Holland, and the psychic shock awakened thousands of women across Ireland, young and old. The streets filled with women raging and heartbroken at what had been done in the name of the 8th to this beautiful young Indian dentist.

Never again! Never, never, NEVER again!

The fight to repeal the Eighth Amendment was on.

Of course it was going to be a tougher, nastier, more divisive fight than the fight for equal rights for gays. No little girl grows up thinking, Wow, I can’t wait till I have my first abortion. But the Coalition for Repeal, led by stalwarts like Ailbhe Smyth, the Women’s Council of Ireland, ARC, and involving 70 different civil groups, showed that no little girl should ever again have to go through life in Ireland where abortion was illegal, where girls and women had to travel in silence and shame to have their abortions in the UK, coming home alone, bleeding, with no follow up care, and no one to talk to. Where young women with babies with no chance of survival dying inside them were similarly forced abroad. Where young women like Savita died “because we don’t do abortion in Ireland, dear”.

As in the coalition for equal rights for gays, the campaign to Repeal the 8th was hugely boosted by Ireland’s young and educated travelling home in their thousands to vote Yes. They came from Dubai, London, Sydney, Hong Kong, triumphantly wearing their Repeal jumpers, fists raised as they poured into Dublin Airport. Never, never, never again.

To everyone’s astonishment Ireland grew up even more and the referendum was carried 3 to 1 in favour.

I remember walking back from the impromptu shrine to Savita’s memory that appeared overnight in Portobello, covered in flowers and PostIts (This was for you Savita! We love you Savita! This from the country that treated you so badly!), and every woman I passed smiling. We had finally broken the shackles of rule from Rome. Ailbhe Smyth said she finally felt fully free.

Of course since Feminism Backwards is a memoir as well as a history, in between all the struggles on the street I had to come to terms with struggles of my own. With my ex, and with my family. It was really those struggles that gave me the title for Feminism Backwards. Yes, I was an eager and committed young feminist in 1971 but it was only as a Mum of two young children, “deserted” by my husband, that I learned feminism all over again. My psychic shock came with discovering that marriage, that institution so precious to the patriarchy, gave precious few protections when the caca hit the fan.

Going back over it all has been painful. But it’s been instructive too. What a terrified creature I had become inside my marriage and how very different I am now. What wonderful children mine have grown up to be without the protection of a marriage, or a father. How it’s largely thanks to them that I’ve survived, and evolved. I see them and their friends, the next generation, so free of the guilt and repression and shame heaped on us. So educated, informed and international. Proud to be Irish, but happy as clams on the world stage. I’m hoping they will find in Feminism Backwards an account of the past we are still freeing ourselves from, and an affirmation that it has all been 1,000 per cent worth it.

Finally, my eternal thanks to Mary Feehan, doyenne of Mercier Press, who in May last year thought I and my manuscript were worth it too

I have written three other books, On Our Knees (1970); Fathers Come First (1974, republished by Lilliput Press in 2015); On Our Backs (1979). All three have circled around the issues of feminism and justice: what is it like to be a woman – or a man – in Ireland.

Ireland then, and Ireland now.