Retrieving 40 years of women’s struggle in Ireland

The fight for contraception and abortion is marked in new exhibition

A multimedia exhibition marking “40 years of struggle for contraception and reproductive rights in Ireland” opens in Dublin this evening.

"History is usually written by the victors, but we want to retrieve women's history," says the project's co-ordinator Pauline Conroy.

Co-organiser Therese Caherty says the exhibition started in the attics of the women and men of Ireland.

"We start in 1970 with the Mansion House launch of the Irish Women's Liberation Movement, move on to the Contraception Action Programme, the State-wide Anti-Amendment Campaign in 1983, the post-referendum campaigns, the Defend the Clinics campaign, the Abortion Information Campaign, the X case, the X case demos, Sistership, the 1992 abortion referendum, the 2002 referendum campaign, the ABC case, Savita Halappanavar (and all the other women), the Marches for Choice – and lots more."


Lack of knowledge

Irish women have been busy for the past four decades, it seems. “We were talking about the whole lack of knowledge of the women’s movement – how we get written out of history,” says Caherty.

She says Conroy’s natural “hoarding” tendencies have turned up trumps. “Her archive is astounding, so we decided to put together a visual narrative covering all the decades.”

It’s not all from Conroy’s attic, however. “We’ve received bag-loads of clippings from the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s. It’s as if people have been waiting for this.”

Conroy says they have had "quite a bit of support from overseas, from the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, Anne Rossiter, founder member of the Irish Women's Abortion Support Group, and Catholics for Choice in the US."

What the organisers were determined to do without was participation from Irish political parties.

“We didn’t want party politics involved in this exhibition as we wanted individual sacrifices noted,” says Caherty.

“We didn’t think women’s bodies were the property of political parties. They have had 40 years to deal with the issue of women’s bodies and they have done nothing.”

Conroy remembers those involved in the struggle in the 1980s. “It was a minority. You might get an impression that it was enormous, but it was a huge effort even to get people to canvass against the Eighth Amendment.

“In 1983, you couldn’t even say ‘abortion’. It was the ‘substantive issue’.”

Contraception is a huge part of the exhibition, she says. “It’s about reproductive struggles – 40 years of struggle for contraception and abortion rights in Ireland.”


The time has come to create an archive of women’s history for the decades since the 1970s, the women say.

“We realised that there were tens of thousands of men and women born after the 1983 referendum who knew very little of our history and we felt that it would be very interesting to put together and document the contributions made by ordinary men and women,” explains Conroy.

“The amount of censorship around the body that continues to this day – we felt a visual representation of history, about the struggle from the grassroots, was missing.”

That struggle now has its own depiction, says Caherty, as women in Ireland move “from black and white to glorious Technicolor”.

Women to Blame launches at 6pm today at Filmbase, Temple Bar, Dublin and is open Monday-Friday, 9.30am-9pm until November 16th. womentoblameireland

Anthea McTeirnan

Anthea McTeirnan

Anthea McTeirnan is an Irish Times journalist