Women’s Struggle Liberates Ireland / Ireland’s Struggle Liberates Women: Feminism And Irish Republicanism

Ever since feminism’s “Second Wave” emerged in the wake of the anti-Vietnam War movement, women around the world have debated the compatibility of national liberation and women’s liberation. Several questions predominate: Which movement is more likely to liberate women? If both are necessary, how will they fit together? And what about other oppression many women face, such as classism and racism?

This paper will examine these issues as they relate to women in Ireland. It will put Ireland’s national liberation and women’s liberation into their historical contexts. It will next describe the Irish women’s current social and economic conditions.Finally, it will compare and contrast the roads to women’s liberation envisioned by feminists and Irish Republicans.

Ireland’s colonization by Britain was begun with the Anglo- Norman invasion of 1169, and it was completed by 1652 under Cromwell. The British government removed the native Irish from their lands and planted loyal colonists in their stead. The native Irish were governed by the Penal Laws, an apartheid code,which forbade them to own land or horses, practice theirreligion, participate in government or educate their children. This repression spawned secret societies and agrarian revolt in every generation. Many Presbyterian planters were sympathetic to native Catholic grievances, as they were nearly as oppressed legally by a colonial administration which restrained trade and deliberately kept Ireland underdeveloped. Following the examples of the American and French revolutions, the dissatisfied elements within Ireland coalesced into the United Irishmen, a movement for an independent Irish Republic. After many failed risings, this goal was partially realized in 1921 with the winning of limited independence for 26 of Ireland’s 32 colonies.

Irish Republicans, however–along with the majority of nationalists never accepted Ireland’s partition, and they are still fighting for a united, socialist Ireland. Irish women historically saw their gender’s liberation intertwined with their nation’s. In Celtic Ireland before the conquest, women enjoyed many legal rights which aren’t equalled in most countries today. Women kept their own property in marriage, and neither partner could enter into any contract or business deal without the other’s consent.

(1) Both husband and wife were allowed liberal grounds for divorce.A wife could divorce her husband for fourteen reasons, including his slander of her or for his sexual inadequacy.

(2) Women were also legally protected in common-law and transient relationships, and no children were considered illegitimate (3).

The British conquest brought Ireland’s independent legal system to an end and removed most of Irish women’s traditional rights. It also brought sexual prudery, which hadn’t previously been part of Irish culture. Pre-conquest church ruins in Ireland contain carvings of sile-na-gigs, naked female forms with hugh exposed genitals, often show masturbating.

One Celtic tradition which the conquest did not bring to an end was the existence and acceptance of strong warrior women.In the Tain bo Cuailgne or Cattle Raid of Cooley, Ireland’s main mythological saga, the warrior Queen Maeve led her army to victory, drowning one opposing army in a flood of urine and menstrual blood. And in Elizabethan times, Grainne Mhaol led her clan in pirate raids on British ships, later negotiating with Elizabeth as an equal. In every Irish rebellion, women fought alongside men and took part in all activities. But most of this women’s history has been obscured and is only lately being rediscovered. For example, contemporary accounts of the 1798 rebellion list many women’s actions; but later histories have dropped almost all these incidents. Feminist demands also accompanied nationalist struggles, at least from 1798 on. Mary Ann McCracken, a United Irishwoman, was an admirer of Mary Wollstonecraft. Before joining the society of United Irishwomen, she wrote to an imprisoned friend that she wished “to know if they have any rational ideas of liberty and equality for themselves or whether they are content with their present abject and dependent situation, degraded by custom and education beneath the rank in society in which they were originally placed.” (4)

By the Easter Rising of 1916, three movement had joined forces to take advantage of Britain’s preoccupation with the World War: the nationalist movement, the labor movement and the woman’s movement.This alliance meant that a progressive social program for worker’s and women’s rights accompanied the demand for national liberation. James Connolly, a socialist theoretician and one of the rebellion’s executed leaders, supported the woman’s suffrage movement. In 1915 he wrote: “The worker is the slave of the capitalist society, the female worker is the slave of that slave. ” (5)

And in 1918, when the Republicans won a landslide electoral victory and set up their own (illegal) parliament, Constance Markievcz–a 1916 leader–was named Secretary of Labour. She and Alexandra Kollantai in the new Soviet Union were the first women at cabinet level. (6)

The partition of Ireland and the ensuing Civil War ensured the victory of pro-British, socially conservative forces in government. In the 1930’s many of the remaining Irish radical leaders fought and died for the Spanish Republic.This paved the way for the 1937 Irish Constitution, Article 41 of which states that “by her life within the home, Woman gives to the State a support without which common good cannot be achieved.” (7) In the late 1960’s the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association, inspired by the African-American Civil Rights Movement, waged a non-violent campaign to win equal rights for the Catholic nationalist people of the partitioned Six Counties.Women made up a large proportion of this movement but, except for Bernadette Devlin, the entire leadership was male.When peaceful marches were continually beaten and shot off the streets (culminating in Bloody Sunday, January 1972, when British paratroopers killed fourteen unarmed demonstrators), the armed struggle was resumed.

Also in the early 1970’s a woman’s movement was emerging in Dublin, inspired by those in the United States and other European countries.Irish feminists agitated for reforms in the welfare system for single mothers, for access of women to equal jobs, pay and education, and for legal divorce and contraception.(8) One of the women’s first actions was the Contraception Train to Belfast in May, 1971. (9) Since contraceptions were legal in Northern Ireland, 47 women travelled there and brought large quantities of contraceptives, which they openly declared at Irish Customs on their return.This action attracted a lot of media attention and sparked a large campaign, which led to the partial legality of contraception.

In 1975 the Northern Ireland Women’s Rights Movement was founded in Belfast to demand parity with British laws on women’s rights.This was a middle class, legalistic movement, which took no position on working class or nationalist women’s issues.The following year, when the NIWRM criticized the Troops Out Movement, a Socialist Women’s Group split off from it. Then in 1977 the Socialist Women’s Group split again, and the Belfast Women’s Collective was formed to work more closely with the Republican Movement, especially around women’s prisoners issues. A final split, in 1978, produced Women Against Imperialism, which had even closer links with the Republicans. (10) The centrality of the national struggle and the polarized positions on it kept a united feminist movement from developing in the North of Ireland.

To understand women’s conditions in Ireland, one needs to know a little bit about Irish society and its economic conditions. The occupied Six Counties of Northern Ireland is a British colony, ruled directly from London. The southern 26 counties, or “Irish Republic”, is s neo-colony–nominally independent but with its economy completely dominated by multinational investment. In economic terms, Ireland is a Third World country. Officially, unemployment in both parts of Ireland exceeds 17 percent. But in some working class areas, it is over 80%. Politically, both parts of Ireland are conservative confessional states.The south is dominated by the Catholic Church, and the north by fundamentalist Protestantism. Both states are extremely conservative in social legislation, and both use repressive measure and censorship to try and maintain the status quo.These social and economic condition impact heavily on women. Although more women have entered the labor force in recent years, they are highly concentrated in service industries. (12) Women in the 26 Counties earn only 60 per cent of male wages, while those in the Six Counties earn 75.5 percent. (13) Over 1.25 million Irish women (at least half the female population) is classified as living in poverty.(14) Women’s social conditions, influenced by strong links between conservative churches and states, haven’t improved significantly since the early 1970’s.

Contraceptives can now be legally prescribed in the 26 Counties, but many doctors and pharmacists, especially in rural areas, refuse to provide them.Condoms can only be sold in pharmacies, and a record store in Dublin which challenged them was prosecuted successfully in 1990. Abortion, which has always been illegal in Ireland, was made unconstitutional in a 1983 referendum.Even non-directive pregnancy counseling, with options for abortion in Britain discussed, is illegal. In the North abortion is also illegal, even though Northern Ireland is supposed to be an integral part of Britain. Divorce is still illegal in the 26 Counties, although a campaign is growing for a new referendum on this issue. Women in Northern Ireland also have to contend with sexist harassment from armed soldiers on their streets, constant house raids, strip-searching, and caring for families alone while their husbands or imprisoned or on the run.

Feminists and republican feminists propose different solutions for women’s oppression. The largely middle-class feminist movement sees the solution as working toward equality and gender-neutrality in the legal system.The Commission for the Status of Women, a government-appointed advisory body, recommended many changes in employment and social welfare laws, which ameliorated some of the worst inequalities. (15) Many feminists also see the need for steps beyond formal equality, such as day care facilities, maternity leave and control of their own fertility, as necessary prerequisites for equality.Single-issue campaigns on many of these issues have been and are being fought by feminist groups.Women’s cultural groups, such as writing groups, self-help therapy groups, sports groups, etc.are seen by many as “an alternative environment in which women can explore ideas and support each other away from the constraints imposed by patriarchal structures.” (16)

Republican feminists say that this approach is too fragmented, dealing with symptoms, rather than the cause of women’s problems, which they see as capitalism and British imperialism, along with patriarchy. As Mary Nelis, a Derry Sinn Fein activist, puts it: “The system of patriarchy, with its sub- structures of imperialism and capitalism, can accommodate reforms and even allow women to be the power figure head ( e.g.Maggie Thatcher) given that the ground rules establishing essential inequality remain intact.” (17)

The fragmentation of a multitude of single-issue women’s groups, each lobbying against the others for funding and attention, is seen by republican feminists as “the old divide and conquer trick”.(18) They also believe that “the state apparatus, to an extent, has absorbed the women’s movement.The more acceptable feminists have become part of the establishment and enjoy the freedom of the airwaves, which we, as Republicans, are denied under Section 31 {26 Counties censorship law}. So what is the real threat?” (19) Nell McCafferty, a feminist journalist whose work is known around the world, had broken laws on behalf of women’s rights to contraception for years and had reported on this “criminal activity”. As she said, “It did my career no harm at all.” (20) But then she gave an interview expressing support for the IRA. She was immediately banned from Irish airwaves.

Feminist objections to the Irish Republican struggle usually fall into three main categories: (1) “It’s a man’s war”; (2) “Women should concentrate on our own liberation as women;” and (3) “It’s different from legitimate struggles in the Third World.” (21)

Cathy Harkin of Derry Women’s Aid, a refuge for battered women, put forth the first objection. She calls Derry “an armed patriarchy” and says that women in the Republican Movement have “seldom risen to positions of authority except where they adopt the male ideals, aims and discipline of the movement. ” (22) This argument, which has been debated in feminist circles for years, presupposes that women are “naturally” pacifist and that any women who takes part in a struggle which includes a military component is going against her true nature and only following men.

This is a dangerous argument for feminists to make, because women’s supposed biological and psychological “differences” have been used against them through patriarchal history. Besides, as women IRA Volunteers have stated, “This is not a man’s war, but a people’s war.(23)

Margaret Ward, a feminist historian, raises the second objection. She asks, “Can feminism offer such unqualified support (to national liberation) and retain its ability to encompass the reality of all women’s oppression, to fight without compromise for women’s interests?” (24) This criticism raises two questions (1) What are women’s issues? and (2) Is the Irish Republican Movement fighting for them? To the first question, the Irish Women Prisoner of War have answered, “Women within the occupied Six Counties of IReland are oppressed by both a foreign imperialist state and the sexist ideologies which suppress women worldwide.” (25) And Bernadette Devlin McAliskey added that “We are not oppressed simply because we are women but also because we are working class women and because we are working class republican women. ” (26) As a woman Sinn Fein activist stated, “Just because as issue also affects men, doesn’t mean it’s not a woman’s issue.” (27)

But what about the issues that are specifically of interest to women? As asked in question 2 above, is the Republican Movement fighting for them, as well? Sinn Fein has an extensive policy document which states its positions on women’s issues. It calls for, among other things, legal divorce; free and accessible contraception; non-directive pregnancy counseling embodying all choice; childcare to be shared by both parents; 24 hour public childcare; and an end to stereotyping of sex roles in education and advertising.(28) Plus, Sinn Fein members are active in women’s center and in campaigns for divorce, non-directive pregnancy counseling, and against rape and battering.

The third objection to Republicanism, that it isn’t a bonafide Third World movement, has been dealt with earlier in this paper, where Ireland’s economic status as a Third World country was explored.

Many people are more comfortable supporting liberation movements that are far away from their home and are waged by people who look different from them or speak a different language than they are supporting a movement closer to home.The distance and suspicion between feminists and republicans is harmful to both movements and to all women’s liberation. As the coordinator of the Falls Road Women’s Center in Belfast explains, “The right wing has no trouble in uniting to defend its interests while using the distortions caused by British imperialism to divide us and divert our energies.” (29) The inability of the women’s movement to mount an effective opposition to the current conservative backlash is attributed by Marron to this “sectionalism and fear.” (30)

Both the feminist and Republican movements have a lot to offer each other and the Irish people.

Nell McCafferty comments that :

“It has so far proved easier to feminise Republicans, who have much to gain from the inclusion of women in the struggle, than to Republicanise feminists, who have much to lose if women’s interests are totally subordinated to a resolution of the war.

“However, experience around the world shows that social protest struggles have been obliged to take steps to resolve sexist problems once the women’s movement has become involved…

“It poses a challenge to the Irish women’s movement of developing a theory and practice on feminism and war.The active involvement of women is imperative if women are to have, when the war is resolved, the freedom of free men. ” (31)

by Jan Cannavan, Irish Women’s History Group
________________________________________
Notes:
1.Donncha O Corrain, “Women in Early Irish History,” in “Women In Irish Society: The Historical Dimension”, eds Margaret MacCurtain and Donncha O Corrain (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1979), p. 2.
2. ibid., p. 6.
3. ibid., p. 4.
4.Mary NcNeill, “The Life and Times of Mary Ann McCracken: A Belfast Panorama” (Belfast: Blackstaff Press, 1960), p. 126.
5. James Connolly, “Selected Writings”, ed P.Berresford Ellis (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1973), p. 191.
6.Margaret Ward, “Unmanageable Revolutionaries: Women and Irish Nationalism” (London: Pluto Press, 1983), p. 137.
7. Ibid., p. 238.
8. Jenny Beale, “Women in Ireland: Voices of Change” (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987), pp. 3-4.
9. Ibid., pp. 106-107.
10. Kevin Kelly, “The Longest War: Northern Ireland and the IRA (Lawrence Hill, 1982), pp 320-322.
11. Alternative Ireland Directory, 4th ed. (Cork, Ireland: Quay Co-op, 1990), p. 176.
12. Ursula Barry, “Lifting the Lid: Handbook of Facts and Information on Ireland” (Dublin: Attic Press, 1986), p. 34.
13. Alternative Ireland Directory, p. 4.
14. ibid.
15. Beale, p. 186.
16. Ibid., p. 193.
17. Mary Nelis, “Real Change Still Beckons” in “Unfinished Revolution: Essays on the Irish Women’s Movement” (Belfast: Meadbh Publishing, 1989), p. 5.
18. Mairead Keane, head of Sinn Fein Women’s Department, unpublished speech (1989).
19. Rita O’Hare, Sinn Fein Publicity Director, unpublished speech (undated–about 1987).
20. Nell McCafferty, “My Phone Doesn’t Ring Anymore…”, from “Labour and Ireland”, no. 20 (March, 1988).
21. Jan Cannavan, “Irish Freedom Fighters”, from “Womanews”, 9, no. 3 (March, 1988).
22. Nell McCafferty, “The Armagh Woman”, p. 88.
23. “Notes for Revolutionaries” (Belfast: Republican Publications, 1983), p. 1.
24. Ward, p. 262.
25. Women POWs, Maghaberry Gaol, “Women and the National Struggle”, from “Women in Struggle”, no. 1 (Spring, 1991), p.14.
26. Bernadette Devlin McAliskey, “What Price Reunification?” from “Counterspy”, 8, No.2 (December, 1983), 41.
27 Cannavan, p. 7.
28. “Women in Ireland: Sinn Fein Women’s Policy Document” (Sinn Fein, 1992).
29. Oonagh Marron, “The Cost of Silencing Voices Like Mine” from “Unfinished Revolution: Essays on the Irish Women’s Movement”, p. 42.
31. McCafferty, “The Armagh Women”, p. 30.
*********

For further information on women in Ireland, please contact:
The Irish Women’s History Group
922 East 15th Street, Apt. 1A
Brooklyn, NY 11230
tel: 718-253-6640

http://fenianexile.blogspot.com/2008/04/womens-struggle-liberates-ireland.html



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