What is the current state of Irish feminism? There are those who repeat the mantra that feminism is dead, but others who point to signs of a revitalised women’s movement. The truth is that feminist activism may be re-emerging, but there are many challenges to overcome. In assessing this it is useful to take a historical perspective.
When independence was achieved in 1922, it seemed that women’s rights would be promoted in the new state. The modern Irish feminist movement had developed during the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries alongside the emerging struggle for independence. These first-wave feminists aimed to achieve equal suffrage and end legal discrimination against women. In 1922 the vote was extended to all women and men over twenty-one.
Up until the creation of the Irish Free State in 1922, however, serious tensions persisted between the suffragist movement and those allied to the cause of nationalism. After the Civil War, the women who had been most prominent in the independence struggle, including Constance Markievicz who had supported the anti-Treaty side, became less influential in public life. Despite the fact that women had been so active in securing Irish independence, independent Ireland was far from feminist.
Successive post-independence governments, heavily influenced by the Catholic Church, adopted a conservative approach to social issues. For many decades after 1922, there was no sign of an organised ‘women’s movement’, nor were many laws passed which were emancipatory of women. Women tended instead to be active at a localised level, through the Irish Housewives’ Association and the Irish Countrywomen’s Association.
Occasional revivals of a more radical women’s collective voice emerged. For example the Irish Women Workers’ Union three-month laundry workers strike in 1945 was led by suffragist Louie Bennett. Women’s voices were largely absent from the public space. There were some protests outside the Dáil in 1937 against the inclusion of the sexist language in Article 41 of the new Constitution. The three women deputies in the Dáil have been described as ‘the silent sisters’, because they made no meaningful comment on the provisions.
Challenges to the power of the Catholic Church, and to social conservatism generally, only became more evident with the emergence of the second-wave feminist movement in the 1970s. This was the period when Ireland joined the EEC and was required to enact equal-pay and anti-discrimination laws. Ailbhe Smyth has described 1974-1977 as marking a period of high energy and radical action within the feminist movement. Then from 1977-1983 she suggests that a consolidation of the movement followed. This included the establishment of rape-crisis centres and groups offering support to women suffering violence in the home. In 1979, a Women’s Right to Choose group was established.
The 1980s marked a period of political conservatism in Irish society. This was a time of economic recession, with high unemployment and emigration. The Right mobilised and gathered strength. Smyth sees the years 1983-1990 as marking a succession of notorious political defeats for the women’s movement. Some liberalisation of contraceptive law occurred. However, a referendum seeking to introduce divorce was defeated in 1986. This followed another defeat in the 1983 referendum which inserted Article 40.3.3 into the Constitution denying abortion in all but life-threatening cases. Campaigns against restrictions on abortion information in the late 1980s were led by students’ unions rather than by an active women’s movement. Feminism appeared to be in decline.
A significant turning point was November 1990 with the election of Mary Robinson as President. Her impressive track record as a campaigner on liberal and feminist issues had been seen by many as an obstacle to her success. Her election could be seen as marking a real change in public opinion on such issues.
Another turning-point was February 1992 and the ‘X’ case. The State had obtained a High Court order to prevent a 14-year-old pregnant rape victim from leaving Ireland with her parents to obtain an abortion. Political uproar ensued, and the Supreme Court reversed the earlier decision, allowing X to travel. The Court found that because she was suicidal, the continuation of the pregnancy threatened her right to life. The two rights were in direct conflict, and in such situations, the right to life of the girl should prevail.
A number of constitutional referenda followed the case. People voted to allow travel and information on abortion and voted down referenda in 1992 and 2002 which would have ruled out suicide risk as a ground for abortion. In December 2010, the European Court of Human Rights ruled, in the ABC case, that Ireland’s law on abortion breached women’s human rights. An expert group is currently examining how the government should implement this judgment.
The law on abortion remains highly restrictive, but on other fronts there were many positive developments on women’s rights and liberal reform generally in this period. Male homosexuality was decriminalised in 1993 and divorce was introduced following a 1995 referendum. Contraception was legalised. The academic discipline of women’s studies became well-established. During the economic-boom years women entered the workforce in increasing numbers, although childcare costs have remained high and State supports for working parents relatively limited.
Since the start of the economic downturn it could be argued that this momentum has halted and that there is stagnation of women’s rights. There are indications of a resurgence in activism by the Catholic right, through mouthpieces such as the Iona Institute.
So where are the feminists now? They are re-grouping on a range of different issues. In fact, there are encouraging signs of the re-emergence in very recent years of a radical, young and active feminist movement. New feminist groups have formed.
The Irish Feminist Network (IFN) was founded in May 2010 by a group of post-graduate students from the Centre for Gender and Women’s Studies at Trinity College Dublin. The group is campaigning for change on prostitution law (with the Turn Off the Red Light campaign) and for abortion law (with the new group Action on X, set up in February 2012 to campaign for legislation on the X case).
In August 2010 Cork Feminista was set up as a discussion and activism space for women in Cork. The Feminist Open Forum works on a range of different issues including abortion and gender proofing budgets. An annual Constance Markievicz summer school has been initiated in Dublin (May 2011 and 2012). Pro-choice groups like Choice Ireland continue to campaign for abortion legislation. A number of different groups has emerged, alongside the National Women’s Council, to campaign for increased levels of political representation for women. The 50:50 group aims for gender parity in Irish politics by 2020. Women for Election seeks to encourage more women to enter politics.
A shared commitment to gender equality is evident in the work of all these groups. The timing of their emergence indicates a renewed interest in feminist activism and the potential re-emergence of a strong and dynamic Irish feminism.