The Irish Women’s Movement: from revolution to devolution

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Book Reviews, Issue 2 (Summer 2002), Reviews, Volume 10

Linda Connolly
(Palgrave, E80.60)
ISBN 33377132X

This is a book by a sociologist which has a lot to offer historians. Its central focus is on the women’s movement in the Irish Republic from 1970 to the 1990s. The context for this is set by a brief survey of developments over the preceding hundred and more years. One of Linda Connolly’s main conclusions is that the women’s movement in Ireland has been a continuous and developing process, with many facets and many dimensions, and that there was a continuity of Irish feminist endeavour from the mid-nineteenth century up to the present day.
The section on the earlier history is understandably brief as she justifiably laments the fact that there is as yet no integrated history of Irish feminism. Drawing on a wide range of published work she does a useful job in identifying where she finds gaps, inconsistencies and conflicting interpretations. She notes such questions as whether concentration of so much attention on feminism has distorted the wider history of Irish women; and whether concentration on the interaction between nationalism and feminism, particularly in relation to the suffrage movement between 1900 and 1922, has similarly distorted the history of feminism itself. Regarding the latter it does appear that the tendency to see some sort of causal relationship between feminism and nationalism in Ireland can distort the record by airbrushing out the pioneering Irish feminists of the second half of the nineteenth century. Their campaigns achieved considerable success in the areas of education and employment, married women’s property rights, sexual double standards and participation in local government bodies and elections. These pioneers were, almost to a woman, Protestant in religion and unionist in politics.
Connolly rightly recognises the continued feminist activism during the period from 1923 to the 1960s, so I wondered at her choice of the words ‘in abeyance’ to describe it. According to my dictionary ‘abeyance’ means ‘a state of being suspended or put aside temporarily’. The growing body of published research on which she draws, as well as the argument she convincingly makes about the essential continuity of feminist endeavour, do not reveal a movement that was suspended or put aside. Given less recognition by the public and the media certainly, but the activists who campaigned against the attempts by both Clann na nGaedheal and Fianna Fáil governments to claw back aspects of women’s equal citizenship in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s, including various clauses of the 1937 Constitution, were hardly in a period of suspended action.
The main part of the book is concerned with developments from 1970. She sees ‘second wave’ feminism starting at this time with the setting up of the first Commission on the Status of Women through the efforts of the existing women’s organisations, with the Irish Housewives Association to the fore, and the emergence of the new Irish Women’s Liberation Movement. From here on she relies largely on primary sources, the documents and archives of the women’s movement itself and fifty ‘qualitative intensive interviews’ conducted by Connolly herself with activists, including both leading personalities and ‘rank and file’ members. This research and her discussion of it constitute a sustained account and analysis which make a valuable contribution to the history of this period, and one that will be drawn on by historians. She sees this ‘second wave’ as aiming at a radical transformation which would go to the roots of society, revolutionising the family, sexuality, religion and education, in contrast to what she sees as the reformist agenda of the longer established organisations which worked for legal and political reforms aiming at a gender-blind society.
The Irish Women’s Liberation Movement introduced new methods of direct action, spontaneous demonstrations, stunts aimed at attracting media and public attention, such as the famous ‘contraception train’ on which a group of feminists brought condoms from Belfast to Dublin with maximum publicity. It also brought a new insistence that ‘the personal is political’, that what is seen as ‘private’ life in reality interacts with what is seen as ‘public’ life, and is affected by the political, social and economic structures and policies of the day. With this went consciousness-raising groups, where women could discuss the problems in their own lives and relate these to the organisation and values of the wider society. ‘Women’s Lib’ achieved a widespread involvement of women across the country in a hitherto unprecedented way. After a few years it was succeeded by Irishwomen United, a more consciously left-wing grouping which was characterised by internal ideological debate and argument among feminists who were also variously socialists, nationalists, republicans, lesbians, and radicals. There was also increasing co-operation between the newer feminists and the longer-established groups. A wide range of services for women by women was established on issues such as rape, single parents, domestic violence and others, most of which had hitherto been virtually taboo subjects in public debate. This was accompanied by a whole range of equality legislation, greatly contributed to by directives from the European Economic Community.
The 1980s saw a conservative reaction, including the passing of the first abortion referendum and the defeat of the first divorce amendment. During this period she sees the hitherto two parallel strands of the women’s movement in the 1970s, one aiming at getting feminist values integrated into the public structures of society, which she calls ‘mainstreaming’, and the other at independent activism from the margins, now beginning to converge in the direction of mainstreaming, even as new issues such as pornography and reproductive technologies moved onto the feminist agenda. The mainstreaming trend continued into the 1990s, with increasing professionalisation, and now, in place of self-help by affected groups themselves, the provision of services by paid leaders supported by subscriptions from supporters who were not necessarily the recipients of the service. Connolly’s analysis is that the dominant characteristic of the contemporary wave is not the relatively short-lived radicalism of the 1970s but this mainstreaming which was well advanced by the 1990s and she considers the advantages and disadvantages that might go with this. It is of course a recognised danger for any radical movement that absorption into the establishment can lead to a tacit acceptance of the value system underlying that establishment, make questioning it less likely, and so neuter the initial radicalism. It is a measure of the book’s value that it raises so many thought-provoking issues.
So far I have considered the book from a historian’s point of view. However, it is written by a sociologist as sociological analysis and this must be addressed. Connolly aims to ‘create new theoretical directions in Irish studies through the prism of the history of feminism and the women’s movement’. She makes many pertinent points, such as her criticism of the way in which both sociologists and historians have treated women as a group acted upon by outside forces, whether economic, political or other, and have failed to recognise them as active agents of change even in their own liberation. She notes how this has continually cut feminist women off from knowledge of their own past. She also stresses the complexity of feminism, so that it is more accurate to use the plural and speak of feminisms.
Nevertheless I have to confess that I got lost in the theoretical argument. This was not from lack of interest. I was eager to see how the dialogue she was setting up between empirical historical research and sociological theory would add to my understanding of what happened and why. Connolly regularly uses concepts such as ‘social movements theory’ and ‘resource mobilisation theory’, yet, despite my best efforts, I failed to discover what exactly these proposed as a way of explaining social change. At many times I felt I was following the line of thought and was on the verge of enlightenment. But again and again before I had fully grasped the message I came up against a language barrier such as the following not untypical sentence: ‘This approach advances a re-evaluation of the question of difference in interpreting Irish feminism and intercedes the structure/agency dichotomy of contemporary social theory by providing a meso-oriented, de-centred interpretation.’ Perhaps sociologists can understand each other and conduct meaningful dialogue using this sort of language. However, I believe it excludes many of the rest of us. This is a serious problem, and not least in this case because Linda Connolly has written a book that has a lot to say that is of value for the broader debates about Irish society in the past and in the future. Mindful of warnings about people in glass houses throwing stones I hasten to concede that others, even, if rumour is to be believed, some historians, can be accused of using language comprehensible only to an initiated few. Between us we need to find ways of removing unnecessary barriers to mutual understanding and develop more and wider debate, argument and dialogue in which many more of us, including both specialists and the ‘general reader’, can engage.

Mary Cullen

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