Do Mo Siúracha/To My Sisters
It saddened me recently to witness a collective of Irish women publish an ‘Open Letter’ to you, for the sole purpose of discrediting your current mission, silencing your voice and mobilising public hostility towards your proposed visit to Ireland. That it is based on ignorance and a heinous misrepresentation of our shared feminist history outrages me; that it implies their view is in any way representative of all Irish feminists shames me; and that it uses its object both to ostracise you and mobilise hatred and violence towards fellow Irish women, incenses every fibre of my being. There is no doubt about it, we need to talk!
I don’t know exactly what you may or may not know about Irish feminism, but what I know is that in every single struggle for liberty from sex-based oppression, your matrilineal ancestors and sisters have stood alongside us, either should-to-shoulder on Irish soil or as underground allies to our forsaken women when they crossed the Irish sea. The shared feminist struggles of Irish and British women are unambiguously entwined in an alliance which has inspired and influenced the status of women in Ireland both up to and following the formation of the Irish State. To detail the full extent of this shared history would merit an entire book but for now, I offer a snapshot of some feminist highlights from the past century:
In 1876 Isabella Tod from Edinburgh and Anna Haslam from Cork both started the suffrage movement in Ireland. They were instrumental in the 1886 Repeal of the Contagious Diseases Act which had brutalized prostituted women. By 1896 they won the right for women to be elected as Poor law Guardians and by 1898 Irish women had won the vote for all local government bodies although they could not sit on County Councils until 1911.
In 1908 Hanna Sheehy Skeffington and Margaret Cousins founded the Irish Women’s Franchise League and in 1909 Cousins spent three weeks training in England with the Women’s Social and Political Union an experience which she described as “a helpful apprenticeship for our campaign later in Ireland.”
In 1912 In protest against the Irish Parliamentary Party’s exclusion of women’s franchise from the Third Home Rule Bill, four English suffragettes Gladys Evans, Mary Leigh, Sarah Jane Baines (aka Lizzie Baker) and Mabel Capper, travelled to Dublin to participate with the Irish Women’s Franchise League in their first militant defiance. Their actions, which included throwing a hatchet at vising Prime Minister Asquith and setting fire to the Royal Theatre, earned them sentences of up to five-years penal servitude, the first ever such sentences handed down to suffragettes. Incarcerated in Mountjoy Jail, the women went on Hunger Strike following which, the Irish Suffragettes joined them in solidarity. Mary Leigh became the first suffragette in Ireland to be force fed and Gladys Evans continued to be force fed for fifty-eight days.
In 1967 after the legalisation of abortion in Britain, you opened your doors to the tens of thousands of Irish women who for the 50yrs since, have been criminalised in their own country and forced to travel abroad for abortions. And over the decades and prior to the Internet, subversive Irish and English women provided the informal Intelligence and logistics network which provided essential support to travelling Irish women: meeting them from buses, distributing phone numbers, providing sofas and paying for taxis. I’m not sure that we’ve ever thanked you for that!
In 1970 Margaret Dunlop (Gaj) born in Edinburgh and Mary Anderson born in London were both founder members of the Irish Women’s Liberation Movement, a short lived but influential feminist movement. In their 1971 Contraception Train publicity stunt to highlight the criminal status of contraception in Ireland, some English women were amongst the 49 strong delegation of women who travelled to Belfast to bring contraband contraceptives back through customs to Dublin.
In 1983 when the Pro Choice Anti-Amendment Campaign fought to oppose the insertion of the 8th Amendment into the Irish Constitution, once again English Pro Choice women travelled over to participate in our campaign. Through the decades BPAS has been unyielding in their alliance with Irish referral services and advocating on our behalf on request.
That same year, women in the UK Labour Party who believed British women, in particular English women, had a political responsibility to support British withdrawal from Northern Ireland, constituted an autonomous group called Labour Women for Ireland (LWI). From the belief that women’s liberation and national liberation were inextricably linked, they organised with anti-imperialist and republican women. Six separate delegations travelled to the North of Ireland from Sheffield, Brent and London (which resulted in some of them being expelled by their Trades Councils) and then returned home to lobby against the Strip Searching of women in Armagh and Brixton Prisons, and to advocate for contraception and abortion rights for women in the North of Ireland.
In 2012 following the death of Savita Halappanavar, women in London and Edinburgh held protest vigils to coincide with the Dublin vigil, whilst feminist journalists have publicised her case ever since in publications such as the Guardian and the Independent.
In 2017 women in Glasgow, Aberdeen, London, Oxford, Cambridge, Royal Holloway, Manchester and Durham went on Strike For Repeal in solidarity with the Irish Campaign. That same year British experts travelled to Ireland to contribute to making the case to Repeal the 8th Amendment at the Citizens’ Assembly.
And in recent years I, like many other Irish women who occasionally divert our gaze from our navel, know that whilst we were exposing and reconciling the injustice and trauma experienced by women incarcerated in Magdalene Asylums, you too were coming to terms with the exact same legacy across the British Isles. We know that Magdalene Asylums were established in the 1700s by the Church of England in Ireland, England, Scotland and Wales. We know that by the 1900s there were 12 in Ireland (plus one Bethany Home) and 172 in England, all run by various religious organisations. That 35,000 women and girls went through nine Irish Mother and Baby Homes between 1904 and 1996, where thousands of mothers and children died, and thousands more babies were trafficked for adoption; is no greater nor lesser injustice than the estimated 500,000 British women who went through similar institutions during that period. We do know that in Britain forced adoptions peaked in 1968, with 16,000 babies forcibly taken from women in England and Wales during that year alone. That there are Irish Feminists deriding you by Open Letter for not abandoning your own cause and rushing to ours, is sickening.
Our shared feminist alliance over this past century hasn’t been without fracture and difference of opinion. When English suffrage organisations suspended their activism during World War 1 to recruit women into war work, it drove an ideological wedge between Irish and English feminists, as Irish women advocated a pacifist anti-war position. For the most part our mutual solidarity has been based on the pursuit of a shared struggle for liberty from sex-based oppression, and I am very much aware that when the English man had his boot on the necks of Irish men and women, he had the other placed firmly on the necks of his wife, his mother, his sisters and his daughters.
One thing I have learned these past few decades is that when women subordinate their cause to other struggles – they lose. Too often we have conceded the grounds upon which we negotiate, to the terms of reference set by men. The 1983 Abortion Anti Amendment Campaign (AAC) was a case in point. When the opposition framed the debate as the “murder of babies” the AAC was unwilling to argue its case on the basis of promoting women’s rights, and countering lies about abortion. They opted instead to argue on the grounds of “pluralism” and the rejection of sectarian laws rather than on ‘abortion rights’. The so-called Left didn’t stick its head above the parapet for their comrades. In its leaflet asking people to oppose the referendum The Workers’ Party achieved the seemingly impossible – not only did the leaflet not mention abortion, it did not even mention women! The Irish Congress of Trade Unions leaflet wasn’t much better only managing to include the word women in the final sentence.
The Left, no more than the Right, has proven to be an unreliable ally of feminism. Political ideology of all hues has been shaped and defined by patriarchs from ancient Greece to the present day. Likewise with every shade of theocracy. Aristotle, Machiavelli and Marx; Jesus Christ, Buddha and Allah; Dalai Lamas, Caliphs and Popes, have all shared one common practice – the subjugation of women. The rights of woman will ALWAYS be subjugated to the more noble purpose of man: indoctrination, war, political governance, commerce, sexual gratification and the liberation of one man from the binds of another. These causes are narrated as struggles for the ‘liberation of people’ but NONE of them seek to liberate women. Their sole object is to advance the position of men. For centuries the word ‘people’ has been misappropriated to solicit women into the work of men, rendering them complicit in their own subjugation. In this regard, Liberal Feminism has delivered the greatest number of own goals: underwriting men’s right to buy sex; guaranteeing supplies of women and girls to pimps and traffickers; endorsing the sexual violence and commodification of women in porn; giving their imprimatur to the eradication of protected spaces and status for women and; advocating for the sexual grooming of lesbians by trans identifying males. It is truly time to write the sequel to this Handmaids Tale which is why, we need to talk!
It is evident, that by stealth, the feminist movement has been infiltrated and commandeered by the interests of men, whose illegitimate power was being diminished by the advancement of women. Women as an oppressed sex class, has been erased from the consciousness of many women, young and old. Of course many never had the benefit of such consciousness, as the powerful spiritual and secular influencers ensured their psychological submission to the doctrines of the patriarchs. But others did, and in order to mitigate the dissidence of feminism, the patriarchal interests cleverly aligned themselves with the cause and became ‘allies’. Misogyny was repackaged and sold back to women with media messages that would resonate with feminist thinking. The manipulation of what psychologists call mirroring – the reflection of another’s behaviour, speech pattern and attitudes; was used to build rapport and foster a belief that both sides shared similar attitudes and ideas. And so, the subjugation of females to male engineered feminism was rebranded and sold to women as Liberal Feminism. In the words of Sun Tzu “The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.”
In conclusion my dear sisters, it is seems to me that a re-radicalisation of feminism is both necessary and imminent. The contamination of feminist ideology by men is beyond neutralisation and I for one, am not prepared to bear witness to the gradual degradation of the liberties achieved by my matrilineal ancestors. Nor will I concede my own efforts of forty odd years, nor betray those of the many fantastic feminist women I’ve had the pleasure and privilege to befriend or work alongside over a number of decades – those of us who were not afraid to use the ‘F’ word, in the face of contempt from men or pity from other women. But my bravado is of little consequence without the solidarity and camaraderie of other like minded feminists, an association that in this technological age transcends distance, political borders, social class and sectarianism. You my English, Scottish and Welsh sisters, are amongst my comrades in the ongoing struggle against the sex-based oppression of women, and you are most welcome to come visit my friends and I across the island of Ireland any time you want to, or need to, talk. I look forward to meeting you with a céad míle fáilte (a hundred thousand welcomes).
I have no mandate to speak on behalf of other Irish women and have not solicited other signatories as an exercise of public validation. I am certain however that any woman who shares the sentiment herein, will find her own words to express them and her own means to addend any further commentary.
Le meas / With regard
Miriam Kivlehan. Ireland