Return to books menu

Chapter Four

The struggle for women’s rights

There is an intimate connection between the rise of the working-class movement in Ireland, the growth of demands for national self-determination and the rise of the struggle for women's rights. Certainly, of the three areas, the rights of women have proved a litmus test, mirroring the rise and fall of struggle. In the century of Irish partition, they have mostly measured, through savage repression, the failure of democratic and socialist goals.

The links between socialism and women's rights was demonstrated by many women activists, but nowhere more dramatically than by Countess Markievicz, one of the foremost activists in Ireland, the first women to be elected to the British House of Commons and later a Labour minister in the Dáil, a member of the Irish Citizen Army and a participant in the Easter rising.

Markievicz was not alone. There were many working class and radical women around the ICA who brought together in their person a unity of women, workers and national self-determination.  However, alongside the fall of the ICA went a decline in the struggle for women's rights.

The pro treaty forces were reactionary, suppressing women and supporting the growing role of the Catholic Church. They refused Markievicz a state funeral when she died destitute in 1927.

For the anti-treaty forces the mantra "labour must wait'' was supported by an understanding that women also must wait. Women were suffocated in a green flag, portrayed as virginal martyrs serving in support of male volunteers.

The victory of reaction on the one hand and the incapacity of republican politics on the other led to a dystopian nightmare. Poorer workers found their children brutalised and assaulted in industrial schools.  Pregnant working-class women were sent to mother and baby homes and to Magdalene laundries.  Their story lives on today, as stories of mutilation of women, kidnap and sale of children and the dumping of infant's bodies in cisterns emerge, running alongside ongoing tales of cover up and suppression of records. At the time of writing the Dublin government is pressing ahead with plans to hand over a new national maternity hospital to a private company linked to the Sisters of Charity, a group of Nuns linked to many tales of abuse.

In Belfast a strong suffragette movement existed but, as with labour, it lived in a hostile Orange environment.  Also, as with labour, it was unable to take a clear position on the national question.  Then, as now, many believed that the generally more open British laws and practices would somehow leak across to Ireland if the union were maintained.

In the event the unionists annihilated the women's movement.  An official unionist women's movement was set up under the leadership of Lady Londonderry. When the men signed a counterrevolutionary covenant in 1912 the mass of unionist women signed a separate declaration, underlining their subordinate position.

The outcome was a mirror of southern society, with repression, clerical control of delinquent women and children involving Protestant and Catholic churches, a long search for truth and ongoing cover up of crimes. The story was partly mitigated by the establishment of the British National Health Service but the clerical establishments lived on in the new dispensation.

The feminist movement re-emerged alongside the civil rights movement in the 1960s with a high point for the southern movement being the contraceptive train of 1971 from Belfast to Dublin protesting the ban on reproductive control for women. In the absence of a mass movement the feminist movement was weaker, embedded in parliamentary and reformist milieu, and progress was slow. The import of contraceptives was banned until 1979 and open sale made legal in 1985. Limited abortion legislation was passed in 2018.

In the North the movement was divided on the national question.  The nationalist faction was far more active and radical but as the mass struggle declined, they were absorbed by the republican movement and eventually abandoned an independent feminist policy, including the issue of support for abortion, where that might conflict with the interests of Sinn Fein.

A reactionary definition of femininity was used by pro-imperialist peace movements to call for republican demobilisation, but these movements did not take up feminist issues.

Other feminist currents were smaller and less radical, with a number, supported by the Communist Party, mobilising around quite right-wing electoral bodies such as the Women's Coalition of the late 90s.  The core belief was that peace was a good even if masking imperialist victory, that political participation of women was a good in itself no matter how reactionary the political position they espoused, and finally that there was no need for a feminist programme as British liberalism would eventually extend the benefits of metropolitan civilisation to Ireland.  This strategy appeared to bring fruit when Westminster passed legislation in 2019, following another Stormont collapse, and ratified it in 2020 with an obligation on the renewed administration to implement the new law. However, structures to enable the legislation have not yet been put in place and this issue seesaws between Stormont and Westminster without any independent mobilisation of women to force a solution.

The absence of independent feminist organisations in the North is mirrored in the South, as existing movements are incorporated into NGOs and government sponsored community bodies. In 2020 a number of gender critical feminist organisations formed in response to a wide-ranging legal framework supporting transgender self-identification. The new legal framework removed the idea of women's spaces or any rights for women on the basis of their sex.  The movements include: The Countess didn't fight for this, Radicailín and Women's Space Ireland. Other gender critical groups have formed in the gay community. The new movements have been savagely criticised by many traditional feminist organisations, now part of a partnership between unions and government and operating through NGOs, lobbying groups and government committees. In an astounding development in 2020 these groups united behind the Irish branch of Amnesty International to demand the suppression of the new organisations, demanding the denial of democratic rights, refusal of space in the press or public representation.

It is not difficult to imagine the first woman MP in the Westminster Parliament, Irish Citizen Army member Constance Markievicz, today looking around in horror at the carnival of reaction that partition has wrought. Generations have struggled to achieve any form of women's rights, only to find them under attack on the one hand by the growth of reaction on both sides of the border and, on the other hand, by a new ideology that denies the very existence of women as biological entities.

Today the women’s question remains a litmus test. In the North the major parties to not support women’s rights. Westminster now and again indicates an aspiration for progress but clearly will not risk another collapse of an unstable settlement. The feminist movement has largely demobilised in the face of a strategy of waiting for the British to act.

Dublin has a much more rosy complexion. Has it not passed legislation on abortion, legalised gay marriage, advanced the most liberal trans ID laws in Europe? In reality the abortion legislation is limited and owes its existence to a revulsion against church control rather than any radicalization of the ruling class and its operation disadvantages working class women.  The effect of current trans legislation is to remove the category of women from groups entitled to rights. Their right to organise separately is challenged and they are redesignated as “people with cervixes”.

The greatest threat comes from the state’s determination to hand over a new National Maternity Hospital to a private agency linked to the Catholic church, continuing a long history of outsourcing health and social services to religious bodies, who apply their own reactionary rules to the treatment of women.

It is around issues like this that we can begin to see how women’s oppression is baked into the partition of Ireland. The Northern component seated in power a reactionary evangelical coalition that continues to maintain a veto in politics. A dependent economy in the South was led both by counterrevolutionary ideology and economic weakness to outsource health care to the church and continues with this practice today.

Emancipation of women will involve the smashing of partition and advancing towards socialism and an Irish democracy.

The last thing that woman and workers should do this time around is wait.

<<<Chapter Three: The workers movement: revolution and reform

Return to top of page