Gender and Sexual Politics in Ireland

Author: Tina O’Toole (University of Limerick)

Sexual Politics In Modern Ireland

Sexual Politics in Modern Ireland. Edited by Jennifer Redmond, Sonja Tiernan, Sandra McAvoy, and Mary McAuliffe. Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 2015, 190 pp.

The effect of feminist scholarship in and about Ireland over the past four decades has transformed research in the social sciences, as it has literary and cultural studies among other disciplines. Given the grip history has on the Irish public imagination, it is no surprise that women’s history has forged its own niche in the wider culture. The Women’s History Association of Ireland (WHAI), has ably assisted in that, and all four editors of Sexual Politics in Modern Ireland—Jennifer Redmond, Sonja Tiernan, Sandra McAvoy, and Mary McAuliffe—are, or have been, members of the WHAI executive. This essay collection is the outcome of a 2011 WHAI conference on “Gender and Sexual Politics in Ireland,” organized by McAvoy at University College Cork. McAvoy’s own career is an excellent example of the sustained links between scholarly research and feminist activism among her generation of scholars in Ireland. Her longstanding contribution to feminist campaigns, notably as a founding member of Cork Women’s Right to Choose Group, enlivens connections at local and national levels between feminist research and grassroots interventions.

In their introduction to the collection, the editors underline a similar imbrication of scholarly and public cultures, observing that in Ireland, “women were (and indeed are still) protesting for the right to make decisions about their own bodies” (2). Emphasizing this connection in the foreword, Maria Luddy makes early mention of the Magdalene Asylum revelations, observing that “[h]istorians of women and gender have played an important role in government-established inquiries to detail the social, political, economic and religious contexts of these institutions” (xiv). Luddy’s comments, drawing on her own important work in this field, which closely attends to the material realities of women’s lives in the culture, highlights the extent to which Sexual Politics in Modern Ireland is a timely intervention. The introduction suggests that “insights gained from scholars in gender and women’s history in Ireland today can offer reappraisals of our understanding of the state, how it constructed gendered bodies, and how it treated its citizens on the basis of gender” (11). Several contributors to this collection drill down into primary source material or detailed oral accounts of, for instance, the education system in the late-twentieth-century Republic of Ireland, in order to examine just that. For instance, Mary Muldowney’s research on Pro-Choice activism in Ireland since 1983, Elizabeth Kiely’s work on school-based sex education 1996-2002, and Tanya Ní Mhuirthile’s history of intersex and gender recognition legislation in the period to 2013, uncover documentary and other evidence which sheds new light on our reading of the recent past.

Redmond’s essay, “The Politics of Emigrant Bodies: Irish Women’s Sexual Practice in Question” further extends this engagement by homing in on twentieth-century Irish women’s bodies and “the ways in which they could become problematic for the state” (76). As we know, those women who emigrated from Ireland continued to be a constant source of concern to the national family. Invoking the moral panic stirred up by social purity lobbies of the period, Redmond draws on Catholic newspapers and statements from Church figures to illustrate the cacophony of voices urging single Irish women against emigration. This aspect of the essay has much in common with the work of Katherine Mullin, whose literary scholarship on social purity movements in the same period provides a useful framework within which to read this history. Women’s sexual experience was central to this battle, of course; young women migrants were urgently warned about the white slave trade and other (literally) unspeakable threats to their person once out of the protective embrace of their family and home communities. Redmond highlights the double standard intrinsic to these warnings, noting the “resounding silence” on the sexual behaviour of male emigrants (80). Her research provides original archival evidence attesting to the work of the National Vigilance Association, for instance, who rescued imperilled “girls” and brought them home from London. The essay is scrupulous in attending to such source material and to its local situation in the United Kingdom, however, the wider hegemonic forces at play are not fully explored here. As migration studies scholars such as Kirby Miller have shown, familism is usually at the heart of this issue; the extent to which these teenage migrants were an economic investment on the part of the whole family back home was often the basis for such a determined insistence on sexual continence.

Finding traces of women’s lives in the public record, particularly non-elite women or those who were not part of religious or bohemian communities, is a perennial difficulty for scholars, and some of the essays in this collection are forced to rely on a small number of records, or a surviving single account. For instance, John Johnston-Kehoe’s contribution focuses on accounts of four “Garda Woman Assistants,” the first women to join the Irish police force in the 1950s; while Conor Reidy takes as his case study the nineteen women who were registered as prostitutes on entry to the State Inebriate Reformatory for Ireland in the period 1900-1918, and whose case histories were recorded by prison authorities. The level of detail in these accounts, as reproduced here, demonstrates the full extent to which such women relinquished any right to privacy in the period; for even their menstrual cycles are recorded. By contrast, Maeve Riordan’s piece on sexual conventions among the upper classes in the same historical period shows the extent to which family privacy, as well as emotional and physical continence was safeguarded by contemporary hegemonies. The briefest of references is made here to Charlotte Grace O’Brien, “the humanitarian campaigner,” who is the aunt of one of the subjects of this essay, Dermod O’Brien (39). O’Brien compares his aunt’s clumsiness (and by implication, her size) with that of his “small and neat” bride-to-be, Mabel Smyly (39). The coded nature of this mention is intriguing. If the evidence provided in this chapter is anything to go by, Mabel’s passivity and self-effacing acquiescence to class and gender proprieties in the period, including her “ignorance and fear of sex,” were distinctly at odds with those of her husband’s relative (45). Charlotte Grace O’Brien’s publications and social activism, particularly in establishing homes for “fallen women” in the period, is indicative of a much more energetic and socially-responsible attitude to forging public roles for contemporary bourgeois women. Drawing out the comparison between these two women, perhaps, might have breathed more life into the otherwise somewhat lacklustre pair at the center of this study.

A key achievement of this collection is in showcasing the work of early career scholars, some of whom are mentioned above, and in reassessing topics already mined by scholars but where contemporary values and attitudes to gendered behaviour were uncritically adopted in those earlier studies. Bláthnaid Nolan’s fine essay on the “female factories” in Van Diemen’s Land, where women prisoners were kept in labour-camp conditions, provides a textbook example of this approach (16). Nolan’s deft combination of careful archival scholarship, informed by feminist and gender historiography, provides unique insights into the experience of incarcerated women. The essay illuminates class-based assumptions about sexual behaviour in the eyes of prison and colonial authorities who measured the intemperance and lack of sexual continence of the “depraved convict woman” in their charge against the idealized (and asexual) Victorian middle-class “angel in the house” figure (28). Underlining close ties between poverty and sexual transgression in the period, Nolan’s essay attends to the details of prison punishments meted out to women, such as six months hard labour after the birth of their child for unmarried women, or punitive head-shaving (“a punishment said to be more upsetting to them than any other”) (18-19). Nolan’s analysis of gender and sexual identities is incisive, and her argument for an emerging group identity and lesbian subculture among the women in the factories is persuasive. Her evidence for this is multivalent; archaeological findings demonstrate the existence of a thriving smuggling network, and documentary evidence details, for instance, the use of counter-cultural discourses to describe mannish women and same-sex activity in the prison. Accounts of prison riots too provide important source material; during one riot, police were “beaten off by the women who had armed themselves with the spindles and legs from the spinning wheels, bricks taken from the floors and walls of the building, knives forks &c and also Quart bottles in which some of them had received medicine” (22). Such events emphatically support Nolan’s assertion that these women may have been incarcerated but “refused to be submissive” (19). Thus, uncovering the experiences and demonstrating the teaspach of a minority community who have remained invisible to most, Nolan’s research provides unique access to the lives of working-class and incarcerated women at mid-century.

Underlying the diverse essays in this collection is the sustained concern with power struggles relating to gender in Irish culture. Many of the contributors highlight an uncomfortable reality for Irish women today, which is that in some ways the conditions addressed in these “historical” essays still persist. Homelessness and educational disadvantage are still the experience of many unmarried mothers in Ireland and reproductive rights continue to be a matter of dispute. In this context, where scholarly work supplies crucial knowledge and strategy for feminist and other activists, this collection is a welcome source book.