Feminist Ire’s Stephanie Lord and Sinéad Redmond, along with Niamh McDonald and her son Tom, join Kathy Sheridan to discuss the origins of Cop On Comrades, how men can support the feminist struggle, and activism in the social media age.
Author Archives: feministire
The author of this piece wishes to remain anonymous
Daily newspaper problem pages and agony aunt columns are usually the stuff of tea-breaks – a few subbed-down lines is all the reader gets to explain the situation that needs sorting. This week, though, the Irish Independent’s “Dear Mary” feature printed an extraordinary letter from a man who claimed to hate his wife but who said he would continue in the relationship if she had sex with him once a week. It caught my attention, not because of the misogyny – though that is astounding in its intensity – but because the writer admits to forcing his wife to have sex….and Mary welcomes this “other perspective”.
It prompted me to imagine what the writer’s wife might say to Mary, if she’d read her husband’s letter and recognised him. Perhaps other women might like to imagine too?
It’s been 14 – no 16 – years. Of hell. If you must know.
Fourteen years with his ring on my finger.
God he begged and begged me to marry him when I was at university. We met at a gig in the students’ union. He caught me unawares after a few drinks. It wasn’t until sometime later that he admitted he wasn’t a student too.
He was a salesman.
Who liked hanging around the university in the evenings.
And it wasn’t until sometime after that again that he admitted he still lived with his mother, not in a house on the edge of the city with two friends from college.
These untruths annoyed me and we split up several times. So why did I marry the liar?
Well, I met his mother on the final get-back-together weekend.
“Ah sure you’re great together.
“Ah he worships the ground you walk on.
“And when I think about it, he’s very good to me really.”
As I listened to her gush in her sparkling kitchen, I thought this was strange because he was always complaining about her. But I let it slide and accepted the ring.
And it was grand for a while. We honeymooned hornily in Benidorm for a week and our first child was born 40 weeks later.
When I found out I was pregnant he was delighted.
His own personal taxi service to and from the pub.
When the child arrived, he celebrated over the whole weekend with his friends. I saw him at the delivery and then 36 hours later, dishevelled and so drink-sodden I thought the nurses would turf me out of the bed and put him in it.
I’d just started a good job before I got married. The child put paid to that. They didn’t have to keep the post open and so I scraped by on the notes he put on the kitchen counter each week.
He was always promising more – there’s a big deal coming off, he’d say, loads of commission. But it never happened. It was on one of those Friday nights that I fell pregnant again. A couple of cans of cider in my three-month-post-baby-body and that was it. In spite of his assurances that he’d seen on television that a woman who’d had a baby couldn’t get caught again for a year.
Yes. I was that in love, that gullible.
So three years into the marriage and two youngsters under two. His money stayed the same so I had to do something. But who would look after two kids that age for nothing?
Well actually,his mother did – for a few mornings each week – and I started cleaning other people’s houses. Cash in hand. No sick pay. No holiday pay.
I could buy bits and bobs at Christmas….new shoes for the kids…the usual.
And it was hard Mary, do you know that?
Getting him off to work with a clean, pressed shirt each day. Getting the kids organised for their gran’s, getting to work – I’d no car – and back. Then housework, the dinner, the kids.
I was shattered.
He came home from work, threw off his shoes and ate his dinner with the six-pack he’d brought home. Or phoned me to say his workmates were having a few drinks and he’d see me later.
Either way, I couldn’t win. Either way, when I had put the kids to bed, he’d start pawing from the sofa, or arrive home with just one thing on his mind.
And I was shattered Mary.
A lot of the time I got away with it. I’d say one of the kids wasn’t well and sleep in their room. Or say I had my period. For a man who was supposedly so well up on female reproduction he had no idea most periods don’t last two weeks.
But sometimes there was nothing I could do.
Now don’t get me wrong. At that stage I did kind of still love him. If he’d lifted the toys or said he would iron his own shirts, I’d have been all over him like a mare in heat.
But he never did.
And he was no stallion Mary. He was a little mongrel dog. One, two, three. Done.
A good lover?
I climaxed three times in our marriage – twice on honeymoon. As the Americans would say, go figure.
Anyway, after a few years he stayed out more and more.
It sounds like a 1950s record, but when I washed his shirts I knew he was with other women. They can’t help themselves with the perfume – even their deodorant smells different. And it was all over his shirts.
Then one night he came home earlier than usual. The children were watching television and I was making their school lunches in the kitchen. In he comes through the back door, swaying, demanding.
I suggested later. He wanted it there and then. I protested the kids were in the next room, could walk in any minute. He tipped the back of a chair against the door handle and raped me over the kitchen sink.
Do you know what that’s like Mary? To be violated in your own home, your children in earshot so you can’t scream?
One, two, three. Done.
Be thankful for small mercies.
He said nothing the next day and neither did I.
I thought about leaving him then. But this was before the internet was big and I’d no mobile phone anyway. It wasn’t until weeks later that I saw a poster for Women’s Aid in the library – but when and where would I get the time to ring them? What would they be like? Would they give off that I had stayed there that night – and since? I did not know these things. Besides which, on the night it happened I’d four euro fifty in my purse and no idea of where to go.
Now, it’s different.
Now I’m still cleaning because the kids are still at school but I’ve saved a bit for what I call my sunshine day.
Now I know the Women’s Aid number. I’ve got someone to speak to.
He’s forced me since. And I’ve told her. She’s written it down.He’s never hit me, but she says that doesn’t matter – rape in marriage is still rape. I always thought the hitting mattered most, the black eyes and the bruises . That that was domestic abuse. I think lots of people – men and women – do. Maybe you do too. Maybe you should talk to Women’s Aid too. Ask them about rape in marriages and partnerships.
I didn’t know that controlling the money in the house was abuse. Both our names are on the mortgage, but he keeps telling me that I’ve let him down and it really should be his because I don’t have the job that my university education lead him to believe I’d get.
I’d didn’t realise that his never-ending put-downs were abuse too. After the second child and thinking I was stuck with him forever, I didn’t care about anything. I ate when I wanted – crisps and toast. No, actually, I ate what we could afford and when I wasn’t cleaning, or looking after the kids or him. So my jeans and T-shirts got bigger, but I’m always clean and fresh, even if my hair is constantly tied back in a ponytail and I cut my own fringe.
And I make my children smile. And the people I work for and anyone I talk to. Though I haven’t been able to keep up with my uni friends – or make many news ones. Well, you can’t when you’re never out, Mary, can you?
He has lots of “friends”.
But the Women’s Aid woman is a friend now. She persuaded me to tell her how my life is lived. And she helped me see that it is no life at all. She knows because it used to be her life too.She understands that a time will come. And she says they’ll be waiting.
I have a phone now but he doesn’t know about it. I hide it under those shirts he never irons in the basket. So, when that time comes and I’m ready, I can call them and tell them I’m coming.
He still comes home expecting his dinner and all the rest – and sometimes, like before, I can’t escape, but I will….soon.
When he’s sitting, furious at the lack of sex, on the sofa, he texts a lot. I know it’s other women but I ignore the pings. He smiles sometimes and puts on his coat and leaves me in the kitchen. I know he’s meeting them for sex – he keeps condoms in his jacket pocket. He doesn’t know I’m studying the books I’ve hidden behind the cereal boxes.
So yes, Mary.
Tell him to leave.
Tell him to get out of this house and move away, far, far away. He never cared about the kids up until now – ask him the dates of their birthdays and see what he says. He won’t miss them.
We won’t miss him either.”
(Guest post by Izzy Kamikaze)
This is part of a longer (maybe much longer) work in progress about #coponcomrades – a recent social media kerfuffle here in Ireland, that seems quite instructive and worth spending more time on. I was writing Part One and Part Two at the same time, but Part Two finished itself first and so they are being published out of sequence.
The story so far is basically that a young-to-me (35ish) very effective working class male activist has published a piece in a national newspaper, decrying “identity politics” and the notion that “a straight, white male” can carry any privilege if he is also working class. Amongst other responses, a group of feminist women have signed up to a joint statement, acknowledging the disadvantage of working class men, but otherwise disagreeing.
The usual social media handbags at dawn has ensued. Two days ago, a male left wing poet has weighed in with a poem depicting 350 crazed neoliberal harpies and Part Two is my response to that poem. If you haven’t read the poem, you can find it here (and this contribution may not make much sense without it,) but if you’ve already seen it, meh…why give it any more clicks…
Part 2: Plutonium Pants Suit
I was pretty surprised yesterday to find myself a target of your satire. I’m Capitalism’s Handmaiden now, part of a chorus of “350 identical voices.” As feminist voices are indistinguishable to your ear and presumed to be the voices of privilege and neoliberalism, I thought I’d write, in a spirit of comradeship, to help you distinguish one voice from what you apparently see as a fem-bot army, raining death and destruction on the world from the weaponised genitals inside our “plutonium pants suits.” An appealing image, perhaps Kevin, but a false one. I’m writing to tell you it ain’t necessarily so.
You don’t know me, but you usually tag me when you share your poems and I like that. Well-aimed political satire is one of the most subversive things we can do. I’ve often shared your poems and commented kindly on them – one about the Jobstown protest is a particular favourite and another about Clare Daly. Thank you for those. The words we handmaidens of capitalism sent out into the world were all about privilege, so that’s what I thought I’d write to you about now.
My granny didn’t have a piano, stolen from a refugee or otherwise, but if she had one, she’d have been able to tune it. Her father tuned pianos for a living and she had learned from him. He also played the organ in the local cathedral, which came with a little social standing, but no cash. My Granny lived in poverty most of her lifetime, but was better educated than her neighbours in the council estate and was acutely aware of this privilege. There was a book on her few shelves called “Law for the Millions” and from this she dispensed legal advice to neighbours who couldn’t afford a solicitor. The “Button A, Button B” payphone in her front room was the only one in the estate and that’s where the neighbours came to keep in touch with their emigrant children, or to call a doctor when somebody had an accident.
My Granny never had money in her whole lifetime. She scraped by on a widow’s pension for 30-odd years. I remember going to the coal merchant with my Granny just before Christmas. She paid for her own delivery, then handed him a few bob to bring coal to somebody who couldn’t afford it. My Granny’s voice is one of 350 voices, entirely distinguishable from each other, that pop into my head on any average day. My Granny was no intersectional feminist, but she wanted us to remember “there is always somebody worse off than yourself.”
There is no plutonium pants suit in my wardrobe, Kevin. Just my leather jackets, faded jeans and the shirts and ties that still sometimes get me mocked in the streets by people you presumably feel have no privilege worth speaking about. When I was 24, I found myself living in Fatima Mansions. If you haven’t heard of it, it was a notoriously deprived council estate in Dublin’s South Inner City. I stayed more than 15 years and for most of that time, homophobic abuse was a daily part of my life. For a few months in the early 90s, I cared for a friend and former lover who was terminally ill. She died in the front room there, Kevin. She was tired of the hospitals and clinics, so she chose to die at home, but she had to go to the methadone clinic daily, so I used to scrub the piss and shit off the stairs so we could get down to the waiting taxi. I was afraid she might fall there.
We had no money, so our lives were pretty limited, but one night she went out for a drink with a friend. She hadn’t been out for a long time and was very excited and I was pleased too, because I really needed a rest. When she came back that night, I opened the door and she was stood there on the doorstep, with spit running down her face onto her leather jacket. Her voice is another of the entirely distinguishable voices in my head. She left me all her papers to “write the true story of women living with HIV” and I hear that voice quite often because I haven’t kept that promise, but I got out of that place by getting a job and a mortgage that I’m still paying. So time is short and I only manage it in snatches like this one to you.
The young men who did this were amongst the least privileged in our society and I stand squarely by their side whenever justice demands it. But did they enjoy straight white male privilege when they broke all my windows, wrote graffiti on my door or shoved shit through my letterbox? I say they did. And they had privilege too when they spat in the face of a dying woman, 32 years old, on her way home from her last ever night in the pub? I say they did, Kevin. And did I enjoy white privilege when they eventually bored with me and moved on to harass the black people who had started to move into our neighbourhood? It didn’t feel like much of a privilege, but yes I did.
It was eight years before I had the money to bring her ashes to India as she’d asked me to. I went for six weeks and it’s still the only time I’ve been outside Europe. It’s interesting you should mention Union Carbide in your depiction of us, because I spent one of those six weeks volunteering at a centre for victims of the Bhopal gas disaster. That week was a small thing, Kevin and I’m looking for no medals for it. It was a drop in the ocean, but still, an act of comradeship rather than the unthinking rampage of one of capitalism’s handmaidens, in my entirely discountable opinion.
The left has always had an issue with what it calls “identity politics” but I’m old enough and around both struggles long enough to remember that it used to have another name. When I was young and desperate to be accepted on the left, the term used was bourgeois individualism. The fight for individual human rights as basic as choosing who to live and love with was a manifestation of greed, not need, they told us. Depending on who you talked to, either all our problems would be solved after the revolution, or else we ourselves would cease to exist as our sexuality was nothing more than a symptom of bourgeois decadence. We were an unsightly pimple on capitalism’s arse. Either way, we needed to subsume our struggle to that of the huddled masses, until the glorious revolution came to grant us luxuries like not having to perpetually wipe spit from our faces (or else until it imprisoned us in the gulags, whichever turned out to be the case.)
Identity politics needed to happen, Kevin, and still needs to happen. I was a teenager then and I have a grandchild now. The magical revolution that wipes all problems away is no more assured in her lifetime than it was in mine. I hope as a comrade you see why we couldn’t just wait. Sure, there were people who were assimilationist, who didn’t care at all if others remained without privilege, as long as they got some themselves. But that was never me, Kevin, and there were plenty more like me. I do try to live in solidarity with others. I know it’s never enough, but I know I try. I don’t know all the other voices you characterise as “identical,” but I do know they’re not identical and I’m pretty sure that they try too.
In your poem, even my poor innocent genitals are reimagined as weapons of war, raining down horror on the Middle East. I feel as helpless as most comrades in the times we live in, but I’ve always been against war and struggled for peace. My enthusiasm for your poem about Jobstown isn’t just to do with that case. I’ve fought for the right to protest all my life. I’ve been arrested twice in my life, both times for anti-war protest – nothing compared to what homeless young working class men now face when they get treated like criminals for just trying to find someplace to sleep or rest or to use the drugs they can’t get through a day without, but still a mark that I’ve not lived my life entirely as a handmaiden to the military industrial complex.
One of those arrests was as specious in its way as the arrest of the Jobstown defendants, as we never did find out under what law it was made. That protest was against American foreign policy, as obnoxious 33 years ago as it is today. The other sought the release of a pregnant woman activist, arrested in the USSR on false charges of assaulting a KGB officer. She was a target because of her involvement in the disarmament movement and her husband was frantic because he couldn’t find out where she was.
Their plight would have meant little to one of the warmongering fem-bots of your imagination, but not being one of those, I did the little bit I could. Myself and four friends left the party celebrating my 21st birthday and we chained ourselves to the gates of the ambassador’s residence. We were there for a number of hours before we were cut off the gate and nobody could get in or out, during that time. No doubt we’d be charged with “false imprisonment” today, but luckily we weren’t and we made the papers. We helped to secure the release of that woman and I’d do it again in a heartbeat, if I happened again to be one of the first people to hear news of an unjust incarceration.
I understand your instinct in writing the poem, Kevin. Word reached you of something you thought an injustice and you sat down to write in the same spirit as I chained myself to that gate. I know you heard our voices as a hate-filled chorus, but I also know you didn’t hear what we actually said. My feminism has nothing to do with Golda Meir or Indira Gandhi, nor the Hillary Clinton implied in the line about plutonium pants suits that must have seemed so very clever at the time. I’m rooting for Jeremy Corbyn, not for Teresa May. I’m no friend of power, but while it exists, may compassionate people hold it regardless of gender, not the clowns and tyrants that give me so many sleepless nights.
I’m rooting for Corbyn, though the slogan “For the Many” gives me the heebie-jeebies. Sometimes the few-in-number are not the oppressors, but the tide turns against them anyway and they end up in the camps. Even the kindest ideology contains within it the seeds of oppression. We have to be watchful of ourselves all the time. There are intolerant versions of feminism and I’m happy to stand against them, but so far there’ve been no feminist gulags, where people are imprisoned for minor irregularities of thought or for having a little more than their neighbour has. Within a year of the much needed revolution in Russia, once the bright hope of working people around the world, the first forced labour camp opened. The dreams of freedom often end up dashed on the rocks below.
The seeds of oppression are in everything that once stood for justice, but as yet no feminist bombs have rained on children in their beds. There are no piles of corpses to shame our talk of equality. It was somebody else’s dream of equality that went very bad. I promise to keep an eye out for injustice, Kevin. I promise to speak out where I see it and I hope you keep doing the same – will you join me in being as willing to listen as to speak out? Will we listen to each other’s voices first, before rushing to condemn?
The focus on the assumed privilege of our 350 voices is something that puzzles me. It might make more sense if we’d claimed we didn’t have any privilege, but we didn’t say that. It definitely would make sense if we’d said “even the most underprivileged working class man on the street has more privilege than we have” but we didn’t say that either. What we tried to say was “everyone has privilege sometimes. That’s OK, it’s what you do with it that counts.” I hope you might hear this more distinctly when it’s one voice saying it, but I’m sure each of the others is on her own journey with the privilege she was born with and the privilege she was born without.
I don’t know the circumstances of all the others. I’m sure some are middle class, but what of it? Eva Gore-Booth, born into the splendour of Lissadell House in Sligo, did more for the female mill workers of Lancashire than most male trade union leaders of less exalted origins. Her better known sister, Constance Markievicz, was the victim of many a sneer about her origins, but was so loved by the slum-dwellers of Dublin that they queued the full length of O’Connell St to file past her coffin. The Rebel Countess’s voice is often in my ear. In her youth, you might recall, she felt so strongly for the poor she “put [her] jewels in the bank and [bought] a revolver.” By the time she died at 59, she had nothing left to give away.
Emma Goldman’s voice is another one that sometimes visits me. Nobody was more committed to class struggle than she was, but if she couldn’t dance, she didn’t want to be part of your revolution. Nobody thinks of her as an intersectional feminist, but she said this: “The history of progress is written in the blood of men and women who have dared to espouse an unpopular cause, as, for instance, the black man’s right to his body, or woman’s right to her soul.”
The right to speak freely on matters of conscience is of vital importance and is not extended equally to everyone. We all have to grab whatever opportunity we can find. I’m glad we live in a country where, all of us in this story have been able to speak up as we see fit, even if we don’t all get the same platform and even if we find the criticism of others hard to take. I’m glad a working class man is free to say he can’t possibly enjoy any privilege, even though he’s saying it in the pages of a national newspaper whilst taking a PhD in Trinity College. I’m glad a bunch of feminists can disagree, singly or together, and share their feelings through a humble Facebook post that nevertheless gets a lot of exposure. I’m glad that people who disagree with us can have conniptions on social media about “search and destroy” missions, as if feminazis were training binoculars on their house prior to dragging them off to break rocks in the re-education camp of their paranoid fantasies.
I’m glad that you are free to write a spectacularly ill-conceived poem about the whole affair and to publish it in an outlet that only a few weeks ago was equally free to share for clicks the footage of the shamefully heavy-handed arrest of a naked woman, the late Dara Quigley, another writer and activist, just like you and me. They ignored for hours the pleas of their contributors and readers to take it down, but I’m still glad there were no official censors kicking their door down (and I’m glad they eventually listened and took it down.) I see they’ve changed the picture above your poem and I’m betting they made less of a big deal about doing so, but I’m sure that doesn’t reflect any kind of privilege at work…
I’m glad that I can respond to you as I’ve done here, even though my platform’s smaller and I’m glad you’re at liberty to pen further speculation about my alleged neoliberal sympathies and the fantasised misdeeds of my blameless grandparents. None of us is going to be dragged from our beds in the middle of the night for what we’ve said and I’m grateful. The worst that will happen to any of us is that other people might disagree with us and might say so, singly or in groups and I know from sweet experience (I try not to be bitter) that is totally survivable.
It isn’t always that way in the world we live in. There are writers and activists in the world whose heads rest uneasy on their pillows tonight and it befits us all to recall that when we meet with some pretty civilised resistance to what we say. Let’s keep them in mind before accusing each other of censorship and war crimes. Let’s turn our attention together to real threats to our own speech. They are out there, Kevin and it’s not you or me. It would be good also to remember that feminism has always emphasised the importance of the individual’s voice – “the personal is political” – while socialism all too often demanded that the individual’s welfare and small voice be sacrificed for an allegedly greater good.
Everybody has some privilege sometimes, Kevin. I would say that, even if they did come now to kick down my door. None of us is so lacking in privilege that we can be excused the necessity of listening to other people’s voices. None of us.
The voices I’ve shared with you so far have all been women’s voices. I’m concerned that you might find them hard to tell apart. James Connolly is not usually thought of as an intersectional feminist, but perhaps his voice will land more easily on your ear than mine does. He put it this way: “The worker is the slave of capitalist society, the female worker is the slave of that slave.” I’m with Connolly on that one, Kevin. None of us is so lacking in privilege that we have not at some time benefitted from somebody else’s lack of privilege.
Keep sending me your poems, please Kevin. Mostly I enjoy them.
Yours in Comradeship, Izzy.
Originally posted on Linnea Dunne’s blog. Reposted here with permission.
It’s funny when a straight, white man denounces the three-word descriptor as unfair because those are not the words he would personally choose to describe himself. Talk about missing the point – or helping to hammer it home. That’s exactly what privilege is: the identities that are so deeply accepted as societal norms that they become invisible. I didn’t grow up introducing myself as a straight, white, middle class person either. Why would I? Nine out of ten of my friends ticked all those boxes too. Woman, though – I describe myself as that on the regular.
People who take issue with identity politics tend not to like the way we use the word ‘privilege’. I’d be happy to use a different word; I just don’t know of one that hits the nail on the head so well. I’m privileged too – in some ways, maybe more privileged than a working-class Dub, even if he happens to be a straight, white man. But this isn’t a privilege competition and I’m not here to pass blame. As Frankie Gaffney points out so well in his anti identity politics piece in the Irish Times, he didn’t choose those attributes – it’s just how he was born.
Think about that for a moment. He didn’t choose it; he was lucky compared to many, but it was nothing more than a luck of the draw. And that of course goes for those who weren’t so lucky as well, which is exactly why we call it privilege – it’s not earned, it’s not chosen, nor is it in and of itself a sign of ignorance or arrogance. It just is.
When Gaffney sets out his vision for a world of equality, he writes: “We should all be subject to the same laws, all have the same opportunities, all have the same rights, all have the same responsibilities…” What he doesn’t want is politics that sets out to divide us. But can’t he see we’re already divided? Can’t he see that plugging that gap between society’s divisions requires a mapping out of the same? If our privileged identities are so normative that we can’t even see them, how are we going to break down the oppressive ideas and prejudices against those who don’t fit within the norm, these ideas we’ve all internalised by virtue of growing up in a divided world? Equality is not about blindly giving everyone the same, like sweets divided into bowls for kids at a birthday party; equality is about looking at the unfair starting points, working to dismantle what caused them and distributing resources accordingly.
Should we talk about suicide rates amongst men, the homelessness crisis and how and why it’s gendered, how toxic masculinity is killing both men and women and how we can destroy it? Of course we should. I want more of that kind of talk, and I have yet to meet a feminist who doesn’t. What I don’t want is for these concerns to grow louder and more frustrated every time a woman talks about women’s rights or a person of colour about racial privilege. We can do both. There’s not a finite space for discussing societal problems and fighting for a more equal world. Keep talking.
Did I ever go hungry? No, not once. I’ll say it again: I’m bathing in privilege. I’m still scared of walking home alone at night; I still panic every month in the days before my period arrives; and I’ve learnt to always wrap my opinions in soft cotton wool, lest I be called out as hysterical – but hey, that’s just being a woman. I’m still regularly reminded of my privilege on an almost daily basis, but while it’s hard, I suck it up. Because this is about inclusive equality for everyone, so screw my hurt feelings.
I could spend my days defending my right as a white middle-class person to use whatever words I choose, regardless of my ignorance around their heritage and the hurt they cause, or I can focus my energy on listening to those who have fallen deep into the cracks of society’s divisions, with the aim of lessening the divides and building bridges. Gaffney has the same choice, and here’s a clue: it’s not the people fighting back against oppression who are to blame for society’s great divides, no matter how uncomfortable they make you feel.
The author of this guest post wishes to remain anonymous.
I attended a protest at the Department of Health yesterday to highlight people’s outrage at the handing over of the new National Maternity Hospital site to the religious order of the Sisters of Charity. I went as a member of Midwives for Choice, and I expected to help hold the banner and maybe video our spokesperson speaking. As it happened she could not, fearful as she was of her job by speaking out against St Vincent’s Hospital Group. So it ended up that I had a microphone and a megaphone pointed in my direction. My reaction? I froze. My voice is an inside my head voice, for the most part; I can’t even speak up in small group conversations mostly. So for anyone who wanted to know why there were midwives behind a banner, here are my thoughts.
I’m already scared that I’m a nun. All the older nurses and midwives in our hospitals were trained by nuns and they tell of the iron fist, regimented care and much else. Sometimes with respect and awe, sometimes fear, sometimes relief that they are all but gone.
The church’s legacy is strong within our healthcare system. Many if not most hospitals in the state have some church connection (religious members on boards, etc). Yet the history of church-run institutions in this country reads like a horror story, from the Magdalene Laundries to the institutional schools. Say it slowly with me: the institutions of the Catholic Church are inherently misogynistic. Women’s bodies will always suffer under them. They are beyond redemption.
Finally, this is the generation where the church’s abuses are being exposed. We are sickened as a nation to our very core about the Tuam babies, symphysiotomies, Magdalene Laundries, the abuse of our children by priests and nuns. Finally we should have hope that our society will stand up and say no more, that we can extricate our institutions from the grasp of the religious. It will be a slow but worthwhile process. When we can get the church out of our government, our laws, our schools, our healthcare systems, our bodies, maybe finally we can have a humane secular society.
That’s what most of us were thinking, surely, in the wake of the Tuam babies case? Please save us from the church? Then what the hell is this move? It’s as Irish a decision as getting your kid baptised to have a family get-together… and maybe to get into the local school. Cop on, Ireland. Stop being so short-sighted, so disingenuous. If we know something is wrong – and by God we know the Sisters of Charity have done wrong – then let’s stand up against it.
As a midwife, my role in supporting women to make informed decisions around their care in pregnancy and childbirth is already curtailed by the patriarchal, over-medicalised, over-litigious, under-staffed, no-continuity, factory-model, fire-fighting maternity system in place here. But at least women in Ireland are starting to take back power, to demand evidence-based care and proper time to birth. Even if this is something that our systems literally cannot provide at present, at least there is an awareness that what we have now is not good enough.
It feels like a change, this last 10 years: women are coming together; midwives are coming together; there is a politicisation, a will to change, even if it can’t quite find traction within our systems yet. There is a recognition that the 8th Amendment is a barrier to proper maternity care; where the fetus and the woman have equal rights within our constitution, any perceived risk to the well-being of a fetus overrides even real and substantial risks to a woman’s health and well-being. Our National Consent Policy directly points to the 8th Amendment as being a reason why pregnant people do not have a legal right to informed consent and refusal of treatment. Women leaving this system will attest to being railroaded and sidelined within their own care (see Aims Ireland testimonials).
I work within the system as it is now. While, individually, I strive to do my very best for each woman I care for, I know that the system is letting them down. I know that women are leaving our maternity system traumatised and broken down. Childbirth itself is not an inherently traumatic event. It is what we do to women in the name of “safety”: ass-covering and over-intervention without proper thought, consideration, conversation and shared decision-making with the people whose bodies we care for.
This brings me back to my first point: I already fear that I’m a nun. When the Tuam babies story broke, as well as the horror and the disgust that we all felt, I had a sneaking fear lurking… Those nuns were midwives. What if I’m a nun? What if I were a nun in Tuam, entering the institution to try to do my best for the forgotten and ostracised single mothers. What if I was kind as I caught their babies and helped them to their mother’s breast. What if I was gentle as I cared for infants while their mothers worked, coming back to feed them on schedule. What if my heart hurt as I dried the tears of a mother whose baby was adopted out to America. What if I felt sick with fear as I saw too many little babies dying. What if I knew that they weren’t being buried so that the money for them would keep coming in. What if I turned a blind eye because I was just a little nun cog-in-the-wheel. Sometimes I fear that I’m just a little midwife cog-in-the-wheel.
So I have to go and hold banners. I have to add my face to pictures and my feet to marches. I have to overcome my fear of putting my job in jeopardy by being seen to be overly-political, overly-public, overly-outspoken. I have to find my voice as a midwife and encourage others to find theirs… even if I’m not quite ready for the microphone and the megaphone. I have to nod to pro-choice badge-wearers and pro-choice colleagues. I have to have small conversations in work and outside of it. I have to join Facebook groups, scribble my thoughts, cuddle my loved ones, help my pregnant friends, and I have to breathe and tell myself I am not a nun. I am a midwife. I am with-woman not with-institution, however hard that is in my everyday work. I will stay within the institution because free maternity care is a public right and should be available to all, not just those who can afford health insurance and private midwifery care.
Some day I dream of the true mind and body safety that comes with continuity of midwifery care for all women, and the true informed relational decision-making that can only happen when our maternity institutions are built back up to humane levels, free of the stranglehold of patriarchal and religious control – both constitutionally and structurally. We have a chance in Ireland to reject our broken past and to go forward with conscious intent to do the right thing. So Repeal the 8th Amendment. And take back the National Maternity Hospital from the Sisters of Charity.
There are over 4,500 submissions to the Citizens’ Assembly. I am worried my story, my voice will be lost in the mass. I want to be heard; I want to be valued. I want to #repealthe8th
I am writing to tell you my story as an Irish woman living in Ireland who needed an abortion. I would like to attach my name to this as I am not ashamed; however I am now a mother to 2 small daughters and I cannot afford the risk to my family of the potential jail sentence for having needed an abortion in Ireland using the abortion pill.
It was 2010. I was 26 and studying for my Masters. I’d gone back to college when the recession hit to reskill. I was in a quite new relationship with a man I’d known for some time and had been seeing off and on for a while, and finally both of us were living in the same place and we began going out seriously. He was working in a call centre. Those jobs have no security and don’t pay well. He worked with a man who was fired for being less than 5 minutes late 3 times in 2 months – at the start of those 2 months he’d just become a father.
2 months into that new relationship I realised I was pregnant. My period was late, I was feeling sick. I took a test. It was positive. I knew immediately I wasn’t ready to remain pregnant and eventually have a baby. A large part of why I knew I wasn’t ready was that I knew we were not in a position to be able to afford to have a family. I wouldn’t have been able to finish my degree and get employment.. His salary wasn’t enough to support us all. Rents were already starting to rise; we weren’t living together, we were renting rooms separately in shared houses and couldn’t have afforded our own place. I didn’t want my life, my partner’s life and the lives of the children I did eventually want to have with him to be trapped in the grinding poverty that they would have been if we had continued that pregnancy. I checked out what we would have been entitled to in state support and social welfare. It wasn’t enough to get by on. Looking at the friends I know now who are trapped in situations of relying on those payments I know that if anything I overestimated how much we would have been entitled to. I find it very emotionally difficult to think about the financially stressful and for me, misery-stricken life we would now have; it brings me to the point of tears. I think it is very likely we would now be among the huge amounts of homeless families in Ireland today.
I told my partner about the pregnancy and that I knew that wanted an abortion. He said he would support me in whatever I chose. He also said that he had personal struggles with abortion and that while he would never feel he had the right to force someone to go through with a pregnancy against their will he would find this very difficult and asked me to think about it for a few weeks. I of course agreed. I knew about the existence of Women on Web and said that I would contact them anyway so we would have that option there. I knew we wouldn’t be able to afford all the costs of travel for it. I researched the cost of childcare, wanting to be able to continue in college – I knew there was a creche on-campus that took children of students at a reduced rate. I looked up the fee for students. It was still €680 a month. That was considerably more than the rent I was paying at that point. There was absolutely no way either of us, or even both of us together could afford that. We looked at it all the ways we could. There was no way we could afford to remain pregnant. I know now that childcare costs in Ireland are the second highest in the world.
I filled out the consultation form for Women on Web. I used the address of a friend of a friend in the North to get them sent to. Customs here will seize them and then send you letters threatening to prosecute you. There was a bit of a panic there as his housemate signed for the package on delivery and then forgot to tell him about it, and the pills are time-sensitive for use – you can only use them if you’re under 9 weeks, and I was 7 weeks at this point. You’re counted as being 4 weeks pregnant from the time you miss your period so it’s really not very much time at all. We eventually got that sorted and got the pills to us.
I took them when I was 8 weeks pregnant. The embryo I was pregnant with was the size of a kidney bean. I took them in my bedroom of the rented house I was living in at the time with my partner there to look after me. I wasn’t ready for how painful it was. With what I know now, I would genuinely compare the pain of it to fullblown labour. Without any access to any medical reassurance, any support from midwives, any medicine to ease it or anyone who knew what was going on and could tell me and my very worried partner that I would be okay and that this was within the bounds of normal. We were fully aware that what we were doing would be punishable by a potential life sentence if we were caught. (This was 2010, before the PDLPA which now means that I’m ‘only’ liable to 14 years.) There was no way I would feel safe presenting to a hospital or calling a doctor if something went wrong. I knew the pills were very safe and I knew I would almost definitely be fine but I also knew that if I weren’t I would either have to risk my health on my own or risk pretty much the entire rest of my life with medical support.
I am sure there are some of you who are reading this who think that I deserved everything I went through for daring to want to end a pregnancy rather than continue it regardless of the personal cost to me and my partner. That I deserved to be frightened and alone with my partner during that abortion, that I deserve to be locked up for choosing not to continue to grow the pregnancy, for wanting an abortion at all. That because my pregnancy was the result of consensual sex rather than rape I should have been forced to continue it against my will; that because my pregnancy hadn’t been diagnosed with a fatal abnormality I should have had to go through the entirety of pregnancy, birth and motherhood regardless of the fact that my country, who would have forced me into it, would not support me through it and would see me and the resultant child trapped in a lifetime of poverty because of it.
I do not think I did. I do not think that I do. I do not think that the many women like me who need to self-administer in Ireland every day deserve it either. I am quite open about my experience on social media and as a result am frequently contacted by women who need to find out how they can access the abortion pill. There is not enough room in Irish jails to hold us all, believe me.
Since completing my Masters and finding secure employment, my partner and I have had 2 daughters. We are now married and in a considerably more privileged position than we were during that first pregnancy and yet it has been the most difficult time of both of our lives. Parenthood in this country is isolating, impoverishing, and unsupported. I have had postnatal depression after both of my children which is only starting to resolve now. I also nearly died when I was 13 weeks pregnant with my second daughter from a pregnancy complication, pulmonary embolisms, which I would be at high risk of again in any subsequent pregnancy. I chose to continue that pregnancy regardless of the risk to my own health because we as a family were in a position to have that child. I would support any other woman in her decision not to. I do not think that should I become pregnant again and the risk to my life and health become even greater, if say it does not respond to medication this time, that I should be forced to continue that pregnancy at the risk of leaving my existing 2 daughters without their mother and my husband without his wife.
I think it is beyond barbaric that Ireland forces people, particularly those women who are least able to access abortion, poor women, migrant women, disabled women, into motherhood and then leaves them high and dry without any meaningful social support or attempt to integrate society around families. The cuts to lone parents allowance and the ongoing attempt to financially coerce lone parents (who are 86.5% mothers) into leaving their children who are 7 or older at home alone by cutting off their lone parents’ allowance and pushing them onto jobseekers is not only horrendously cruel to those mothers but dangerous and discriminatory to their children. 60% of all lone parent families live in deprivation. Why is it, if Ireland cares so much about babies and children that it must force us to remain pregnant at any cost to ourselves, that it cannot even adequately fund a decent standard of living and of care for those babies and children once they are born?
Even if you are of the opinion (as I hope you are) that Ireland should do that, it is completely beyond the scope of the Citizens’ Assembly to enforce or even recommend that. I really hope that you want to stop criminalising those like me, stop us being forced to listen to ‘debates’ on this that paint abortions like mine for ‘social reasons’ as selfish and flippant and something we would indulge in because we have a holiday booked (I cannot count the amount of times I have heard this on the radio and it gives me a knot of stress and rage in my stomach every time), stop women with no resources being forced into continuing pregnancies motherhood they can’t afford and which will trap them in poverty for the rest of their lives. I hope that you do not believe that a woman pregnant with an 8 week pregnancy like I was should be forced to continue gestating that regardless of her opinions on the matter, and regardless of the knock on effects on her life; that the potential baby that might result from that 8 week pregnancy (1 in 4 pregnancies end in miscarriage anyway) is far more important than anything else.
Most of all I hope you do not believe that you know better than me or than any other woman, any other person making that decision what is best for us. I hope you can understand that I am an adult human being capable and competent of making my own decisions for my own wellbeing and that it should not be up to you or anyone else who doesn’t even know me and has never walked in my shoes to override them. I hope that you do not think that my small daughters, should they ever as adults find themselves pregnant with a pregnancy they cannot continue, should have to endure what I did and be criminalised for it as I am.
I want to end this by pointing out that a recommendation to repeal the 8th doesn’t mean that you personally would choose an abortion in every circumstance that a woman who has chosen abortion would. It just means you don’t think you have the right to stop us.
On ‘whataboutery’, echo chambers, freedom of speech and playing the devil’s advocate – or: Why can’t we all just get along?
Originally posted on Linnea Dunne’s blog – reposted with permission
As someone who is regularly accused of hiding in an echo chamber of angry feminists patting each other on the back, I thought I’d write to those of you who accuse me of that, who think that I’m not doing feminism right. If you’ve ever thought that I’ve been too angry, that I’ve been wrong to disengage myself from a discussion, that I’ve overreacted to a seemingly innocent statement, that I haven’t tried hard enough to convince the other side – this is for you. Please read it.
First of all, I want to highlight that all of the below has been written about beautifully and powerfully and poignantly many times before; but that’s the thing with the echo chamber, isn’t it, that those important articles may well have hit a wall somewhere along the line and never made their way to you. But the beauty of the echo chamber is this: it helps pick people up, it is safe when the outside world feels too scary, and it helps us make sense of those difficult debates we want to deal with but can’t while being shouted at by a nonsensical Twitter troll. What I’m writing here is nothing new – yet it so badly needs to be written again and again and again. So here’s my first point: it’s only an echo chamber if you allow it to be. If this is somehow new to you, chances are it will be to your echo chamber friends too – so share it.
Point two, which is related: you need to take responsibility for your own learning. Inside your echo chamber or elsewhere, there will be people who get something that you don’t get, and if getting it requires you to check your privilege it’s likely that explaining it to you would be really draining and exhausting and maybe even triggering for those who do get it. They get it because they’ve experienced it – ‘it’ being rape or emotional abuse or racism or transphobia or cultural appropriation or a life of being monitored and kicked at by patriarchy – and you can be sure that they are forced to justify their feelings and reactions and sheer existence to mainstream liberal discourse day in and day out without you adding to their workload. And here’s the thing: that’s not their job. You might think that you’re being nice by asking – ‘Tell me again why I shouldn’t use that word you claim is so offensive?’ – but don’t you think it might be nicer for them if you say that you hear them, that you trust them, and then go off and figure out whatever it is you don’t get using your search engine of choice? Be that enlightened liberal you window dress your Facebook feed with and go read the voices of oppressed and minority groups. Then share them widely.
Point three – again, related: stop playing devil’s advocate. Just stop it. People who spend day in and day out talking about and reading about and writing about and experiencing oppression in some shape or form don’t need your assumption that you, a person who doesn’t talk about it quite that much and who’s never really experienced it, have just thought about this one aspect they’ve failed to cover, which will blow their entire argument to pieces. You know, it might happen. You just might be that guy. If that’s the case, you definitely will get your fifteen minutes of fame at some point and that argument will fall; but most likely – just trust me on this one – they’ll have heard your unique insight a thousand times already and somehow managed to still feel how they feel, despite them constantly and persistently wishing that feeling away. So when that devil inside you raises his voice, turn the other cheek and play devil’s advocate with yourself instead: why is it that it would be so incredibly difficult and uncomfortable for you if their experience was really real and their argument truly held up? Is it maybe possibly plausible that seeing and acknowledging and committing to scrutinising your own privilege is just really, really hard?
Next – let’s talk about that anger. I snap sometimes. Someone writes something on Facebook or makes a joke somewhere or shares a funny YouTube clip that – shocker – I don’t find funny. And it seems so innocent to you, yet I turn into that feminist killjoy and snap. Why can’t feminists just chill? The truth is that many of them can, and I admire that in them, but remember this: we’re in this all the time – day and night, wherever we go, since the moment we were born. It’s not like an annoying person at work or a bus route that is consistently unreliable; it’s not even like that unspoken, ever-growing mountain of irritating, hurtful words and comments and insinuations in a toxic relationship that keeps nagging at you until you want to scream at the sheer thought of it and can’t even begin to try to explain it without bursting into tears – worse: it’s relentless in the most literal and vicious sense of the word. So when people don’t bother reading up on stuff and you are patient enough to take all those conversations, when they keep playing devil’s advocate and refusing to check their privilege, and then they go and share that seemingly innocent yet so fundamentally damaging video clip – you snap. Because you’re exhausted, and you’re sick of not being heard, and yes, you’re angry because you are constantly made to feel small and insignificant and untrustworthy and meaningless, day in and day out, by a constant stream of supposedly innocent clips and jokes and comments and devil’s advocates. Perhaps ask yourself this: why is it that your discomfort with the anger and tone and shrillness of it all must blind you to the very reasons behind them?
Next – also on tone policing – logic. I’ve been in conversations where I’ve been trying to understand something and I’ve brought my very Scandinavian consensus-seeking reasoning to the table, and somehow it’s gotten me nowhere. (I quote Björk: “I thought I could organise freedom; how Scandinavian of me.) I’ve been trying to reason out the different sides of the argument using logic, plain and simple logic, because one and one is two and no one can argue with that, so why can’t we understand each other if we put all the cards and facts on the table? Ideological hegemony is why. What was logical to me – a privileged, white, middle-class Swede – was very much logical to me because of the norms of the society I grew up in, the worldview I inherited, the experiences I’d had, and the rules of the world we live in. Really, truly checking your privilege involves shedding layers of truths and logic the way they’ve been handed down to you – yes, even via some of those red-brick university reading lists – and daring to listen to voices you’ve never previously understood. Sometimes they’ll sound shrill, other times their logic will seem flawed. But if you want to understand them, you have to try to read their logic and trust that they’re speaking the truth, their truth. Solidarity is about more than passive tolerance. Real change doesn’t happen in comfort zones.
Now a word on ‘whataboutery’ – because it’d be nice to get it out of the way so that I don’t have to go through this every time someone what-abouts me and I refuse to engage and they think I’m being a hypocrite. I find it acutely frustrating that my feminism is taking up as much of my time and energy as it is. If I could un-see the oppression I see and stop taking the arguments and worrying about the consequences and struggling to enjoy mainstream films, I would – I would hand it all back for just a bit of peace and quiet and a laugh and a chance to engage with some other kind of activism for a while. Because when I see my male peers share stuff about this issue and the next, seemingly informed about everything from immigration policy to global warming and macroeconomics, I feel jealous. I care about that stuff too, but everywhere I look I see the effects of patriarchy and that fire in me comes to life again and I can’t see beyond it. So when I talk about women’s rights and you ask what I’ve done for starving children, I don’t hear sympathy for how I’m feeling – I don’t hear you say ‘hey, I bet you wish you could campaign about this stuff too’. I hear a refusal to talk about women’s rights. I don’t expect of you to read every article I read about reproductive rights, and I don’t expect of you to feel as passionately as I do about body positivity and the domestic division of labour – but I think that’s all the more reason for you to listen to me when I talk about it. What about the men? the internet echoes every time a woman mentions the patriarchy. But why is it that we hear so little from these same voices about toxic masculinity and extended paternity leave until we start talking about women’s rights? And why is it that we’re asked to carry that issue too? Do we not seem burdened enough? Truth be told, I don’t think the whataboutery is all that much about men’s rights. I don’t hear these people stroll up to Greenpeace demonstrators asking ‘What about the men?’. I don’t see them below articles calling for an end to direct provision, commenting to point out that men have rights too. Let’s not play the RTÉ game – let’s not talk masculinity purely for the sake of balance. We all deserve better than that.
Last point before I wrap up: free speech. You have a right to your opinion, and you have a right to voice it. You do not, however, have a right to any given platform, nor to the shoving of your opinions down anyone’s throat – especially not if said opinions border on hate speech. So when someone talks about not getting Katie Hopkins on The Late Late Show and someone else cries freedom of speech, they’ve got some catching up to do. It takes a lot to silence a privileged public person with column inches in one of the biggest UK tabloid papers and a huge social media following; refraining from inviting her onto an Irish public service prime time chat show will have little or no impact on how loud her voice is and how far her messages reach. If we’re really interested in the right to be heard, we would do well to ask ourselves why feminist friends of mine have been dropping off the internet like never before, slowly but surely, one after the other, since Donald Trump was elected. These people whose only platform is social media, who are suddenly faced with twice the misogynists and trolls and devil’s advocates and just can’t put up with it anymore – I don’t hear anyone crying freedom of speech when they stop talking.
Finally (and if you’ve made it this far, thank you!), a disclaimer. You might think I’m placing myself on a pedestal, all self-righteous in what a brilliant co-feminist I am. Trust me, I’m not. For the sake of argument, join me for a moment as I recall the year of 2001: I had dreadlocks and a turban (yes, both – simultaneously!) and was singing backing vocals with a reggae band, the singer in which put on a fake Patois accent, and if you had told me about cultural appropriation I would have laughed. There – you’re welcome. I’m highly flawed, but I’m learning. Can’t we all just admit we’re flawed, check our privilege and learn?