Removing sectarian lens for rights: Women, 1968 and beyond

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Removing sectarian lens for rights: Women, 1968 and beyond
by Allison LIRA for Shared Future News
13 October 2018

As part of the “1968 and Beyond” conference held at the Ulster Museum in collaboration with Dr Chris Reynolds of Nottingham Trent University, the event “Women, 1968 and Beyond” brought together a range of women from the “Voices of ‘68” project to reflect on the role of women in the activism of 1968 and beyond.

The discussion was divided into two parts. Part one brought together Bernadette McAliskey, Brid Ruddy, Anne Smyth, and Margaret Ward to discuss the experiences of women in 1968. Part two included Bronagh Hinds, Mary Quiery, Kellie Turtle, and Eileen Weir to discuss “the ongoing contribution women have made to community activism and peacebuilding since 1968.” Both discussion panels were moderated by Susan McKay.

Chris Reynolds kicked off the discussion by stating that 1968 was a “seminal moment for gender” and argued that this is not given the attention that it deserves. Later on in the talk, Dr Reynolds asserted that the primary purpose of this three-day conference on 1968 is to bring together different perspectives in order to fragment the more simplistic understandings of 1968 and to encourage discussion.

Women in 1968

Bernadette McAliskey, a prominent member of the People’s Democracy and one of the youngest ever to be elected to the Westminster Parliament, was asked to speak first. In Susan McKay’s introduction of her, she also noted the short jail term that McAliskey served for her involvement in the Battle of Bogside and the infamous incident in which McAliskey slapped former Home Secretary Reginald Maudling across the face for his comments regarding Blood Sunday on the House of Commons floor.

McAliskey’s reflections on 1968 began by contextualising the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Movement (NICRM) within a broader “youth revolution” of the Western Hemisphere. She argued that the movement was a product of a generation of young people who had not been born in war and therefore had no memory of it.

Brid Ruddy also commented on the global context within which the events of 1968 were set, noting that activism had been happening prior to 1968. The only difference was that at the time of the NICRM, there was suddenly a European stage in which it was important to pay attention to the fight for civil rights.

Realities not narratives

McAliskey reflected on her upbringing in a working-class estate and the position of women at the time. She spoke of a society in which “abuse was an integral part of family discipline” and the term “domestic violence” didn’t even exist.

McAliskey participated in supporting abused women before and during The Troubles, a time in which it was especially difficult for women to get help or escape. With British troops and paramilitary organisations carefully controlling geographical areas, women found it particularly difficult to get out.

Despite the very real and dangerous oppression of women during this time, the fight for their rights was nowhere in the civil rights discussion. Even in the most radical organisations, no one talked about the rights of women. McAliskey powerfully called for a reconsideration of what other realities — “not narratives, but realities” — were completely excluded during civil rights activism.

Ordinary women will be the future

Brid Ruddy, a former People’s Democracy activist and a current community builder, reflected on the first time that someone handed her a microphone at a rally and told her to speak. She had never done it before but someone said, “Well you’ll have to because all the men’s gone. They’re all interned.” It’s interesting that only with the men gone was she able to develop into a frequent speaker at activism events.

She spoke of 1968 as the beginning of consciousness raising for women and the proliferation of women’s groups throughout the 1970s, but also how women’s groups often functioned more as service providers than activists.

Ruddy noted that although 1970s consciousness raising in Northern Ireland was “stolen away or banished”, she’s encouraged to see it take root again in the form of the “Me Too” movement. She noted the repeal of the 8th Amendment in Ireland and the powerful protest surrounding the rape trial of rugby player, Paddy Jackson, earlier this year.

“Radicalism will come,” Brid Ruddy asserted, “Ordinary people started civil rights, not the politicians who claim it. Ordinary women will be the future.”

Disadvantage vs disadvantaged

Anne Smyth, former law student at Queens, a devout evangelical Christian, and the chairman of the Ulster-Scots Language Society, recognised that women do experience very real disadvantages, noting that her father’s first wife died during childbirth due to their inability to afford a doctor, but also shared that in her personal experience, she hadn’t felt disadvantaged.

Furthermore, while the Civil Rights Movement was going on, her perception was very different than some of the other women on the panel. From her position in society at the time, civil rights was just another IRA campaign and talk of discrimination against Catholics was nothing but a propaganda war. Protestants, from her view, were struggling to thrive while Catholics seemed okay.

Regardless of what happened, Smyth declared: “A record of wrong has been kept and if we’re going to move on that has to stop.”

To finish she reflected on the love and affection that her small grandchildren have towards the Catholic children that they play with at school. “The single best thing that we can do is to educate our children together.”

A safe haven

The last to speak was Margaret Ward, feminist historian, lecturer at Queens, and founder of the 1979 Socialist Women’s Group. Ward spoke of the feeling at the time that there could be a transformation in society but also noted that in movements all over the world, including Ireland, males dominated the political discussion. The first women’s liberation groups were started because of the discrimination of men on the left. The Socialist Women’s Group became a safe haven for politically active women who felt that their colleagues on the left discounted women’s issues.

Ward recalled a conversation with the People’s Democracy in which some of its members argued that the women’s rights agenda was in some ways, selfish. They eventually agreed to develop a policy agenda for women’s rights but not for three years’ time. Ward recalled that despite the lack of support, women began breaking the silence. She recalls the difficulties in trying to get an article published on contraceptives and how during this time, the issue of abortion began being raised.

She finished by sharing that she is very encouraged today by not just young women speaking out, but also by young men standing in solidarity with them in a way that wouldn’t have happened in her time. She declares that the future requires a gender relations transformation.

Chris Reynolds ended part one of the talk by stating that the opening session had been the most “impressive, enthusiastic, and powerful” panel ever.

Women beyond 1968

The first to speak in the second part was Bronagh Hinds, participant in the Good Friday Agreement negotiations, former Deputy Chief Commissioner of the Equality Commission, and founder of DemocraShe. Hinds began by saying how much progress on the women’s rights agenda was lost during The Troubles. She highlighted communal divisions affecting women’s solidarity and the pressure on women to “toe the line” during the Civil Rights Movement and The Troubles. Hinds said that even within this context, the achievements of women during that time is remarkable, and noted the proliferation of women’s groups involved in community development and the development of cross-community work during the 1970s and 1980s.

Repairing relationships

Hinds argued that women during this time created the foundation for the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition. The coalition, she said, wouldn’t have been possible without the 20 years of grassroots activism that came before it. Women often didn’t agree, but over the years leading up to the Good Friday Agreement, they had learned how to “fall out and get back together again”; they had learned how to repair those relationships.

This put them in a good spot to be able to resist the “audacity of men” who thought that they could decide the future of Northern Ireland without the input of women, Hinds argued.

Unless we stand up and shout, we become invisible

Mary Quiery, a human rights and LGBT rights activist, began by claiming that feminism is often a “thorn in the side” of most social movements.

Quiery reflected on the difficulties that came with trying to make women’s voices heard during the 1990s. She shared the difficulties involved in trying to put together a conference for women supporting a united Ireland, in response to the male-dominated peace process; nobody wanted to fund a forum that was seen as “disloyal” to the republican cause.

Quiery asserted that “unless we stand up and shout, we become invisible”. She argued for the necessity of more women in power and noted the practical invisibility of queer identity in the media.

Depends on where you’re standing

Kellie Turtle, a feminist activist with a background in community work, began by pointing out that there are many different manifestations of feminism, from grassroots community work to mass movements like “Me Too”. She argued that a person’s view of the movement depends on “where you’re standing” and outlined three key battlegrounds in the fight for women’s rights today: reproductive rights, violence against women; and economic justice.

To finish, Turtle spoke about the importance of placing marginalised issues at the centre of rights campaigns. She points to Angela Davis’ theory that “if we get solutions for the most marginalised, that benefits everybody.”

Removing sectarian lens for rights

The last to speak was Eileen Weir, a community development practitioner with the Shankill Women’s Center. Weir began by reflecting on an experience she had in the 1980s when she, as a Protestant Unionist, was asked to take a stance on the issue of strip-searching female prisoners. She decided that if the issue was wrong then she would campaign to right it, regardless of the sectarian leanings of the issue. It’s a stance that has been a part of her work since.

She noted the danger that came with a lot of the community work that was being done at the time, sharing that she had to use her working-class, Unionist background to avoid some of the threats that could have come with her political position. She reflected on her time working for the trade union when she demanded that the Unionist workers there take down the flags that they had put up so as not to intimidate the Catholic workers.

Weir opined that back then and now, the government doesn’t look after working-class people. She shared that a lot of her life’s work has been raising up the voices of people on the ground. She echoed Quiery’s assertion that there needs to be mechanisms for incorporating young people into community-building work. She argued that today, with a lack of support for women with children and elderly or sick family members, it’s almost impossible for working-class women to become politically involved.

To conclude, Dr Chris Reynolds thanked the speakers for coming and expressed that in the next 50 years, we might not be talking about how the women’s movement is still in 1968.

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