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Thursday 18 September 2014

My extraordinary, contradictory, beautiful friend June Levine

Published 18/10/2008 | 00:00

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A woman may join a feminist group for a number of different reasons: perhaps to react against her mother's life, perhaps in anger against a father's dominance or neglect, perhaps to crusade against a social injustice. June Levine, who died on Tuesday, felt driven to feminism because she had almost gone mad as an enclosed wife, mother and housewife in a small town in Canada during the 1950s.

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If there is a caricature of feminists as plain spinsters who can't pull a man, June was the antithesis of this: she was a beautiful, voluptuous woman in her prime, feminine, fashion-conscious, and deeply maternal.

She was born on 31 December 1931 to teenage parents -- her mother was only 15, her father 17 -- in a Romeo-and-Juliet Jewish-Catholic romance. Her mother was Muriel McMahon from a Co Clare family, who was smitten with a Jewish boy whose parents had fled from Latvia. They married secretly at a Catholic church in Marlborough Street, Dublin on Yom Kippur, when the Jewish branch of the family was at synagogue. They had five children -- of whom June was the eldest -- and despite the disparate backgrounds, and teenage wedding, remained happily married all their lives.

June was baptised a Catholic, but went to a Jewish School in Dublin -- Zion. In 1947 the whole family converted to Judaism. It was a strangely smooth transfer, and all her life June retained both a strong sense of Jewish tradition, and a special affinity for the Blessed Virgin. In later years, June became attached to India, telling me "you don't know what spirituality is until you have experienced India."

She got a job as a very young reporter on the Irish Times when she was only 15. But love intervened when she fell for a young Canadian medical student at the Dublin College of Surgeons, Ken Mesbur. When he qualified, the couple and their two young children migrated to Canada.

In the small town of Arcona, Ontario, where they settled, a third baby was born. Arcona was a town of about 500 people, and gradually, June came to feel she was being buried alive: there was no outlet for her creativity, ambition or ideas.

June embodied a spirit stirring among women at that time, and articulately expressed by Betty Friedan's book The Feminine Mystique. Friedan charted the life of the restless, intelligent wife, cooped up in suburban boredom, asking the existential question: "Is this all there is?"

The situation drove June into a serious depression, and she fled back to Dublin, with her three children. She had a mental breakdown. The marriage was over.

Emerging from this crisis, she began to re-enter journalism at a time in the 1960s when opportunities were starting to open up. She worked for Creation Magazine, for Image, and when I first met her in 1968, she was editing a magazine, Irishwomen's Journal.

Though June had written about and struck up a close friendship with Terry Keane, which, despite tiffs and differences, lasted until the end of their lives, she felt increasingly attracted to campaigning feminism. Thus she came to be part of the founding group of the Irish Women's Liberation Movement in 1970-71.

June was part of the famous "condom train", but her interests were a lot wider than contraceptive freedom. She knew what it was like to be a single mother, and she was concerned for the victims of what she saw as a patriarchal society. Her father, though much-loved in the family, had been a conventional man who thought a woman's place was in the kitchen.

June went on to write what is considered a standard text on the roots of the IWLM, Sisters, although I must own up that I didn't always see eye-to-eye with her view of the movement, or the personalities involved. June was always kind to me personally, but she could be astringent in print, describing me as a "monster of egotism". My vanity was wounded by this, but we got over it, as friends do.

Her personal life went through stages of turbulence, but later in the 1970s, she met, and finally married, the psychiatrist Ivor Browne: he describes in his autobiography, Music and Madness, the painful circumstances in which he separated from his first wife Orla (the daughter of the legendary singer Delia Murphy) and the anguish at being parted from his four children. He too had gone through serious depression, but when he met June, he came to feel a sense of peace, and their union was lasting and devoted.

June had her contradictions: she was a committed feminist, but also a man's woman: a crusader for women's rights to fulfilment outside the home, and yet, one of the most accomplished housewives I have ever known -- her home was faultless, her table exquisite, her cooking divine. She had worked as a researcher for Gay Byrne on the Late Late Show, but latterly, she excoriated TV and absolutely refused to have anything to do with TV documentaries who sought her co-operation.

She was, in some ways, a sexual liberal -- but in others, a sexual puritan. After her experience of writing Lyn -- the story of a Dublin woman horribly victimised by prostitution -- she became vehemently, even fanatically convinced that prostitution should be banned, and that any man found to be involved with it should be prosecuted, as in Sweden.

June suffered a series of strokes in her last year when her speech was affected; she struggled courageously to regain her powers of communication, and seemed to improve. But in the first week of October, she suffered another stroke, and lost consciousness, passing away peacefully in the early hours of October 14.

She was much mourned by a wide circle of family and friends: her daughter Diane, her sons Adam and Michael, and their spouses, her three grandchildren and one step-grandchild, doting on all four, and her close siblings. June will have her place in Irish social history as an inspiring feminist, but for all that, the home and the family remained at the heart of her most passionate attachments.

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