Friday 21 October 2016

From contraception trains and a 'whore's budget' to a loud Yes

Gemma Hussey

Published 31/05/2015 | 02:30

Former FG minister Gemma Hussey
Former FG minister Gemma Hussey

It hardly seems a moment since the Irish Women's Liberation Movement produced a small publication with the message "Chains or Change?" in the late 1960s. Post-1968, a challenge swept across Europe. Authoritarian governments were defied by protesters - there was indeed a heady feeling of something approaching anarchy, from the streets of Paris to the old roads of Northern Ireland.

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In the Republic of Ireland, a new women's movement emerged, following the more sedate years of the Irish Housewives' Association and the Irish Countrywomen's Association (both had done great work in their day).

Irish women saw and heard their sisters across Europe and beyond demanding liberation from patriarchy. We woke up to the reality of skewed laws which deprived women of rights to the family home, to the Children's Allowance, the right to serve on juries, the right to equal pay for equal work. We found that violence against women in the home, and sexual violence against women, lack of control of fertility all combined to keep women firmly in their place as weak and vulnerable.

And economically they were ground down by the law, which took their jobs away if they married.

Things were changed, slowly and gradually. Taoiseach Jack Lynch saw the justice of women's complaints and set up the first Commission on the Status of Women, chaired by the deceptively mild Thekla Beere. Looking at their 49 recommendations, they seem very tame, almost anodyne today. But in their day, they were strong stuff. This was 1973, after all.

A range of organisations sprang up to lobby for implementation of the recommendations. And, recognising that political power was crucial, the Women's Political Association began the long, hard road towards getting women into Dáil Éireann.

Ireland had become a new and exciting cauldron of debate and demonstration. Brave women took a train to Belfast and embarrassed the gardaí by showing off the contraceptives they had legally bought in Northern Ireland. Women went out on the streets and gathered thousands of signatures petitioning Europe for equal pay for Irish women. Mass meetings were held to put politicians in the dock on a huge range of issues.

This was not done without resistance, or hostility. When measures were taken to include an allowance for singe mothers, it was condemned as "the whore's budget". Mary Robinson doggedly pursued the right of women to contraception. It took until the 1980s to make any progress at all.

Garret FitzGerald - who had a natural sympathy with feminists - was tripped by a combination of strong conservative groups (PLAC and the like) and Fianna Fáil, to introduce a constitutional ban on abortion - until the Attorney General (Peter Sutherland) pointed out the dangers of the PLAC/Fianna Fáil wording. FitzGerald's efforts to unite the government parties against the 8th Amendment failed, and it was carried. We are still dealing with the fall-out today.

And now, in 2015, the structures of Irish society across a range of issues is hardly recognisable. In the 1990s, I had occasion to work with women across 10 eastern European countries, helping them to learn about their democratic rights and showing them how to exercise freedom of speech. I did not have a happy story telling them about Ireland and the position of women.

However, today the story is different. We have made huge strides and have got rid of most of the discrimination and disadvantage affecting women.

Most, but not all, Irish parents - men and women - are badly served in the matter of childcare. There is still an unacceptable level of violence against women. Supports for single parents are inadequate.

The appalling lack of women in politics is only now being addressed but we close our eyes to the sad reality of women seeking abortions in their thousands in Britain. So we should not fool ourselves. A lot done, more to do.

Yes, Ireland has changed - and mostly for the good. Last weekend's Marriage Equality Referendum brought a heady mixture of youth and love to the ballot boxes and on to the streets. Already the debate has started about what comes next. I am very much afraid that the emphasis on the 8th Amendment will distract attention from other pressing needs.

For the record, I believe the 8th Amendment is seriously faulty and needs to be removed. But I am reluctant for the country to be plunged into this debate so quickly. Abortion has nothing to do with same-sex marriage.

Let us pause and reflect.

Activist and feminist Gemma Hussey was a Minister in Fine Gael governments between 1982 and 1987

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