Saturday 17 November 2018

The essential story of how Irish women cast off their chains

Grainne Farren

Mondays at Gaj's: The Story of the Irish Women's Liberation Movement

Anne Stopper

Liffey Press, ?16.95

WHEN a handful of women began meeting at Gaj's restaurant on Baggot St, Dublin, in 1970, Ireland was - even more than other European countries - a male-dominated society.

Contraception was illegal, abortion unmentionable. Working women were treated as cheap labour, barred from a whole range of jobs and, in the civil service and semi-state companies, forced to resign if they married. Totally dependent on their husbands, married women were stuck for life, as divorce was forbidden. Single mothers, widows and deserted wives faced dire poverty. Nothing daunted, the intrepid band adopted the title Irish Women's Liberation Movement and started "one of the most radical, peaceful and profound social movements in history".

I confess to some misgivings when I heard that a book recording this vital moment in our history had been written by an American. I need not have worried. Anne Stopper has researched her subject thoroughly, interviewed many of the women involved, and written a highly readable, informative and entertaining book that captures the spirit of the times.

The fledgeling group faced an immense task, but it had one big advantage: several of its founder members were journalists, in a position to publicise the movement and write accurate reports about it. This contrasted with the malicious distortion often practised by a hostile press in other countries.

Before the IWLM there were other women's groups working for reform, like the Irish Housewives' Association and the Irish Countrywomen's Association, which patiently campaigned behind the scenes using "respectable" methods, such as lobbying TDs. But, as the author puts it: "It was not the IWLM founders' style to use a moderate tone, or to be content with waiting five years for laws to be enacted."

They agreed with June Levine that "the big mistake to make in life is to go around asking for permission". Instead, in March 1971 they published a booklet called Chains or Change, which called for equal pay, an end to the marriage bar, equal rights in law, justice for widows, deserted wives and unmarried mothers, equal educational opportunities and contraception.

One important 'civil wrong' featured in the booklet was the exclusion of women from jury service. IWLM members Mairin de Burca and Mary Anderson took a court case to challenge this law, with Senator Mary Robinson part of their legal team. The Supreme Court finally changed the law in 1975.

And what about abortion? This issue was so profoundly taboo in Ireland that it did not even come up at IWLM meetings. The same applied to lesbian rights, even though there were lesbians among the members. As for divorce, Chains or Change mentioned it briefly, but stopped short of demanding it as a right.

The booklet sold out instantly. Stopper goes on to describe the lively Late Late Show on which Mairin Johnston and Nell McCafferty appeared, and the packed public meeting in the Mansion House a month later. This was followed, on May 22, 1971, by the most famous IWLM action of all - the 'contraceptive train' to Belfast and back. It makes fascinating reading.

It was a mixed bunch of women who attended those enthusiastic Monday night meetings in Margaret Gaj's upstairs room. Some had left school at 14, others were university graduates. Those active in political groups rubbed shoulders with those who had never campaigned before.Personalities, too, varied from the flamboyant to the sedate - though judging the women by their personalities could be misleading. Mary Kenny, the colourful rebel who blew up condoms like balloons on the train from Belfast, subsequently turned her back on feminism to become a right-wing Catholic. The conservative Nuala Fennell, on the other hand, after wagging a finger at the IWLM in her public 'resignation' letter, went on to found the family law reform group AIM and Women's Aid.

Surprisingly, the IWLM lasted only a year, but its influence as a motivating force is incalculable. The campaigns continued and women's groups multiplied. The Equal Pay Act, contraception, divorce and the right to work all came in eventually and are now taken for granted by the younger generation.

"All of the founders take great satisfaction in knowing that today's young women will never have to face the same obstacles that they did," says Anne Stopper. I recommend today's young women - in fact, men and women of all ages, to read her book and realise how the chains were cast off and change achieved.

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