Lesbians and Irish Women’s Liberation
On Wednesday, HAL listed some of the positive changes for women in Ireland, following The Irish Times’ marking of 40 years of struggle with its “Sisters” special.
One of the featured articles is by Ann Louise Gilligan and Katherine Zappone and can be read here. from the perspective of lesbian feminists, the article discusses what has and has not changed in Ireland for lesbians, including marriage equality.
When I learned of “Sisters” and Zappigan’s article, I was instantly reminded of a LGBT History Tour of Dublin by Tonie Walsh, which I attended recently as part of the the 25th birthday celebrations by The George.
Fittingly, then, Friday’s Irish Times letters page included the following critique by one Kay Hughes:
Madam, – I was looking forward to reading your supplement “Sisters” (May 26th). It contains some excellent articles on the many achievements in women’s rights over the past 40 years; achievements that I and my contemporaries have benefited from and we owe a huge debt of gratitude to the women who blazed the trail before us. Thank you for providing us with an opportunity to reflect on this.
However, I cannot hide my dismay that the editorial team would choose to insert two additional issues under the guise of women’s rights: namely abortion, and gay rights.
With regard to the former, even that great feminist Germaine Greer maintained that far from being a right to be won for women, abortion is detrimental to women and an insult to our uniqueness as the bearers of human life. With regard to the latter, gay rights have nothing to do with rights for women in so far as they are equally relevant for gay men. The article by Drs Gilligan and Zappone could almost lead one to believe that its inclusion was little more than self-serving journalism on the part of The Irish Times. But surely not! After all, we would expect to see honesty and transparency in its own dealings with the public of the kind The Irish Times so often demands of others. – Yours, etc,
Glossing over the fact that she should have written “my contemporaries and I,” I noticed that this tied in neatly with what Tonie was telling those of us on the History Tour. Journalist Declan Cashin wrote a summary of the tour for The Irish Examiner, which can be read on his blog. Róisín Ingle also wrote about the tour, which can be read in The Irish Times.
In 1982, the Irish Women’s Centre was established at Temple Lane South, Temple Bar. It hosted the second lesbian conference in Ireland. In fact, Tonie, tells us, the Irish women’s liberation movement created space for Irish LGBs, notably lesbians.
Ireland’s women’s liberation movement and gay rights movement have been closely linked for decades. And the support provided by the women’s movement to the gay rights movement was reciprocated. I took a trip to the Irish Queer Archives, currently housed at the National Library of Ireland, to see what I could find.
Opening the files for the first time and holding those documents was an experience in itself. It’s our history made real. One of the documents I read in the short time available to me, was a letter from 1983 from Tonie Walsh, in his capacity then as Secretary General of the National Gay Federation (NGF), concerning a ballot to decide whether the NGF should affiliate with the Women’s Right to Choose Campaign (WRTC). In notifying members of the vote, Walsh wrote:
To recap briefly, the W.R.T.C. believe that a woman has the right to choose whether she wants to bear children or not; an end to all the social and economic discrimination which exists against mothers, i.e. better childcare facilities, adequate social welfare provisions, adequate housing and a change in the illegitimacy laws and proper contraception facilities.
So far, so radical. Incidentially, the date on the letter was 1st February: St Brigid’s Day.
The WRTC Campaign also sought the assistance of the NGF and the use of the Hirshfeld Centre – the gay community centre of the time – as a venue for meetings.
In a letter from Mary Flanagan on behalf of the WRTC Campaign (with a return address “c/o Molly O’Duffy” of Kimmage Road West) requesting the use of a room in the Hirshfeld Centre for weekly meetings, was written:
I’m sure you can appreciate our difficulty in getting a room and we would be most grateful for your help.
Melissa Murray in an undated letter to Tonie Walsh wrote:
This is to confirm that the Women’s Right to Choose Campaign are holding an activist meeting at the [Hirshfeld] Centre on Sunday 12th 10am – 2pm.
Apart from the above examples, let’s look at those who have been involved in the women’s movement in Ireland to date. If you look at the names of those women – even if you solely take the NWCI (formerly the Council for the Status of Women) – you will find among those names a veritable who’s who of Irish lesbians. Indeed, you don’t need to look very hard to find us among activists, policy-makers, community workers, lawyers, volunteers and so many more who work to improve society.
But this is not about the importance of Ireland being grateful to its lesbian saviours. Back to Kay.
So, gay rights have nothing to do with rights for women in so far as they are equally relevant for gay men, you say. Really?
Quite frankly, if you start from a premise that women’s rights are human rights – and with the radical principle that women are human beings, too – then you begin to understand that you cannot separate the liberation of one group of human beings (let’s say, women) from the liberation of another (let’s say, gays). That’s not to mention the fact that individuals can experience multiple discrimination. Kay might find it too much of a conundrum if she ever encountered a dyke of colour with a disability. (“Oh no! What narrow category applies?!”) Moreover, if you accept that men – yes, even privileged, middle-class white men – can benefit from liberation movements (including but not limited to the fact that they are fathers, brothers, lovers, friends, children), then you might be on to something.
But, Kay, I believe that if you are of the view that separating and dividing out humanity into distinct sub-groups, which must never over-lap, then you are headed for disaster.
- Since time was against me in the Queer Archives, I’ll just have to be sure to return to find out more about women’s lib and the gays. Watch this space!
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