Sabina launches book ‘A Century of Progress? Irish Women Reflect’

Thu 27th Oct, 2016 | 18:30
location: Liberty Hall, Dublin

Sabina Higgins officially launches ‘A Century of Progress? Irish Women Reflect’

Liberty Hall, 27 October 2016

a worthy contribution as an assessment of the progress or lack of progress for women as we come to the end of the year of the 1916-2016 centenary commemoration events

Good evening everyone. I am delighted to be here with you and thank you for your warm welcome and to Máire Meagher and the Markievicz School for inviting me to be here with you on this special occasion to launch your  book ‘A Century of Progress? - Irish Women Reflect.'

Congratulations to the Countess Markievicz School for their work and this book.

This is a very fine publication with a very attractive colourful cover with an image of the painting ‘Shapeshifter’ by Diana Copperwhite.

It is a collection of essays reflecting, as it says, on how women fared in Ireland over the last 100 years.  It is a worthy contribution as an assessment of the progress or lack of progress for women as we come to the end of the year of the 1916-2016 centenary commemoration events.  A year when we reclaimed and got to know so much of our history of the decades leading up to the 1916 rising and its aftermath.  There was so much to get to know as so much had been suppressed.  Like the part played by the women who were out in 1916 and the Citizen Army.  The book is a welcome addition to the hundreds of books and exhibitions and museums that are shedding light on those years and are now great and exciting resources that can act as inspiration for us and future generations. 

The book is very valuable as a source of information on issues that affect women in particular.  Taken as whole you get a very good picture of Ireland over the century on the position of women in society and the part women were playing in attempting to advance their circumstances.  We have the extreme poverty of the revolutionary period, and we have the Irish cultural revival and the revolution.

The book has a foreword by the admirable champion of women’s rights Catherine McGuinness.  This is followed by an account by Niamh Murray of how the Countess Markievicz school was brought into existence by four students of Equality Studies at UCD and inspired by The School of Social Justice.  It is a great account of their determination and their success.  They were motivated by their concern at the lack of women in public and political life and the impact that this was having.  They discussed what they might do to remedy this and decided to establish an Annual Forum on Women in Ireland, to raise consciousness and address aspects of women’s inequality.

It is a great story of how it started from scratch, with just their ideas, idealism, and determination and with little resources, and how they persevered.  They described holding their inaugural event, the first Countess Markievicz School, on a scorching June bank holiday weekend at the Teachers Club in Parnell Square in 2011.  They were delighted at the excitement and energy that it generated among the one hundred women that attended, and the networking they engaged in, and its success.

The networking that took place between women, who knew the history of past efforts for the advancement of women, and those seeing emancipation being brought about through action for social justice, reassured the school that there was a need for a new women’s movement.

It is worthwhile to learn how the school continued with its admirable work over the last 5 years, becoming involved with the events and issues of our times. 

The commemoration of the 1913 Lockout saw them concentrate on the issue of women in poverty in their Women’s Forum of 2013, held appropriately at Liberty Hall.

The year 1913 was when the workers of Dublin were Locked out of work by the employers and were starving and living in tenant buildings, in some of the worst slums in the world, with families with at times 10 children, sharing a house with 10 other families.  It also records their participation in the 2016 Commemorative events.

The women of the school have remained focused on the issues that concern women. Over the last 5 years they have concentration on the effects on women of the recession and the hardship that the cutbacks to services has caused.  They mention that the sheer volume of articles in this book underscores the many issues women in Ireland in 2016 still face. 

That the short time since the inception of the Markievicz school in 2011 has seen the equality framework of the state itself in danger of being dismantled, with the abolition of the Equality Authority and the long delay in establishing its successor The Irish Human Rights & Equality Commission.  These changes have occurred in tandem with the enormous budgetary cuts to the National Women’s Council of Ireland and many other NGOs tasked with ensuring rights are upheld.

The book has 23 fine essays which span the century and give us a good idea of the times and the struggles of women during that period.  The book is divided for convenience into 3 sections, the first section has six essays dealing with the Historical context, there is a section of ten essays on Justice, Equality and Human Rights and the last section ‘Voices from the Front Line’ we hear from seven activists.

We learn about the revolutionaries at the beginning of the 20th Century, through articles by the great women historians Margaret Ward, Sonya Tiernan and Pauline Conroy.  They deal with the lives of the two wonderful women sisters - Constance Markievicz and Eva Gore Booth.  Both renouncing their privileged backgrounds to become champions of the oppressed, activists and campaigners in the public space as Socialists, Trade Unionists, feminists, and internationalists. 

One a militarist and revolutionary and one a pacifist, suffragist, activist revolutionary.  Both however so close and supportive of each other from childhood in Lissadell in Sligo where Yates describes them:

‘The light of evening, Lissadell,

Great windows open to the south,

Two girls in silk kimonos, both

Beautiful, one a gazelle.’

to their early deaths in 1926 and 1927.  Sonya Tiernan who has written the wonderful biography of Eva Gore Booth in this essay gives a lovely account of the sisters.  She tells us that the greatest single influence on the personal and political life of Constance was her younger sister Eva – they were 2 years apart in age.

Eva living all her life with her partner Esther Roper in Manchester working together to support women by organising women into trade unions and campaigning to get the vote for women so they could vote in the General Elections.

By 1908 Eva was an established and respected trade union organiser and was involved in 1906 in a campaign to protect the employment of barmaids.  A subsection of the Liberal Governments Licensing Bill, that would control the sale and consumption of alcohol, would mean that a estimated 100,000 barmaids would become unemployed.  Barmaids were not unionised so Eva got them to organise and establish the Barmaids Political Defence League.

The young Winston Churchill was a central figure in the Barmaid issue, he was to stand for re-election and Eva, determined to overthrow him, invited Constance to Manchester to help organise a campaign.  Sonya recounts that this was Constance's first serious political venture and her debut into politics dates from this visit to Manchester.

There are great pictures in the book of Constance and Eva driving through the streets of Manchester in an open carriage pulled by 4 white horses addressing crowds of people.  Both Constance and Eva addressed the crowds from the roof of the carriage.  Churchill lost the election and the Barmaids won their campaign with 294 out of 355 MPs rejecting the bill.  It had also made for a questioning of the male dominated political systems.

Reading in these various essays about aspects of Markievicz's life one enjoys being reminded of what a great woman she was and what a supreme activist.  In 1909 Helena Maloney introduced her to Inghinidhe na hÉireann, the Women’s Organisation founded by the great Maude Gonne in 1900.  Maude had been active for years in many of Ireland's causes but refused membership of any political or Irish Cultural Revival organisation as they were all for men only.

In these chapters are recalled all of Constance’s involvement with Delia Larkin in the Irish Women Workers Union and her whole hearted support of Jim Larkin and James Connolly and the workers during the Lockout, the endless work in Liberty Hall organising food for the hungry families and her involvement with the Citizen Army and with the training of the Fianna and her collaboration with Connolly and her unswerving support for him in all the events leading up to the Rising.

We are told of all the many issues of today. We get to know the progress that has been made. We have the voices of the women themselves who were since the '70s challenging the status quo and active through the social legislative issues of the '80s.

On reflecting on the articles one agrees that there have been many advances in the quality of women’s lives.  The extreme poverty is not as widespread as it was in many of the decades over the century.

Also in this section on the Historical context we have a great information article by Ivana Bacik on the 1937 constitution.  It gives a whole chronological history of women’s legal position under the law before and after the 1937 constitution.

The difference it made in 1973, after we became a member of the EEC, for the development of gender equality in Ireland, things like the passing of the Anti-Discrimination and the Employment Equality Act of 1977 and much more legislative change.

It meant women were able to challenge discriminatory laws for instance in the so important matter of the banning of the import or sale of contraceptives.

Reading it brings to mind all the social change campaigns, and what awful prejudice and barriers had to be overcome at each step.  It will be particularly enlightening and valuable to many young people who have no recollection of how hard won were the freedoms they can enjoy.  Ivan states that European Human Rights Law offers a potential route to women experiencing discrimination in Ireland.  Of course the United Nations is a wonderful global institution in the fight to achieve gender equality.

In the ‘Voices from the Front Line’ section of the book I was really struck by the essays on Community Development – I am sure Constance Markievicz would be very much a promoter of Community Development, if funded and supported fully, as a way out of disadvantage and a route to realising oneself belief and potential.

The chapter is called ‘Still Locked Out – The Experience of Community Development in Ireland’.  Cathleen O’Neill recounts how after decades of building capacity in the disadvantaged communities through community development projects, that when the recession hit the funding was cut and so much of the work that had been done by mainstream University Development graduates and people who had come back into education and qualified as Community Development staff and Community Leaders were left without the needed resources.

She states that community development as we know it ceased to exist on 14 December 2009 when the Government closed 29 community development projects in Dublin after an unclear review process.  Two thirds of them were in Dublin.  The remaining 150 projects are being merged with Local Partnership Companies.  These,  she says, are about labour intervention and training, they are not about community development and have lessened the possibility that meaningful engagement for social change or the building of local capacity.  The loss of community project process, ethos and principles will have long-term consequences for marginalised groups in Ireland.

I think that community development is immensely important for combating disadvantaged.  In the last week or so I have visited An Cosán in Jobstown in Tallaght West and witnessed the powerful force this centre is for empowering the community.  Its services are from 0 – 100 Education courses start with Lifestart and Spirals and go on to 3rd level qualifications in Community Development and Leadership.  Many of the teachers and staff came from hopeless situations and found their way to An Cosán and were supported and encouraged back to education.  It is the biggest community education organisation in Ireland. 

Its Virtual Community Education has completed its 2 years start-up phase of third level degrees in Community Development and this year it is expanding to provide virtual qualification degrees across the country.  When community development is bringing an ethos of solidarity and cohesion to a community it deserves every support. 

In another article about community development project the indominatable Rita Fagan tells the story of how in the tenants of St. Michaels estate in Inchichore, with the support of Rita’s Family Support Centre fought a sixteen years war defending land, with a vision for public housing.  They lead the fight for regeneration and achieved 3 different sets and types of public housing and community facilities.  She says that John Bissett has documented the story in his book ‘Regeneration; Public Good or Private Profit’.  She is scathing in her condemnation of Public Private Partnerships, which she says facilitates land grabs of public lands.  Rita and all the women took part in the opening of their wonderful Richmond Barracks Museum. And they paraded as Cumann na mBan women with flames in their hands singing a rousing

“God Save Ireland said the hero’s.

 God Save Ireland say we all”.

Another example of Community development work can be gauged from the chapter – Gender Issues in the Travelling Community by the National Travellers Women’s Forum.  This is the network of traveller women and traveller women’s organisations throughout Ireland.  It recognised the particular oppression of travel women in Irish society and is working to enable the enhancement of their position.  They are working from a rights based approach, or their right to equal status as travellers, and as women, and as members of an ethnic minority.  On Monday I was with the Offaly Traveller Movement as they celebrated 20 years of community development at the Tullamore Traveller  Centre.  Here again there was a wonderful Staff of qualified traveller and settled women who were working against such odds and lack of funding.  As they gave their reports, on their different intervention areas, it was clear that the priority problem in need of solution is accommodation.  They have been failed so badly by the local government and the county councils.  Even when the government provides the finance needed these bodies do not spend the money to provide the housing, and the permanent, transit and temporary good serviced halting sites that are needed.

There is valuable chapter on the Ireland’s Magdalene Laundries - Confronting a History Not Yet in the Past’ by Maeve O’Rouke and James M. Smith. 

In the second section in the book titled Justice, Equality and Human Rights there is a very important chapter: Ireland and Gender Inequality: Economic, Social and Cultural Right’s Under the International Spotlight by Jane O’Sullivan. 

It seems that the UN International covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights were created to give legal force to the promises of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  This allows an individual who believes that their social, economic and cultural rights are being violated by their own government, to make an appeal to the UN.  These rights include the rights to food, housing, education, health work etc  Ireland signed the optional protocol to the covenant in March 2012.  The Covenant has never been incorporated into Irish law, and the Irish Constitution is limited in its protection of these rights. For example, there is no right to housing in Irish law.  Ireland signed the Optional Protocol to the Covenant in Mary 2012.  It has not ratified it. 

People in Ireland can’t use the Protocol to make complaints to the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.Jane O’Sullivan states that she is of the view that making Economic, Social and Cultural Rights legally enforceable is essential to tackling inequality.  It seems to me that that whole chapter is a must to read and study. 

On direct provision there is a short piece by Pamela Kpaduwa headed ‘A Caged Escape’.  Pamela is a Nigerian woman who has been in direct provision in Ireland for 10 years now with her children.  She tells how she came here in 2006 fleeing fear and conflict and is now trapped in direct provision, robbed of every sense of worth. 

It is such a great shame for our country that asylum seekers are treated in this way. There can be no excuse for it and I hope this changes as a matter of urgency.

These are just a sample of the essays – they all contain such great information and they are all there as a snapshot or ‘state of the nation’ statement of women’s issues in Ireland in 2016.

I hope this book is widely read and that people familiarise themselves with the problems women face and that they will find in it inspiration and motivation because if we are to reach the University Development Goal of equality for women worldwide by 2030 we have to get going urgently as there is a lot needing remedied and a lot to be done.

Congratulations again to the Countess Markievicz School and to all concerned in the production of this fine book.