[For an excellent overview of abortion law in
What is so interesting about all of this is that
the situation for women has been changing incredibly slowly though this process
of having referenda - which have themselves been fuelled by cases which,we in
the pro-abortion and pro-choice movement have been saying all along: "These
are exactly the kinds of cases that will come about because the law and the
Constitution are so ambiguous…so unclear." The reason why it is so
unclear basically is because the Amendment we inserted in the Constitution
– I say "we"; I mean the Irish electorate inserted into the
Constitution in 1983 - technically gave an equal right to life to the woman and
the fetus, or, as we call it, "the mother and the baby." But, you
know, a woman who is carrying a fetus may not necessarily be a mother; she may
be because she may have other children but she’s not necessarily, at that
stage, a mother. And of course, those rights will conflict. There will be
conflicting rights there. So it’s not possible always for rational
judgements to be made under those circumstances. And it’s not possible
for the law to be clear under those circumstances.
My own view is that abortion should be removed from legislative frameworks, that there is no need to legislate for abortion. It certainly has no place whatsoever in a Constitution. The only reason it’s in the Constitution is because it became such a huge position issue in this country. I think that abortion should be dealt with as any other issue in relation to women’s reproductive health. We don’t have legislation for every aspect of our health. For example, we have general parameters which are laid down which entitle us to appropriate health care, given, in our culture, certain income levels, and so forth, because we have a much more social-welfare oriented system. And I think that abortion, and indeed contraception and any other reproductive health needs that women may have can be dealt with within those general health care parameters. There is no need, logically, to single out abortion; there is no need to single out contraception either. And I do believe that in the fullness of time — maybe not in 5 years in Ireland, but over the next 10 years or so – all of those laws are going to become redundant anyway when the Morning After pill, for example, is going to become much safer and also much more widely available and accessible to women. So I think abortion will disappear.
The reason why abortion, of course, has been such an issue in this country — less so now, I think, but why it was in the ‘80s and the ‘90s - really has to do with that terrible grinding process of a society, a culture, emerging from a very long almost gestation period, if we can use that metaphor, where we were poor, emerging from a period of colonization, extremely defensive, not turning outward to the world. We were very inward looking for reasons which are absolutely comprehensible and which we don’t have to criticize now. That was the way it was historically. But that process of beginning to look outwards is actually a very painful one as we know in personal terms when we go through a process of healing ourselves and learning how to deal anew with the world. In a way that happens with cultures and societies as well. I think the period of upheaval that we experienced in Ireland from the late 1950s with the period of industrial expansion, moving through the 1960s when we were beginning to feel ourselves as economically independent and beginning to have an independent identity again as a nation and a culture, beginning to become involved with Europe, leap-frogging over Britain, our ancient colonizers and so on… All of that raised issues of power and control in huge ways, and those issues of power and control were, themselves, of course, were both part of the reason why the women’s liberation movement emerged — not only here, but elsewhere — but why here, for example, it went straight into the definition of Irishness. What does it mean to be Irish? What it means to be Irish is to be beginning to deal with a history which is very, very painful and not rocking the boat in any other ways. Not pushing us too fast, too far. And dealing with a culture in which, effectively, the control of women was fundamental to the economy and fundamental to that notion of Irishness which was so bound up with Catholicism. We could argue about this — and that’s a very broad generalization — but it has a general kind of truth about it.
Of course, the Catholic Church was still mega-powerful here in the ‘60s and ‘70s. I grew up through the days of that awful Catholic repression and feeling I didn’t have a body; I didn’t have sexuality; I didn’t know about contraception. I didn’t even know about heterosex, never mind any other kind of sex, until I was about 17 or something. I didn’t hear the word "lesbian" until I was 18. I sort of knew about gay men. The notion that you could control your fertility — I had absolutely no idea. And when I finally copped on, in my 20s, that you could get the pill and trotted off to my GP and said, "You know, I have a very irregular menstrual cycle and I think I need the pill," and he sort of nodded and said, "Yes, yes, I’m sure you’re probably are sexually active and this may not be making your menstrual cycle any more regular. Would this be accurate?" and I’m saying, "Oh, definitely, yes definitely," and getting the pill - that was very unusual. I was a highly educated woman. I had my post-graduate qualifications at that stage and I was as green as they come. Facing into marriage at that point, thinking, "My God, I don’t want to get pregnant. I’ve got to do something about this." And there was no structure.
So that very, very repressive situation that we experienced as women meant that we knew and understood very, very little. And, when we started to protest, when we stared to say, " Well, actually we do want the pill; we do want contraception; we do want abortion; we do want to decide," that caused huge turmoil and uproar - because it was about saying, "Actually, frankly, we don’t give a damn what the Catholic Church says."
The Pope came to visit
But those years around abortion were very difficult and very painful years because it was very much about an ultra conservative traditionalist view of this country, this society, this culture. And, [the emergence of] a much more modernizing — and, in many ways, much more radical and human rights oriented kind of culture. And one in which women were very determined to be free. There’s no doubt about that, whatever some people think about the women’s movement, it has brought about a huge psychic shift for women everywhere. Women are not free but women know that freedom is a human right.
MM: With the rise in the immigrant population
AS: There’s no doubt that the increase in immigrants to this country — non indigenous people coming to this county — is changing a lot of our perceptions and structures. I think the fact that immigrant women are likely to have larger families than the norm now for native women in Ireland - I don’t know what the rate is but at least twice that number of children – it’s certainly making us reconsider meanings of family, diverse meanings of family, which I think is very interesting and very timely. It’s very important. There’s been a lot of re-configurations of family and families in this country, partly through lesbian and gay families, partly through women working full time or part time in the labor force, partly through and therefore the drop in numbers of children, partly through the breakup of communities and so on. And I think that different kinds of familial formations literally, physically coming into the country is already raising a lot of questions.
I don’t think that’s in the least bit problematic for feminists and those active in the women’s movement because there has, of course, for a long time been a recognition that women experience their fertility and have different kinds of needs and desires and aspirations. And also different economic needs - for women who come from agricultural economies, economies that have been primarily agricultural or agrarian, relatively high numbers of children have been considered of course extremely important in terms of economic sustainability of the family structure - and also in terms of being cared for in old age where there aren’t any social welfare structures and so on. Family has, in so many instances - I’m thinking now of understandings that we have from Black and Asian women, for example, in the UK from African-American women in the States and Canada and ethnic minority women in other countries - that family is construed by many women as a very positive refuge, haven type structure. Family acts as a bulwark against the racism and other forms of oppression and discrimination that they experience in their lives.
And I think that my understanding and politics and practice of feminism has always — well, not always, I have to be honest, but since the 1980s — been aware of the different ways in which family is understood and lived. And that therefore, the fact that you campaign for abortion, for example, in this country, is not to say that you impose abortion on women everywhere - but rather that there is an absolute recognition that that’s one need. Another need, at the same time, is going to be family support structures. Is going to be proper child care facilities for women. Is going to be the kind of levels of social welfare payment that mean that women are not penalized for having children. For the two poles are equally absurd: that women have to have children and that women are penalized for having children. And they are both of course connected. So what we are talking about is at either end of that scale is women’s right to decide about their families. That’s fundamentally what feminists are campaigning for and fighting for and struggling for in one area of our activism. I do think that that is certainly there in
But I don’t see contradictions. I don’t see conflicts forthcoming. What I do certainly see is that racism has hugely, massively increased in this country. It’s not that previous generations of Irish people, or even 10 years ago, that we weren’t racist. It’s because we had, as the children’s stories say, no string beans to practice on. Because it was very largely a white, homogenous population, we simply did not encounter people of other ethnic groups, other racialized groups, in this country. There was not a perception that immigrants were coming to this country and creating different kinds of cultures and "taking our jobs". So of course as soon as that started to happen, and as soon there was any sense of materialist and cultural threat, that racism, which is inherent in all white cultures, that racism emerged. It emerges quite violently, virulently.
I don’t think it’s unexpected. I think it’s disgraceful. But it is completely naïve to be surprised by it. What we do as white people is to protect our interests, just as patriarchy — i.e. men — will function to protect their interests. Just as heterosexist culture will strive to protect its interests. Whenever the hegemonic dominant group is threatened by what it perceives as the "other," it will move to protect. And how does it move to protect itself? By vilifying the other.
So, of course, racialized groups, and also ethnic minority groups, for example, Eastern European immigrants who come here, are subject to vilification, discrimination. We’ve been doing some big research in my center on the labor market experiences of refugees and asylum seekers. And discrimination is experienced by both white immigrant populations and black immigrant populations in this country. I think it is very interesting and important that what’s happening here is that there’s a perception of a threat. So, Romanians are othered; the Roma are totally othered; Nigerians are completely racialized and very othered on that basis. I’m not saying it works identically. But there is extreme discrimination [for each group].
A lot of that racism is actually quite hidden because we choose as white people and as a society not to acknowledge it. It’s often dealt with, I think, poorly, incompletely, and in a somewhat distorted way by the media. The experiences of people who come to this country in search of a decent life are absolutely appalling. And they are produced by the kinds of structures and systems that we have in place to make sure that we continue to be OK.
And I think that there’s a new factor that plays into that in this country. Over the past 10 years, with an economic prosperity - which is itself now under threat because of a world shift - we have undoubtedly become much less communitarian, much more materalistic, much greedier and much more selfish. That, again, I don’t wish particularly to sound judgmental, but these are the features of highly consumer-driven and commodity-driven societies in the contemporary world. And that’s happened in
So, while the racism that exists in this country will often look the same as racism elsewhere, as is always the case, there are somewhat different kinds of strands that go to create that here in this country. We have to be attentive to our own particular strands and deal with those really very carefully. And I think that the women’s liberation movement and all social movements in this country have an absolute responsibility to integrate anti-racism into our ways of working and thinking, into our politics. I think that our politics have to be much more transectral, that we have to be very much more coalitional. It’s not about forming coalitions; it’s actually genuinely integrating anti-racist as well as anti-poverty as well as anti-homophobic thinking into the kind of politics that we do, whatever our particular social movement or radical base is. And that’s certainly one of the things that we try to do in the center [WERRC] I’m involved in at UCD. Because I think that you cannot really just take one issue at a time. There is a movement here against racism, quite a sizeable movement against racism, but I think we all have to integrate that into other aspects of our politics.
Just on that point by the way, I think that our social movements and radical politics are actually quite sizeable here. People sometimes say, "Oh, you know there were only 900 people, or 700 people, or 1,500 people out on that anti-racist march or on anti-war march or feminist march." And I’m saying, "Yeah, but this is a population of 4 million." Actually, proportionately, our numbers hold up very well. So activism is quite healthy, surprisingly in this country, despite the fact that we live nearer to supreme depoliticization.
I do think that Ireland is in thrall to the European Union and to the USA, through our cozying up to the President of the United States of America, George W. Bush and his war mongering. And that we need to be very much more clear sighted about these things, and to say that those locations that we have in the world are actually imperialist positions. They do produce racism. They are designed to produce inequality. So we can’t have a rhetoric as we do in this country of having great equality legislation while at the same time remaining embedded in these locations. There’s a big contradiction.
I think the small countries can be quite helpful, because the scale is so small, in showing up the way things happen, the kinds of contradictory strands there are. I think it’s often useful for us to stand back and not say not, "Oh, how great little Ireland is," but to say, "Oh, how interesting it is to see the ways in which certain global trends are really very visible here." And to look at what they produce, to look at the injustices, to look at the experiences, to look at the trouble that we’re shoring up for ourselves in this current global climate. To look at that trouble because we can often see it here quite starkly. That clash between incoming populations and the indigenous population is quite visible here, and there is much that we can both learn from that and demonstrate to others. I find it quite fascinating at the moment. The fact that I intellectually find it fascinating, of course, that’s no help to people whose lives are absolute hell.
MM: Let’s talk about women’s community work. It’s obviously very valuable work, so why do you think it’s undervalued by society?
AS: Community, grass-roots, bottom-up… I like the term "grass-roots." I think "community" is often used as a term to contain grass-roots, bottom-up activism, which threatens to completely destabilize, if not absolutely over-throw, the status quo. "Community" keeps it sort of containable and manageable and you can kind of "organize communities" and so on. But the term that we use here is "community activism." It’s hugely important because it is about people saying, "This is my life, and these are the things in my life that are really not right, and I shouldn’t have to live my life like this. My children shouldn’t have to live like this. My family or my whole neighborhood shouldn’t have to live like this. And, I believe that I have not only the right but the capacity to do something about it and to take on structures and systems that control and disempower people."
I think that it would be very difficult to over-estimate the importance and the power of grass-roots activism of that kind. But for that very reason, it tends to be controlled, contained, and managed in ways that are highly effective. And the first way in which it is controlled, and managed, and contained is by calling it "community activism." That way, it’s just something that happens in a locality; it doesn’t have any national significance; it’s just people wanting better social infrastructure, better education, better healthcare, better everything, but we’ll call it "community" so it’s not going to get too far out of hand. The second way in which it’s controlled and contained is by being constantly under-resourced and under-funded. And, I suppose the third way - they’re all part of the same strategy - is by more or less ignoring it. By pretending it’s not happening. So that Government ministries, departments, will often raise their hands and say, "We didn’t know this was going on."
As we know, not just in this country but everywhere, real grass-roots community movements for change in particular localities tend to be led by women. They are about women saying, "We’ve really had enough. We don’t like this. We’re not putting up with it anymore. We’re going to try to take matters into our own hands. And we are going to make changes. And you may think that these are small changes, but incrementally, they’re going to add up to a great deal."
I actually think that grass-roots activism in this country has been massively important in enabling people to live lives which they perceive as having more value, more meaning, and which are materially, culturally, politically, and economically, and in every way, more satisfying. And also been important in pushing back the controlling bureaucracies that we live under, even in our so-called democratic societies. But that’s always a tug of war. There’s always a kind of balancing thing going on. And it’s very difficult to say that community activists win out all the time because, of course, that’s absolutely not the case. But, let me put it this way: without community activism, people’s lives would be much diminished. They would be much less rich. And they would be materially more impoverished.
The grass-roots activism that I’ve had most contact with and been most involved in is women’s education, feminist education specifically. Because I am an educator - I may be an academic but I’m really an educator. So there has been very strong commitment to saying, "Well, if I have been privileged to have the education that I’ve had and to raise questions about it and critique it, that privilege should be equally available to all women." So that’s always meant working with groups in neighborhoods, in local communities, to try to develop the kinds of structures that enable them to decide what it is they want and need to know, and why they want and need to know it. I ways tend to say that at the beginning of my classes: "Look, what are we here for? What is that that you feel you need to know? Why do you want to know these things? And how do you think you can best learn them?" And then, the fourth thing is equally important: "What are you going to do with that knowledge then? Are you just going to leave it in a drawer or are you going to get out there and do something with it?" And, of course, people say, "But, gee, how can we know what it is we need to know until we know something?" And you say, "Well the fact that you’re here means that you do know that already."
I think that developing the kinds of skills and capacities that you
acquire through education has been absolutely central to the development of
women’s community activism in this country. All of the women that I know
who define themselves as community activists will say that. It’s been a
very, very, powerful movement here. There is an absolute hunger for, not just
received knowledge, but for making useful knowledge and for capacity- building.
That of course is both fed by activism and feeds right back into it. It is in
its own right a very important form of activism.
I was talking to a young woman just yesterday who has been doing a course in women’s studies. She lives in an area which would be seen as economically deprived and disadvantaged - certainly, educationally, highly disadvantaged. There’s no kind of third level institution within anything like shouting distance. During the program, she herself says that she has become very much more aware of the ways in which her life and that of her family are really unacceptable and intolerable. And that many other people in this country are not living like that. And that she feels entitled for herself, and particularly for her family and those around her, to agitate for improvements, both in a general way and also in a very specific way. She’s done very, very practical things.
I think for everybody everywhere, in becoming politically active, there will so often be a personal motive as well as a more general one. People will come together and say: "The accommodation I am living in appalling and now I’m noticing that everybody’s accommodation is appalling except the people who live 5 miles down the road who are surrounded by lovely trees and parkland and gardens and 6 bedrooms and 10 bathrooms and goodness only knows whatnot. And we have to do something about it. And there is no appropriate child care for our children. And our healthcare service, the hospital is miles away," and so on.
So, it starts in that very personal, immediate experiential way, and it does hugely affect community structures, local structures. But there is also a reverberation and a knock-on effect from community to community to community which, effectively, means that there is a change across a very broad spectrum. It will, of course, be halted. There will be obstacles. There will be resistance. And that’s that conflict, tug-of-war-thing that goes on all the time. Nonetheless, I mean, when I analyze what has happened here over the past 20 years, I see what women have been doing at local level: It really is quite remarkable. Many of those women who are community leaders and community activists are very strong, very powerful people, who choose, often to remain activists within a local area but who do have an important national reverberation or resonance. And who are effectively I suppose inspiring models. I don’t like the term "role model" but who are an inspiration to other women.
I think one of the most important things we can do is to always tell ourselves the stories of these women - it’s the dissemination of community activism. And the story of it is really important. Because it’s in local communities, often you don’t know about it somewhere else. So telling those stories, that’s so important; that’s so empowering. Sometimes it’s quite difficult to analyze that because I’m thinking of personal and particular examples. But I do know that through education, I can see this happening. I know the struggle. I know the difficulty. I know the difficulty from our end in the University — in trying to work with local women’s groups (that’s not an effort; the effort is to get the funding to get the resources, to get the recognition). But women who started out doing perhaps a very basic course of some kind are now doing Master’s of Women’s Studies. I think this is one of the great ironies, that they’re doing "Master’s" in Women’s Studies. Those women are hugely important and powerful in their communities and in some ways I think those local initiatives have actually remained much more radical than have the more national kinds of feminist politics. That’s why I really like being fortunate and priveleged enough to be able to work with groups where there is a very radical analysis and understanding of power relations. It’s always what it boils down to. Those women are saying "You have too much power. Move over."
MM: That leads me to a question about power. We had Mary Robinson elected President in 1990 and now we have a second woman President. We have these very strong women working at community level, lots of very strong women activists throughout the country. Why aren’t there more women in the government? Why aren’t we getting to that level of power where you can actually enact laws that will change things?
AS: It’s not absolutely clear, of course, that more women in power means better laws for everybody. The jury’s out on that. But, I don’t think that that’s the argument. I think that the argument is that women should have equal representation in our democratic structures, wherever they are. Whether women are going to be better than men or not is beside the point. They should have equal representation: flat 50/50. None of this 40/60 nonsense. And we need to take special measures to ensure that women do have that representation. It involves several things. It involves first of all, the recognition on the part men, who occupy 80% of the representational positions, that they are not going to do that any longer. That some of them, at least 30% of them, are going to have to disappear. Now which 30% are going to have to disappear is a bit difficult because they don’t want to. So that’s sort of problem number one, if you like. And it requires very firm governance; it requires real leadership because it will be men telling other men. You never tell yourself that you have to move over, not if you’re a man you don’t anyway. It’s men telling men that, "Some of us are going to become obsolete, redundant." I think that many of us would have thought this a long time ago but it’s got to become official. So that’s a huge challenge.
The other dimension of it, I think, is the kinds of structures that women are in, living their lives. And of course there are massive differences across generations, across different locations (urban, rural), across social class, across ethnic distinctions, and so on and so forth. But nonetheless, women are much more likely to be less economically independent than men are, more likely to be entirely responsible for familial obligations of all kinds, and more likely to be much more caring in terms of the work they do in their neighborhoods and communities - to be much more involved there. We must never underestimate the work that women do — women who don’t define themselves as activists but who are actually keeping communities going and keeping them together — which I think IS activism very much.
But, all of that work is hugely considerable and it doesn’t knit easily, it doesn’t meld with public representational practices, which are highly time consuming, and which are very masculinist in their value systems. Women think, "Oh, God, how on earth could I possibly survive in that system that’s really appalling? I’d be swallowed up in 2 seconds, even if there were 50% of us. Why would I want to lose myself, to be drowned, to waste my time among that shower of semi-corrupt shysters?" That’s actually what a lot of women think politicians are, and we don’t often have the power to vote otherwise - although there is that famous graffiti that you see around Dublin at election time: "Don’t Vote, It Only Encourages Them." Which I love. But nonetheless we still go out encouraging them. So women have a very realistic appraisal and evaluation of public politics and say, on the one hand, "Well actually I think I can probably do more where I am." That would be particularly true of community leaders and activists. "If I go in there, I’m going to get completely wasted by it." And, on the other hand, saying: "I don’t like that value system." So you have a kind of chicken and egg situation. Men won’t move over. A lot of the time women feel that that is not the kind of world they want to inhabit. And there is also the material level, then, of their not being able to access that world, even if they want to do so because they don’t have the economic independence but also the men are there occupying all the seats.
So it is a big conundrum. It is not easy to see how this is to be resolved. It is extremely important that our public representational systems become much more diverse; that they become gender-equal; that they also have a much more diverse ethnic mix; that they be more generationally open. We have very, very few young people in politics, and we have very few older people in politics. You never see anybody, really, over the age of 65 much in public politics. Why not? These people have a lot of wisdom and experience. Maybe I say this because I’m getting older and I think maybe when I’m 65 I’ll go up for election for something! But, I think we have this very narrow definition and view and stereotype pretty well everywhere of what a politician is: he is more or less in his 40s, and in our white-dominant society, he’s definitely white, and he’s relatively well educated, etc. And he has got a wife or partner at home who is ironing his shirts and raising his children and keeping all the worries off his really important agenda table where he’d dealing with the world, not very adequately as we see because it’s a total mess.
So there are all sorts of reasons why we need women in the political system. But am I the person to say to another woman: "You’re the one to go in there, girl" ? You know, I couldn’t do it myself. We need more women, but I don’t want to do it, so who’s going to put her hand up and say, "I’ll go first" ? I actually have great admiration for a lot of our women politicians. Not all of them, but there have been quite a lot of them over the years who have actually got in there and really tried to push the boat out. And it’s not easy. It really isn’t. They often get critiqued by women and by feminists for not doing enough. You can’t do very much if you’re only 12%. You really can’t. And speaking out as a "feminist" is almost instant death in term of re-election or ministerial power or anything like that.
But, just to come back briefly to the question of do more women make a difference. They say that a critical mass of women is achieved when you’ve got about 30%-40% of women represented in Parliament, for example, and that does make an appreciable difference. I’m not absolutely sure. I don’t think that women are somehow inherently or essentially "better" than men. I’m very well aware that power is very difficult to resist, you know. Power is a huge temptation. If you have some power, I think you would have to be this 150% saint not to let it alter you in some way. I think it is really, really hard to remain absolutely true to your principles. I think there are people who can do it but I think it is really difficult. And I think any of us who have even the little bit of power that we have (and in some ways I have actually quite a lot because of the privileges of my birth), we’re very reluctant to give it up. We like to tell ourselves that we use it for the good of others but using it for the good of others doesn’t extend to saying, "Well, I’m now going to back off so you can step into my shoes." Actually, even telling someone to step into your shoes is really arrogant, isn’t it? They have their own shoes.
So, I don’t think that it’s easy to solve problems of power. I don’t think that it’s easy to dissolve the kinds of power systems that we have. I don’t think a solution to that is theorizing power in such a way that says, "Well, power is very dispersed, and therefore we have to stop have to stop looking at these mega-systems of power." Excuse me, power may be dispersed, but it’s also there in mega-systems. George W. Bush is a mega-power system. The U.S.A. is a mega, huge power system. White, heterosexist, imperialist patriarchy is a mega-world system. That’s not dispersal; that’s very, very clear. I can point pretty exactly in this country to the major levers of power. I’ll give you a list. That’s not dispersal. Power is there. Tackling it is really hard; it takes a long time. You don’t actually, contrary to the myth, need a huge number of people to do that. You need people everywhere — locally, nationally, at home, out in the workplace, on the scene — you need people everywhere who are going to ask questions and are going to critique and going to contest. And those people need to have clear minds and to have incredibly good health and stamina. That’s for sure. To have the hide of a rhinoceros, never to mind what anyone says to you about what you’re doing. Or if you don’t have the hide of a rhinoceros, to have several shoulders that you can cry on on a regular basis and lots of Kleenex and hankies. And you need to have a sense of confidence in yourself which will come from a social status which you derive through your social class location and/or through education and/or through some kind of sense of your right to be here in this world.
The majority of the people in this world are not born with that, but it can be acquired through education, which is why health and education are absolutely key. They will enable people to be economically more independent and to be politically more autonomous and to be better placed to develop a critique. Everybody will not do that but, as I say, you only need 5% of the population. You need 5% of the population that’s going to actively standing up there saying, "This is wrong. People are being maltreated. People are being treated like dirt. People are being disregarded." That’s all you need. It’s not true to think that an entire population has to be mobilized. It’s great when hundreds of thousands of people get out on the streets. It’s equally fantastic when 5 women in a locality say, "There’s something wrong here. We’re gonna change it." As they have done in Ballymun in Dublin where they’re saying, "We’re going to regenerate this whole area. We’re going to get these buildings knocked down. We’re gonna set up a Women’s Center." Or in St. Michael’s Estate where women have taken on the whole issue of men’s violence against women. The whole community is now working on that issue. And they’re knocking down their dreadful high-rise. There is a part of an anarchist in me that actually likes to see women out there knocking things down - because actually, that’s how we’re going to build a better world. You can’t build it on top of the high rises that are there; you have to knock down what’s there. And that’s pretty painful because where do you be, how do you live, while the things are being knocked down? With difficulty is the answer. You sort of hope that it will be better for your children. Although human beings are human beings so there will probably be a need for another social movement in 20 years time.
MM: We’ve talked about Ailbhe the activist and Ailbhe the academic. What about Ailbhe the writer?
AS: I think of myself as an educator, an academic, a researcher, a theorist, and — it’s taken me a long time to be able to say this — I do think of myself now a bit as a writer. It is so difficult for women to say, "I’m a creative person." It’s taken me a long time to be able to arrive at the point where I can say: "Yes, I do think my political work is hugely important to me and my intellectual work as a researcher and a theorist is really important to me, but that I am not at all satisfied with living with those different parts of me all cut off." So I think, in a way, some of the writing I do is about trying to make sense of that part of me that is impassioned about — certainly changing the world but that’s an arrogant thing… But it’s about living in the world and how we can all live our lives. So, sometimes it will be writing poetry or more kind of lyrical, autobiographical pieces. A lot of it is about telling stories about things that are part of my life and trying to think about change and my life and other people’s lives in so far as I can observe them or know them in some way.
At the moment, I’m writing a piece which is called "Loss Connections of Time and Place," which is about time, which is about loss obviously, which is about how you live the time of your life with the losses that you experience in the place that you’re in - and why it is that you’re in that place. I’m writing it through poems and autobiographical moments and through a kind of a diary which describes what’s happening to me in my life as an activist or as an academic and how these things come together. It’s about my very personal life, my erotic life even, much to the horror of those who would have any erotic involvement with me - it’s never safe! As activist you’re very "out there" in the world and you’re very impelled by the here and now, the immediate moment. As an academic, you’re always trying to stand back. You stand back and think, intellectualize, work out what’s going on. So I’m well used to living in a kind of contradiction. I think the writing I do is about overcoming that gap. It’s about overcoming that kind of contradiction. And it’s about trying to say something for myself which is about what living can mean at a particular moment in time to a particular person with all of what goes on with it.
I do think think of it as political. I do really. Because while it doesn’t nurture a particular political ideology, it is very much about seeking to express very freely something that I’m passionate about, which is trying to achieve some kind of understanding of what this is all about before I die. I don’t think I will, and I don’t think the world is going to be transformed, and I don’t think people are going to be lots happier because you do this little piece. I don’t think any of those things any more. What I do think is that you have this fundamental responsibility in your life which is to live your life as passionately and as fully as you can. So why would you leave your creativity out? If you’ve been given that opportunity, that has to be part of it. And the strange thing is that it actually begins to help you to see something. I’m living in great fear that one of these days, I may turn into the Buddha [laughing]… a feminist one, of course.
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