Ailbhe


Interview with Ailbhe Smyth

December, 2002



AS: I’m Ailbhe Smyth and I’m feminist and lesbian activist. I’ve been involved in radical politics in this country for, I don’t know, twenty or thirty years. And I’m director of the Women’s’ Education, Research and Resource Center in UCD. WERRC is a women’s studies center which seeks to widen participation for women in third level education. And I write. I don’t sing.

MM (Mary McAuliffe): Do you see yourself as an activist?

AS: I would always define myself first as an activist, I think since the age of about 30 or 35. Except that I didn’t call myself an activist then. I called myself a militant because my politics were much more revolutionary, left, and came really out of the politics of France in the late 1960’s, 1968, student movement stuff. So, yeah, I had to kind of cool it. Calling myself an activist was bringing it down to some kind of more manageable proportion. And I still call myself very deliberately an activist for two reasons. One, I think of myself as "out there", being involved in various campaigns, or supporting campaigns, or going on marches. That’s for me activism. You know, talking to government needs to be done, but that’s lobbying. It’s not the same thing.

So I call myself an activist because I do actually participate in that world of radical politics. But I also very deliberately call myself an activist because my profession is that of an academic, and I think it’s extremely good for the Academy to have people inside - there’s always a worrying thought about being "inside the Academy," as though we’re never going to get out! But it’s important to have people inside who really define themselves as activists within that space and to see that space as extremely important as a platform for activism. Because the Academy is so incredibly important and controls so much in the world, that I think it’s really important for me and people like me who have been around the Academy for a long time, who have jobs that are pensionable, to be there. Of course, they can always get rid of you, but it would be a bit of a broohaha if they tried. So those are the two main reasons.

And maybe the third reason is that as you get older, I mean, why not say you’re an activist? It’s really important because I think that the space of activism is in some ways getting smaller in contemporary culture. And that’s a huge concern and worry to me. So I think that the more of us who are prepared to stand up and say, "I’m an activist", "I’m a militant", "I’m radical", and even, "I’m revolutionary and I fundamentally want to see a complete turning over in the social, economic, political and cultural structures in this world," the better. So, yeah: I’m an activist.

MM: As an activist, what issues do you feel most strongly about? What issues would you have been involved in over the years?

AS: Well, my activism started with the women’s liberation movement, and that’s always been and still is my primary commitment — working with women for the liberation of all women. But, obviously over that 20-30 year period, it has become more complex. It never seemed simple to any of us, back in the 1970s, despite what the history books tell us; it always seemed difficult and complicated with lots of different strands. But nonetheless, I think it is true that over the years, I’ve come to understand that perhaps my fundamental commitment is to working for a transformed world which is capable of creating truly egalitarian structures. I don’t believe that a capitalist, patriarchal, heterosexist, racist, imperialist system is capable of delivering equality for anybody. So now I would say I am committed to trying as best I can to contribute to working for a world which is capable of developing true equality. My own experience, my kind of expertise as an activist is probably in relation to women, but I’ll take on issues of injustice wherever because I think people have to do that.

I’ve been very involved in lesbian and gay and queer activism in this country. I also have been for quite a while in one way or another involved in anti-war, anti-poverty, anti-racist stuff. Those are issues affecting women, issues affecting lesbians and gays, issues which effectively render people powerless. They are going to be the areas where I think I will probably always go on feeling most strongly about. It’s also a little bit about saying, "Well, that’s what I kind of know how to do. If I’ve learned something, it’s in those sorts of areas." I think if you know some little thing about something, then you’re probably wise to try not to be too diluted about it. I’m very proud of being a feminist. And I’m very proud of being a lesbian activist. And I think they can really encompass so much. You can’t be a feminist and also not be anti-capitalist, nor also be anti-racist, and anti-imperialist. You just simply can’t.

MM: What about the conflicts, perhaps, within the feminist movement? Say around lesbian activism or lesbian identities?

AS: Conflicts in the feminist movement? I’ve never come across conflicts in the feminist movement! (laughing). You deal with conflicts as they arise. You accept that in any social movement, as in any organization, there’s going to be conflict. There’s even going to be confrontation. There’s going to be unpleasantness. There’s going to be, you know, people around the place who don’t like you and you don’t like them. And, ideologically and politically, you’re going to have differences. I think fairly early on, like after about ten years of being an activist, I decided that conflict was part of the deal, and that you had various things you could do to, various strategies you could adopt to avoid it. On the whole, I think avoidance is probably what I tend to do best. I don’t think it’s natural to expect politics to be conflict-free.

I’ve never experienced myself conflict in the women’s movement because I’m a dyke. Now, I think that’s partly because I didn’t actually come out until the late ‘80s so in a way, a lot of the hard work had been done in the late ‘70s and ‘80s when I wasn’t lesbian. Now I was always just lesbian friendly — I totally adored dykes, I just didn’t know I was one then. But we didn’t have that conflict with anything like the acuity that was experienced in the UK or even France or in the States or Canada. And we didn’t even, in Ireland, have the terrible conflicts between radicals and reformists. We always knew who the radicals were — "Us" — and the reformists were - "Them". But, because it was small we really had to work together. And I think that there was, early on, a very pragmatic theorizing of feminist politics in this country, which perhaps I would only recognize in retrospect, that reformists needed radicals whether they were prepared to accept it or not. Because we were the ones pushing the boundaries, opening up the whole thing. But in a way, radicals also need the reformists who are going to translate those radical demands into the more manageable, everyday terms, where you are going to make real life changes that are meaningful for women, for people generally, in their everyday lives.

I certainly learned a lot from women in the late ‘70s and the ‘80s who had very strong, pragmatic approaches within their radical revolutionary feminism - which was about understanding the utility of the transformational process from radicalism to reform. So I think my own experience of conflict has been relatively easy. And, again, in a fairly small environment I think you do know that you can’t allow your acute differences with people to over-ride what you do politically. And, then, as I say, there is the typical avoidance strategy where you simply smile at but never speak with X or Y or Z.

I suppose the worst conflicts I’ve encountered were probably around abortion politics but more in the early days than in later times. Although it’s still not really acceptable here to describe yourself as pro-abortion. I never describe myself as pro-choice because it’s a completely meaningless phrase. You know, choose what? If your politics are pro-abortion, you’re better off to say that actually and not mislead people. I don’t believe in misleading people. Although many people would like you to mislead them. So I think that there have been certain conflicts in that area, and it’s important to just negotiate them.

But I missed out, fortunately, on the conflicts between lesbians and gay men back in the early days of the lesbian and gay movement in this country. So when I really got involved in lesbian and gay politics, which was more towards the beginning of the ‘90s – I came out about ’87, ’88 — I was very quickly moved into the fray then. But there wasn’t much of a fray. I think people were beginning to realize that we really had to work together. And then, from the early ‘90s on, we moved into a much less radical phase in Irish, and indeed in world, social movement politics anyway. So it was more about being friendly. I think we are now beginning to re-politicize which is interesting.

MM: How did you get involved in abortion activism? What has been your role in this struggle? Why did you choose this particular struggle?

AS: My politics were always pro-abortion from the very start, and it was just very clear that in this country we were going to have to seize that item on the agenda. I mean it didn’t come up when I got involved in the women’s movement in the late ‘70s really because, at that stage, we were looking for contraception. We had the contraception program — the CAP campaign - in ’76 which had been raised by Irish Women United. And then the late ‘70s and early ‘80s were very much a period of seeking fundamentally to put contraceptive facilities and appropriate reproductive health care in place for women.

But I think all of us who are radical knew perfectly well that abortion was going to come on the agenda and indeed there was a very, very, tiny brave group of women who formed a pro-choice group. I think that was around about 1979. And immediately, subsequent to that, the fundamentalist right wing movement became very vociferous. Now it wasn’t actually because of the Women’s Right to Choose group as it was called. It was very much that fundamentalist wing here that was feeding into something that was absolutely part of the Catholic culture, the very conservative Catholic culture. That was, nonetheless, fed and fanned by North American politics and specifically right wing politics in the U.S. It was fanned and also financed. In the late ‘80s, I was working as an editor with Attic Press and we did a book with Emily O’Reilly, which I edited, called Master Minds of the Right, where she actually traced out the background of the financing of the extreme right wing movement here.

So it was there as an issue on the agenda. And then there was an experience I had. I myself didn’t have an abortion but of course I know, obviously, many women who have had abortions. But there was a particular case that moved me very, very deeply which was the case of a young woman who didn’t have an abortion, who went ahead and had her baby who was subsequently adopted because abortion was just so unthinkable in this country. I felt that was such a terrible, terrible thing, and I started thinking about all of the women who had to give their children up for adoption over the years. I felt that while an abortion is not necessarily an easy thing for any woman, that giving a child up for adoption must be about the most difficult thing a person, a woman ever has to do. So I felt that it was really important to get out there and to work genuinely to create the kinds of structures for women so that they have information, understanding, and can have access to making real decisions about their lives. I don’t call it "choice." I think it is in fact being able to make decisions, and having the psychological and social and informational capacity to do that.

So, I suppose I’ve been involved in abortion politics since about 1982-83. I was actually out of the country for a year during the lead-up to the 1983 referendum, but was involved in the early stages of that. I was very, very upset at the outcome of that referendum, even though it wasn’t a surprise. A couple of years later, we lost a divorce referendum, and though I don’t really care about divorce on one level, because I don’t hold any candle at all for marriage, at the same time, it was a very important position issue and losing the divorce referendum after the abortion referendum was the only time in my life I’ve ever thought about emigrating. I thought, "I can’t stand this country any more." And then I thought, "No, we’ve had two terrible losses; it is a terrible decade, the ‘80s, there’s dreadful economic recession, there’s huge repression; and yet there is an energy there that will come up if we can just keep the faith." I know, for myself, I really had to keep on going although it was terribly difficult. And everybody I know who was involved at that time, I think we all felt terribly demoralized and disillusioned and raggedy. We felt raggedy. We were just exhausted.

And then, somehow, keeping going and the economy beginning to go into some kind of upturn, and the election of Mary Robinson — which wasn’t out of the blue; it was the hopes of those who had been so demoralized and disillusioned in the ‘80’s - that opened up a new era. And it was definitely possible for us to think then in terms then of going ahead and fighting abortion politics, doing the abortion politics again.

I think the only reason you’d be involved in abortion politics in this country or in any country is because you feel so strongly that women’s lives are just appalling unless we have decision-making rights and control over our fertility. I think that’s absolutely crucial. There are two absolute foundations: control over sexuality and fertility and economic independence. I still argue, right from my radical socialist feminist roots in the ‘70s, that you’re always at some level working for rights and structures in those two areas. But that’s really what I think always motivates you with abortion politics, that it is not the outer edge or the outer rim or the most extreme thing; it is the fundamental base of fertility control for women - in a society, a culture, in a world where RU486 is still not widespread, and where pregnancy is unexpected.

I’m not even going to debate the politics of it any more. It is simply a basic human right, and we are to have it or this world stinks. And until we have it, as far as I’m concerned, this world is absolutely not egalitarian and totally exploits and oppresses women. It is not the only way in which women are oppressed and exploited but it’s very, very capital.

I actually think, in Ireland, that there has been a huge shift in public opinion. We see that in all of the opinion polls. We see it too in the ways in which people conduct their everyday lives. We see it in the greater ease with which they acknowledge the reality of abortion in their own families, in their own neighborhoods, among their friends and so on. But I don’t think we should delude ourselves that that means that this county is yet in favor of abortion. It isn’t. We’ve become more sophisticated, I suppose, in one sense, in relation to sexuality, in relation to reproduction. But we are still extremely selfish, conservative people here in Ireland. So we’re not yet willing, I think, to acknowledge that women do have a right to freedom.

And I think you see the down side of that in the fact that women who’ve had abortions still find it very, very difficult to talk about them and will tend, on the whole, to prefer to do so in a situation in which they’re not going to be closely identified. I think that is so disgraceful and scandalous, in the year 2003, in a democracy that calls itself "modern", "contemporary", "sophisticated"… whatever. It shows you how incredibly profound, not just the desire but the need to control women is on the part of patriarchal structures, which still see the grip and the means to power as being through the control of women. I think that’s sometimes why we make mistakes and get confused in the women’s movement and in feminist politics when we think somehow that because there isn’t really any need for social structures to work that way, that we don’t have to believe in patriarchy any more. But patriarchy almost, to keep itself going, to maintain itself and reproduce itself, has to control women. So of course, it’s going to go on doing that. How do you best control women? By depriving them of freedom. And you deprive them of freedom by insuring that they have no economic independence and they can’t decide what to do with their bodies.

MM: Assuming that we know nothing, just explain briefly the situation about abortion in Ireland, for example, the ’83 referendum, the X case, the C case…

AS: The situation in Ireland regarding abortion is just so complicated it’s absolutely unbelievable. It is against the law and it is probably unconstitutional. But we’re not absolutely sure about this because we did have a Supreme Court ruling on foot of a particular case, known as the X case, which I’ll talk about in a moment, which indicated that abortion could be legal in cases of threatened suicide on the part of the mother and possibly even rape, it’s not altogether clear. So that did seem to open up the way towards limited abortion in this country and, indeed, we do now have a situation where, technically, that should be available. But, in reality, we still have the 1861 Offenses Against the Person Act, which actually makes abortion illegal. And we still have an amendment in the Constitution which is what the Supreme Court ruling was about, which "copper fastens" that unconstitutionality and illegality of abortion.

In a way, I think, with that somewhat ambivalent legal situation, what’s maybe more important to say about abortion in Ireland is that there isn’t any. Because the situation is so uncertain, because we have the law, because we have a Constitutional Amendment, because we have a Supreme Court ruling which didn't really clarify anything, because we had a referendum after that, which didn’t do very much either effectively (it didn’t ask us to do very much), the situation now is that women, believe it or not, now have a right to information about abortion - which we had to vote on in a referendum, a right to information, in what we call a democracy in the European Union. We now have the right — big deal — to information about abortion without getting arrested and thrown into jail, which is technically what they could have done. We also have the right – again, huge big deal, in a democracy - we also have the right to travel abroad for an abortion, which, again, we had to vote for in a referendum. I mean, can you credit that? This is Europe. We are full members of the European Union, and fat lot of good that membership in the European Union has ever done us in term of abortion. And let nobody ever contradict me on that. The European Union doesn’t care about reproductive rights, sexuality, violence against women; it doesn’t care about children; it doesn’t care about the trafficking of women; it cares about nothing like that. It cares about economic issues only. So the European Union has been of no avail to us. It has actually let the Irish Government off the hook in quite complicated ways every time. So that means that the reality is that women cannot have an abortion in this country. They have to go to Britain because the North of Ireland still has a very outmoded abortion act in operation. So even women from the North of Ireland have to go to the mainland Britain for abortions.

So that to me is the crux of the issue. In one sense, I don’t really care what the law says. I don’t really care what the Constitution says. I know the Constitution is symbolically important… but there is a large, practical, concrete, sort of materialist part of me that says, "What I want to see, and what women actually need, is access to free, safe abortion in this country." We don’t have that. They have to make this ludicrous and demeaning journey, and expensive journey, to Britain. We clearly need legislation that’s going to sort that out. I believe that that will come about within the next five years or so because we’ve been edging oh so slowly towards it — you could say, really, since 1983, since our first referendum. We’ve now had three referenda on abortion; we’ve had two huge case: the X case and the C Case.

The X case came about because a young woman - a girl - was raped by a friend of her family, and became pregnant as the result of the rape. Her parents were bringing her to Britain for an abortion and they were prevented effectively from doing so. They were effectively brought home. And she was stopped from having an abortion. Now it caused a huge scandal. It caused a huge outcry. The interesting thing, I think, about people in Ireland is that until quite recently, the majority of the electorate has been anti-abortion in principle but in practice there has been some recognition that dreadful things happen to women and therefore they should, you know, "I’m not going to say anything about it, but they should be allowed to go to Britain." So Irish people did react, from my point of view, very constructively and positively to this appalling prevention of an abortion in the case of X.

The case went to the Supreme Court where it was determined that X should be entitled to abortion because there was a threat of suicide. She was threatening suicide. In the heel of the hunt, I understand that X did have an abortion. And on foot of that then we did have a recognition of the need for information and the right to travel [these were both passed in the 1992 referendum].

There was a case subsequently called the C Case which involved another another young woman, who happened to be a Traveler. The Health Board was proposing bring her to Britain for an abortion, and there were very severe objections that were partly parentally motivated I think. And again, think there really was the consensus that C should be permitted to have an abortion.

[For an excellent overview of abortion law in Ireland since 1861, which details many of the events mentioned above, see the IFPA's Irish Abortion fact sheet: http://www.ifpa.ie/campaigns/abortion/hist.html]

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 Ireland in I think it was somewhere about 1979. And in Limerick, ultra radical Limerick [laughing], he gave this speech where he appealed to the women of Ireland as being the last bastion of purity and chastity and goodness and docility and obedience in the world, virtually. And the women of Ireland clapped and applauded and then, you know, bought these little folding seats, trotted up to the Phoenix Park in Dublin — this big open air arena where he was going to deliver mass - and the women sat down in their little seats and listened to the Pope and then went home that evening and popped the pill. And, actually, in the middle of 1980, the birth rate dropped; it started plummeting. So, quite clearly, the Pope’s visit had the completely opposite effect. It sort of motivated women, impelled women to rethink – that’s probably an extreme view of the Pope’s visit but there is no doubt that demographically our birth rate started to drop in the early 1980s and has continued by and large to drop, although we’re seeing it plateauing a little bit at the moment with immigrant populations who tend to have larger families. And that’s a very interesting phenomenon for us here as well.

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 coming to Ireland with different cultures, and also the rise in racism among Irish people towards these immigrants, particularly the women, do you think that will bring a different element to feminism and activism?

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 Ireland now and it’s something which is now being discussed.

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 Ireland in a relatively short space of time, since effectively we only started industrializing in 1958. So we’ve had a very short lead-in time to an understanding and an enjoyment of relatively high, very high lifestyle levels, very high levels of consumerism, for which we have absolutely no training. And we’re very determined that they [these economic gains] will be for us and our children, and that nobody is going to take that prosperity away from us.

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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