Thursday, 13 June 2019

Interrogating Commemoration: Reconciling women’s ‘troubled’ and ‘troubling’ history in centennial Ireland

Please do not use the contents of this blog in public presentations and media work (including in radio/television interviews, documentaries and newspaper pieces) without the prior permission of the author and without assigning credit to the author. Normal citation rules apply in academic publication. This blog is an excerpt from a longer working paper, which can be downloaded here

Citation: Linda Connolly, “Interrogating Commemoration: Reconciling women’s ‘troubled’ and ‘troubling’ history in centennial Ireland,” Maynooth University Social Sciences Institute, Working Paper Series, no. 9 (Maynooth: Maynooth University, June, 2019).

Interrogating Commemoration:
Reconciling women’s ‘troubled’ and ‘troubling’ history in centennial Ireland

Ireland is in the throes of a decade of commemoration. The process of commemorating the tumultuous revolutionary events that led to the establishment of the Irish State a century ago has incorporated Government sponsorship of events, public debate, cultural interventions and exciting new academic scholarship on the period of revolution. The outputs of the first stage of the government’s ‘Decade of Centenaries’ program 1912-1916 – including conferences, books, studies, concerts, documentaries, public events and drama – were most impressive. The national commemoration of the Easter Rising of 1916, for instance, was notable for its sensitive and rich cultural content. In the arena of scholarship, access to new historical sources including those available free and online (such as the Bureau of Military History collection) as well as academic engagement projects (such as the ‘Women of the South’ Project in the Farmgate Café in the English Market, in Cork city)  have inspired a new generation of interdisciplinary scholars to study the Irish Revolution and generated a new conception of ‘public history’. The second phase of the program, for 1917-22, is covering the War of Independence, the Civil War and the Partition of the island in the state’s formation, north and south. This stage also included a series of events to mark the hundred-year anniversary of votes for women in 2018.
Building on earlier work (such as Ward 1995), new academic scholarship on the achievement of votes for women and the critical role women played in the Irish Revolutionary period has emerged in the decade of centenaries (McDiarmid 2015, Paseta 2013). Recent research has also addressed the neglected question of the violence women experienced (such as, forced hair cutting/shearing and sexual assault) in the period covering the War of Independence and the Civil War (Connolly 2019) – including the thorny question of violence against women perpetrated by members of the national army. The violence of the revolution was not just a war between men. A more complete picture of women’s experience during and after the revolution has consolidated.
The comprehensive erosion of women’s rights that occurred in the public sphere as well as the crucial social and economic work women performed in the household, the workplace, the Church and civic organisations in the post-independence period has also been well documented and acknowledged in important texts focusing on women’s work and agency (Connolly 2003, Daly 1997). The Government’s ‘Vótail 100’ program commemorated women’s participation in institutional politics in the course of the last century in a number of events and a pop up museum that represented women’s history through ephemera was curated by Sinéad McCoole.  However, some very disturbing scandals and historical abuses in women’s lives have also come to light in Ireland in the last twenty years in the midst of these initiatives. Punitive institutions that existed in the period of revolution and consolidated after independence have come to prominence through public State inquiries, investigative journalism and survivor testimony of abuse in more recent decades. In 2013, for instance, the Irish Taoiseach apologised on behalf of the State to the women who were incarcerated in Magdalen laundries that existed until the late 20th century:
I, as Taoiseach, on behalf of the State, the Government and our citizens deeply regret and apologise unreservedly to all those women for the hurt that was done to them, and for any stigma they suffered, as a result of the time they spent in a Magdalene laundry. The McAleese report shines a bright and necessary light on a dark chapter of Ireland’s history.
Historical injustices that were perpetrated in State-funded, religious-run institutions in Ireland and concealed at the time have been documented some years later in a number of State inquiries and reports (including, the Ryan Report of 2009, the McAleese Report of 2013 and the 2019 Report of the Commission of Inquiry into the Mother and Baby Homes). O’Sullivan and O’Donnell (2012) provided an overview of the incarceration of tens of thousands of men, women and children during the first fifty years of Irish independence. Psychiatric hospitals, mother and baby homes, Magdalen laundries, reformatory and industrial schools, formed a network of institutions of ‘coercive confinement’ that was integral to the emerging State. In 2014, the horrific reality of Ireland’s State-funded, Church-run mother and baby homes came to light when the local historian Catherine Corless discovered a mass grave at the home located in Tuam. Approximately 35,000 women went through Ireland’s nine mother and baby homes between 1904 and 1996, where it is estimated 6,000 babies and children died.
According to Shelton (2019) “history is replete with episodes of genocide, slavery, torture, forced conversions, and mass expulsions of peoples.”  As a consequence, several states and societies throughout the world are being asked to account for historic abuses and provide redress to victims. Some of these historical injustices involve events occurring a century or more ago.  In Ireland, this applies to a large scale system of institutionalisation and traumatic legacies of the past that continue to exist outside of the official State commemoration program, in the present-day narrative of survivors of injustice who are reflecting back and participating in political and legal actions seeking redress and retribution.
A recasting of the version of commemoration (the action of commemorating a person or past event) that has been emphasized in the official ‘decade of centenaries’ program in Ireland. An alternative approach as also concerned with historical accountability and truthful remembering, capable of including profound injustices and abuses of power that occurred in their own time but which remain a disruptive element of the present, is proposed.
Historical accountability has been deployed to better understand how aspects of the past (such as the Trans-Atlantic slave trade) both operated at the time and created a culture that is still present. The concept can be understood in different ways, including in terms of ‘giving an account’ of oppression, violence or brutalization by conducting methodologically sound, evidence-based research and as ‘being accountable’ in scholarship to groups or individuals ignored, eclipsed and excluded from generalized accounts of society and the collective memory of nations. The analysis provided in the longer paper attached suggests that historical accountability should be a more central consideration in a program of national commemoration claiming to address difficult questions about the past.

Friday, 18 January 2019

Article on Sexual Violence and the Irish Revolution in the Irish Times, January 10th 2019

Sexual violence: a dark secret of War of Independence and Civil War

Commemorations must not ignore horrific acts such as shorning and rape of women

Thursday, Jan 10, 2019 in the Irish Times

Linda Connolly

As Ireland enters a new phase of centenary commemorations, a glimpse into the more horrific aspects of the War of Independence and Civil War is anticipated. During armed conflicts, women’s bodies also become battlefields and Ireland’s revolution was no different.
Transgressive violence was perpetrated against women but it disappeared from public discourse after the Civil War due to conservative attitudes towards women, sex and sexuality in the new State, combined with a desire to forget the worst atrocities of the war. The absence of a truth or reconciliation process ensured any violence that was perpetrated against women during the revolution could be concealed or forgotten.
The forced shorning of women’s hair was widespread. Elizabeth Bloxham, a Cumann na mBan activist, recalled in her Bureau of Military History witness statement: “These were the days when girls were roughly searched and had their hair cut off by British soldiers.” Peg Broderick-Nicholson from Galway described how she was called out from her bed and had her hair cut “. . . to the scalp with very blunt scissors”. Irish rebels meted out this punishment in equal measure.
The sexual justification for “bobbing” women was described by Leo Buckley, of the Cork no 1 Brigade, IRA: “I remember at the time, young girls from Cork going out to Ballincollig to meet the British soldiers. We curbed this by bobbing the hair of persistent offenders. Short hair was completely out of fashion at the period and the appearance of a girl with ‘bobbed’ hair clearly denoted her way of life.”

Policing sexuality

The “way of life” remark indicates policing women’s sexuality was a motive behind such shearing. In another incident, Michael Higgins of Belclare, Galway, recalled how holy water was evocatively thrown as the hair of a young woman was forcibly cut for passing on information to an RIC officer she was considered close to.
For decades, historians of the Irish revolution either completely omitted discussion of attacks on women or considered them “lenient” punishment, with men presumed to have experienced the worst atrocities of the revolution.
This is in stark contrast to the histories of much larger wars conducted in Belgium, France and Germany and civil wars elsewhere, including in Spain and Greece, where the head shaving of women has sparked immense debates about the sexual, gender and power relations exhibited by this form of punishment.
Hair shorning was and is a serious assault. Frequently, it hurt and traumatised women because of the force involved. Mary Alleway, for example, active in the Youghal branch of Cumann na mBan, described in her military service pension application how she was beaten by British troops and had her hair cut off, while her house was raided several times. The public humiliation and stigma of having a scalped head within the community followed. First-hand accounts reveal that hair could also be pulled and roughly handled with other injuries and harassment also inflicted (such as cuts from shears or razors, physical assault, beatings, shouting/verbal abuse, undressing, dragging, mob behaviour and sexual assault or rape).
In May 2018, the Military Service Pensions Collection project published new files in relation to 1,442 people online. Asylums, institutionalisation and nervous breakdowns feature in pension applications along with reports of gender-based and sexual violence.
One woman in Ireland’s revolution was subjected to a horrific gang rape by 'three masked National Army members'
Delia Begley from Ennis suffered a nervous breakdown after attending men who were wounded while making explosives in 1919 and which later saw her in the care of the Sisters of Charity religious order. Mollie O’Shea, active in the Cumann na mBan Kerry no 1 brigade, suffered lifelong insanity after the revolution. Mollie suffered a nervous breakdown after her brother was killed in what is considered the Civil War’s worst atrocity, the blowing up of eight anti-Treaty prisoners by Free State troops in Ballyseedy, Co Kerry, in 1923. The file details the trauma suffered by Mollie during the Civil War, including an “outrage” after which she was “very ill”.
Gang rape
Margaret Doherty from Foxford, Co Mayo, was one of the women in Ireland’s revolution subjected to a horrific gang rape by “three masked National Army members”. Margaret’s application made on her behalf states she died in 1928 in “the mental hospital” in Castlebar as a consequence of her ordeal.
In all these cases, the detrimental impact of violence on the physical and mental health of the women is clear. Other documented cases of transgressive violence include the gang rape of a Mrs Biggs in Co Tipperary by anti-Treaty men and the murder of 45-year-old Kate Maher in Dundrum, Co Tipperary, last seen in the company of British soldiers from the Lincolnshire regiment, in the local pub.
Kate was found dead with extensive vaginal wounds and a blow to the head with a blunt instrument, and nobody was found guilty in a military investigation. The Cork’s War of Independence Fatality Register notes that Bridget Noble from Castletownbere first had her hair cropped as a warning before she was ultimately killed by the IRA for not ceasing to be an informer.
The experience of women must be considered if the commemoration of the War of Independence and Civil War is to seriously address the most difficult questions of the past. The question of the scale of violence against women, when compared to larger-scale wars or World Wars, is a moot point. Gender-based violence occurred and it is an aspect of the revolution that has been hidden, suppressed and denied for too long.

Full working paper on this subject can be downloaded here: click here

Wednesday, 21 November 2018

On this day 100 years ago: Votes for Women

Remembering Suffrage in 2018: An unfinished cause?

Professor Linda Connolly
Director Maynooth University Social Sciences Institute and author of ‘From Revolution to Devolution: the Irish Women’s Movement’

*this blog should be appropriately cited if used in other publications, public talks or in media work 

The Great Reform Act of 1832 restricted the parliamentary vote to “male persons.” Some 86 years later, the December 1918 general election was the first opportunity for women to exercise their democratic right to vote in parliamentary elections in Ireland.  Only 53.3% of the female population was included in the franchise as only women aged over 30 with property qualifications or in a university constituency could voteAlthough limited by age, class and wealth, the securing of votes for women in 1918 was nonethelesssignificant and critical. Female suffrage has over time beenconsidered the high point of ‘first wave’ feminism, which is evident in the impressive Vótáil 100 State commemoration programme in 2018, the long term antecedents of first wave feminism in Ireland also deserve due consideration at this timeExisting evidence of the activism of individual women and campaigns led by women in the nineteenth century dates to at least the 1830s. Significant achievements were made in the nineteenth century in areas such as, married women's control of their own property, education, employment and local government in this period.  In addition, the achievement of suffrage in 1918 was preceded by another suffrage campaign - the right of women to vote and run in district council elections was granted in 1898. Moreover, feminist activists were commonly protestant and unionist in sympathy in this period.  Mary Cullen and Maria Luddy have shown that although there is little evidence of a mass based women's movement, in nineteenth century activism was not just a question of a few isolated individuals.  "These women were, of course, from the middle and upper classes, the classes which generally involved themselves in women's issues" in the nineteenth century (Cullen and Luddy, 1995: 17).  Yet, quite a lot of the writing on the early decades of the twentieth century speaks as if Irish feminism did not exist until it emerged parallel to the broad nationalist renaissance in political, social, economic and cultural life at the end of the nineteenth century.  

In the early twentieth century, while protestant and unionist-inclined women still campaigned, catholic and nationalist women were of course becoming active in increasing numbers and the campaign for suffrage involved a wider coalition of women.  A more broad based women's social movement expanded from the turn of the twentieth century (involving prominent women leaders such as Constance Markievicz, Hanna Sheehy Skeffington, Eva Goore Booth, Louie Bennett and Helen Chevenix), and a militant suffrage strand emerged.   Between 1912 and 1914 there were twenty-six convictions of suffragettes.  The militancy of a relatively small group of radical activists, over this short period, generated significant attention for the cause (the writings of Margaret Ward and Louise Ryan detail several aspects of the women’s movement in this period).

First wave feminism was often divided (not unified) by the national question, firstly between unionists and nationalists, and secondly on whether the vote for women or the national cause took precedence. Nationalism is, of course, an integral dynamic in the historical development of the Irish women's movement.  Yet, the women's movement is unique in that a range of political and social questions are inextricably interwoven in its agenda. Conflict between nationalist and suffrage women from 1912 until 1920 has been widely considered a pivotal dynamic of first wave feminism. In general, nationalists opposed the idea of campaigning for a vote for the British parliament - the issue of Irish independence must come first.  Nationalist-feminists became increasingly involved in the overall struggle for suffrage after the 1916 Rising, however.  More research needs to be conducted on unionist suffragism in this period. Little is known about the lack of conversion of unionist feminists to nationalism in this period with more emphasis to date on Protestant women who fervently adopted nationalism (such as the Gifford sisters).  

The rich history of socialist-feminism and women engaged in philanthropy and poor relief from the nineteenth century is also important. Apart from suffrage and unionist-nationalist relations, the writings of first wave feminists demonstrate widespread activism on issues to do with class, trade unionism, morality, sexual abuse and the law in the nineteenth and indeed in the early decades of the twentieth century.  Campaigns around questions of immediate interest to women, children and the poor came to the fore, for example, when Maud Gonne and Inghinidhe na hƒireann, and the women around Connolly, devoted much of their energies to raising money to feed the children of the urban poor

In 1918 British and Irish women over the age of thirty were granted the right to vote and stand for election to parliament.  Constance Markievicz, who was elected, and Winifred Carney were the only female candidates in the election.  In the new State, it became quickly apparent that the right of women to vote per se did not radically change the position of women in Ireland.  The collective vote of women did not become a force for political pressure and change, nor did women become elected representatives in large numbers.  Indeed, the number of women elected as public representatives has remained comparatively low on a consistent basis, right up to the present day.  The intense campaign for suffrage had been important symbolically, however, in that as a campaign it unified a concerted (although ideologically different) network of feminist activists that were to sustain in future decades.  By 1920, it was clear that the remnants of this network would maintain a high degree of continuity and co-operation in the Free State (see my 2003 book and Caitríona Beaumont’s work for a fuller discussion).  The women's movement remained active in the early years of the independent State, working primarily outside of the new political establishment regardless of the granting of suffrage.  

Achieving the vote in 1918, and full adult suffrage in 1922, is widely considered the last  piece of progressive legislation affecting women for many years. The fact that successive governments of the Irish Free State introduced direct legislation in the 1920s and 1930s that reinforced several restrictions on the rights of women in the arena of employment, participation on juries and reproduction is palpable.  The 1937 Constitution can be viewed as the culmination of the State imposing a consistent patriarchal agenda in the decades following independence.  The culture engendered by State leaders in this era impeded the participation of women in party politics and in Government. And women who subverted the received definition of family and sexuality that was premised on marriage and motherhood were routinely institutionalised or exiled. Although women's groups were active throughout the twentieth century, it was not until the 1970s that a powerful women's movement began to successfully disrupt this trend in key domains. Votes for women in 1918 was a significant achievement in a patriarchal society that restricted women’s rights and freedoms in so many other ways. But as feminists themselves recognized at the time – suffrage was just one important step in a much wider cause that would require, and indeed still requires, several more years of activism and fortitude.   


#OnThisDay - 100 years ago the 'Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act 1918' allowed the following  "A woman shall not be disqualified by sex or marriage for being elected to or sitting or voting as a Member of the Commons House of Parliament." 


Monday, 19 November 2018

MacGill Summer School 2018

Can the women speak?
Summer schools, panels and manels

Professor Linda Connolly spoke at the 2018 MacGill Summer School on a panel “Women in Irish Public Life: Why are organisations such as MacGill Summer School still trapped in a world of gender stereotypes?” Friday 27thJuly, 2018. This was also published in the Irish Times.

In 2016 and 2017, 75% of those listed on the ‘papers delivered’ section of the MacGill Summer School website were men. There were a number of all male panels listed at the school over several years but no all female panels. In the 2018 school, however, there is now an impressive 40% female speakers listed after a rush of positive action. Several questions now arise, however: if MacGill can reverse a negative trend so quickly what else can be done to address the much wider problem of women’s unequal participation on panels in the Irish public sphere? Why do some events and organisations achieve gender parity when others fail?
Historically, male panels were evident in all male juries and parliaments which denied women the right to vote, for instance. Statistically today ‘manels’ persist in many public fora and are extremely prevalent in the Irish media, academia, business and politics. For instance, the most recent edition of Irish Historical Studies, the journal of Irish historians, was widely criticised for all 10 articles being written by men. Likewise prominent radio and television shows are known to habitually include very few women on panels.

Manels in reality serve to demean, exclude, undermine, offend and disadvantage a whole generation of women in Ireland. The practice of adding a woman to the ticket only after a gender problem is noticed likewise reeks of tokenism and puts many women off from participating in events. Womenin Ireland speak far less than men in public. A recent study by the Open Society Foundationlooking at five years of high-level conferences in Europe, reveals that a woman has only 1 opportunity to speak for every 3 times a man speaks. The dominance of male presenters and speakers—which has led to use of the terms "manpanels" or "manels"—has major implications for women, the study argues, because of theimpact on key policies and decision-making dictated by such events. Conference and summer school organizers and media outlets are the gatekeepers who make decisions about who will have the opportunity to share their views with policymakers, journalists and business leaders.
Society in general needs more robust, gender sensitive social and educational policies to create the conditions for greater participation of women in public life.Addressingthe ‘four C’s’ coined by Senator Ivana Bacik in a study of women in politics – cash, confidence, childcare and culture – remains necessary. Some men bowed down to pressure to stand down and permit women to take their place at the MacGill Summer school this week. ‘Leaning in’ may help enhance the visibility of individual women – and we need more female role models and leaders - but this will not change the overall structures and culture that serve to exclude women. Moreover, ‘lean in’ is dependent on an individual woman having the privilege, confidence and ‘clout’ to do this in the first place. 
Many women do not possess any clout or influence, and will require adequate notice and advance resources from organisers to travel and participate in events and on the media. Panel organisers, television and radio producers relying on ‘experts’ beyond elite institutions and the usual suspects is also critical if participation in the public sphere is to be widened in Ireland. The Danielle Carroll Summer School last week responded to the MacGill controversy by focusing on women directly impacted by homelessness, poverty, austerity and profound injustices in our society. The historian Catherine Corless likewise has proven that critical expertise often lies in local communities outside elite institutions and amongst women.

Often women themselves are blamed for manels – accused of turning down invites all the time, being never available especially at short notice and considered not as ‘good’ as the men when on. Yet many strategies for increasing the number of women on media panels for instance, including gender bias training for producers and researchers, exist. Likewise gender monitoring, targets or quotas overseen by bodies like the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland would focus minds. ‘Fixing the women’strategies such as media training and mentoring are important but will not fundamentally change the unconscious bias that determines how panels are decided at source.
MacGill learned the hard way that manels will cause a reaction but they can be addressed. Importantly, the necessary presence feminism has in Irish public life was demonstrated. Activism, protest, naming, calling out, social media organizing all generate a real challenge to male dominated arenas. Examples of this in the arts, the media and academia includeWaking the Feminists, Fair Plé, Academic Manel Watch, the Gate Theatre investigation, the Micheline Sheehy Skeffington three conditions campaign and Women on Air

The State also has an important role to play. Should manels funded by public money (that women workers contribute to through taxes) be prohibited? Should State gender quotas be introduced and economic sanctions implemented for events, media bodies etc if equal gender representation on panels is not achieved? Irish universities will not receive research funding from Science Foundation Ireland and the Irish Research Council, for instance, if they do not increase the number of women in senior positions. 

And what about men?Imagine that one learns about a manel only a few days before a conference. What do you do? Drop out? Defend it? Deny it? Avoid responsibility? Or call it out and demonstrate solidarity and resistance with women? As #metoo and other campaigns have shown speaking out in any situation will be contentious. But these kinds of disruptions are a necessary step in tackling manels. The women are clearly thereif invited and included.

Repealing the 8th Amendment

Historic Moment in Reproductive Rights

copyright Professor Linda Connolly
Director, Maynooth University Social Sciences Institute

The Minister for Health introduced the Regulation of the Termination of Pregnancy Bill in the Dáil, which seeks to legalise abortion services in Ireland this week. This was a historic occasion undoubtedly in a State and society that has demonstrated a deeply troubled relationship with women who fall pregnant outside of marriage by institutionalizing orcriminalizing women. "Today we begin the job they have given us, of making the law that follows the repeal of the 8thAmendment and after 35 years in our Constitution, in doing so, we are also making history," he said.  The minister said history was made in the streets, in homes and in ballot boxes across the country by people, including politicians, who had campaigned "steadfastly for years".

History was though already being made in the arena of reproductive rights long before the 8th was introduced in 1983,both in a campaign for reproductive rights that had begunmuch earlier and through the silent, secretive actions of many thousands of Irish women who got themselves into trouble’as it was termed. Abortions were provided illicitly in Ireland as documented in court prosecutions throughout the twentieth century and infanticide was commonplaceOver 100 Irish women were estimated to be dying annually from unsafe backstreet abortions in the 1930s for instanceExtra marital or unwanted pregnancy remained for decades a matter that was swept under the carpet or exported to be dealt with in the UK. The legalizing of abortion in the UK in 1967 in an effort to abolish risky ‘backstreet’ procedures combined with the mobilization of a second wave feminist movement demanding abortion rights in several countries were destined to provoke controversy and activism in Ireland. Although initial energy in feminist and liberal reproductive rights campaigns in Irelandfrom the early 1970s went into securing the legalization ofcontraception first, the right to free, safe, legal abortions was already a core stated demand of the feminist group Irishwomen United by 1976.

The relative ease of passage to the UK for a medicalizedabortion was undoubtedly a game changer for Irish women seeking a safe alternative to illegal abortions but the dangers to women not in a position to travel became all the more apparentNumerous reproductive tragedies and abortion have dominated Irish political debate since the 1980s. The death of fourteen-year-old Anne Lovett in childbirth alongside her stillborn baby in a grotto in Co. Longford in 1984 was a profound event. Joanne Hayes, a single mother, was falsely accused of a double infanticide in a tribunal of inquiry into what became known as the ‘Kerry Babies’ case in the same year. The right to life of the unborn was protected by Article 40.3.3 of the Constitution introduced in 1983 but in reality its existence profoundly impacted women whose lives were at risk in Irish maternity hospitals because of their pregnancy. Individual women impacted by reproductive injustices havealso been the subjects of a range of litigation in both Irish and international courts on abortion in Ireland. In the case of A, B and C v Ireland in 2010, for instance, the European Court of Human Rights found that Ireland had violated the European Convention on Human Rights by failing to provide an accessible and effective procedure by which a woman can have established whether she qualifies for a legal abortion under Irish law. A number of cases related to whether an abortion was permissible in cases of fatal foetal abnormalities were taken.

Irish abortion law received worldwide attention when Savita Halappanavar died in 2012. She requested and was denied an abortion in an Irish maternity hospital while suffering from septicemia during a miscarriage. Savita’s death was a key turning point and brought thousands of protestors onto the streets, including a new generation of young women that campaigned extensively during the May 2018 referendum. The focus of the debate had shifted from the rights of mobile women forced to discontinue their unwanted pregnancies in the UK to the 8th being a life threatening risk to pregnant and immobile women in Irish maternity hospitals.  The constitutional and legislative abortion provisions subsequently discussed democratically at a series of Citizen’s Assembly meetings in 2016 and 2017 and at a Government appointed committee in 2017 which recommended substantial reform. The government proposed the 36th Amendment of the Constitution Bill in order to replace the current provisions of Article 40.3.3 with a clause allowing legislation regulating the termination of pregnancy.

The 36th amendment will decisively repeal the 8th. But the concealed stories of many thousands of pregnant Irish women will endure, having been buried, denied and silenced for decadesThe story of P in December 2014 demonstrated the chaos that resulted from the 8th amendment, which the courtsconfirmed served to deny women and their families autonomy, consent and dignity in the case of maternal death prior to child birth. P was pregnant and kept on a life support machine to deleterious effect and against the wishes of her family because of the 8th amendment to the Constitution; the details of the case were harrowing.

Irish Times journalist Michael O’Regan commented in response the State apology to Joanne Hayes in 2018 that Ireland was ‘riddled with misogyny’ in the 1980s. Nell McCafferty has referred to the divisive 1980s that witnessed referenda on abortion and divorce as a civil warThe ScallyReport recently suggested women’s reproductive healthcare is characterized by ‘institutional misogyny.’ The legacy of the Irish civil war of the 1920s is obviously a critical issue in centennial Ireland. But the unequal and at times barbaric treatment of women in Ireland in the last 100 years has also created a legacy that must be fully considered in the decade of centenaries if Irish society is to arrive at a full and mature appraisal of its history and performance as a nation – equally and as controversially.

* cite the author if you draw on this piece in written work or in the media, including on television and radio

Saturday, 11 March 2017

My interview this week on Morning Ireland, calling for a restorative justice approach to the Mother and Baby Homes Commission, and for more research

Symphysiotomy report begets more questions

Article I published in the Irish Examiner newspaper: 

Symphysiotomy report begets more questions

Judge Maureen Harding Clark’s findings downplay physical toll of procedure and fail to recognise women’s right to consent in childbirth, says Prof Linda Connolly
Picture: PA
SYMPHYSIOTOMIES were carried out on 1,500 women in Ireland up to the 1980s, long after it was discontinued in other jurisdictions.
The controversial procedure cut the cartilage of a pregnant woman’s pelvic bone (breaking the bone in extreme cases) to widen the birth canal.
Three hundred and ninety-nine women have received €50,000, €100,000, or €150,000 sums under the symphysiotomy grant payment scheme, which paid out €34m.
The women’s medical records were checked by experts and a judge awarded the payments to those who could prove they had undergone the procedure. Of the 590 applications, 185 women were unable to establish their claim, as per the terms of the scheme. The majority of women who applied were over 75 years of age. The oldest was 96.
Until last week, it was presumed that Irish women subjected to symphysiotomies, often without their consent or knowledge of what was to be done to them, were left with long-term medical difficulties, including incontinence and chronic pain.
In 2014, the UN Human Rights Committee said the perpetrators of symphysiotomy should be prosecuted. Ireland’s compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights was monitored. However, the findings of the report, by Judge Maureen Harding Clark, published last week, paint a radically different view. The report suggests:
  • Symphysiotomy was (still is) a normal obstetric medicine. It is not an example of what childbirth experts in other research domains call ‘obstetric violence’ or a fundamental human rights violation. Literature supporting the case for this procedure was cited;
  • Doctors performed symphysiotomies in the best interests of the women giving birth. That contraceptives were not freely available because of Catholicism explains why a symphysiotomy might have been chosen over a caesarean section;
  • Some women who applied to the scheme had false memory about symphysiotomy in childbirth. They didn’t have a symphysiotomy, just had a traumatic birth;
  • Some women who did not have a symphysiotomy applied to the scheme with the strong encouragement of sons/daughters/family members and/or with the help of GPs and third parties;
  • Survivor groups and media sensationalised the long-term impact of the procedure (few women suffered life-long disability and the vast majority recovered);
  • Many applicants saw the word “episiotomy” on their medical records and equated it with “symphysiotomy”. They confused symphysiotomy with the after-effects of other childbirth procedures, based on what they were reading and hearing in the media. Extreme pain, incontinence, difficulty walking, etc, are not uncommon after childbirth;
  • Medical experts commenting on potential medical injustices in their own hospitals are unquestionably right in the assessment in the report. (And no international or independent experts were necessary). Medical records only noted clinical reasons for symphysiotomies. No notes citing any religious reasons are evident;
  • Oonagh Walsh’s “scholarly report” on symphysiotomy has been ignored by sections of the media, “who appear to prefer the more lurid and unfounded accounts projected by some activists and bloggers”.
  • Money is the ultimate mode of restorative justice. The women who had symphysiotomies (but who obviously recovered quickly) have been rewarded and are happy.
A large number of issues arising from this report need to be carefully addressed. Oonagh Walsh’s report, for instance, is widely cited in academic writing (by legal scholars, women’s historians, and social scientists). It is hardly ignored.
Some of the absences/silences in the report, as well as underlying assumptions, are as notable as some of the astonishing claims in it.
The term “obstetric violence” has caused division in medical, legal, and social science scholarship — ranging from positions that advocate the superiority of midwife-led care over modern obstetrics to those who uphold the principles of modern medicine as a necessary form of power over women’s own agency and choice, in the best interests of safe childbirth.
International human rights instruments contain guidelines on safe child birth. The Harding Clarke report reflects a view that women give birth because men help them and intervene to save their lives.
The report is informed by a group of male medical experts, with little attention to perspectives in childbirth studies that empower pregnant women and which prioritise women’s experience.
International literature on active versus hyper-managed childbirth, and on obstetric violence, is not referenced. Huge swaths of international research, in the field of obstetric law and women’s human rights, have also been ignored.
The reality that all medical procedures (historical or contemporary) always take place within a rights framework, and not purely within a rational, clinical ‘expert’ framework, is unexplored.
Even if women had symphysiotomies at a time when women had little or no power or say in childbirth does not negate basic rights. The full range of historical interpretations of symphysiotomy is far more complex than the report suggests.
The report emphasises evidence of symphysiotomy inscribed on the women’s bodies, and in their medical files, more than it does the question of consent.
THE prevailing cultural view of pregnancy and birth stems from a patriarchal attitude that women must be submissive and passive, and let the experts who know better do the work.
To presume that medical maternity care is an infallible authority over women, or to maintain that a live baby and/or live mother is the singular benchmark for birth, is misguided.
A woman has a right to informed consent or refusal. Moreover, she should not expect to end up in severe pain after childbirth. Whether or not the women in this report were able to ride a bike after any invasive procedure, or go on to have another child within a year, is separate from the fundamental principle of informed consent in childbirth.
Some researchers suggest that performing a procedure on a woman without her informed consent, or by coercing her to give consent, can be physical abuse.
Women have reported being held down, screaming, while birth procedures were performed on them. Doctors in the 1940s to the 1980s might have presumed they were doing the right thing for women, but there are alternative interpretations.
The report does not name the obstetricians who performed symphysiotomies, nor does it examine their rate of symphysiotomy, relative to other doctors.
Based on the evidence submitted to the scheme, is it apparent that some doctors were more likely to perform symphysiotomies? If so, why? Should the obstetricians who performed the symphysiotomies approved by the scheme not be named, in the interests of transparency and further historical research?
The Harding Clark report raises as many questions about the history of childbirth as it answers. Until it is accepted that women historically were purely vessels in childbirth changes, they will remain powerless in the face of ongoing childbirth questions and experts will remain powerful.
Compensation will now be paid out to the women whose reproductive histories and bodily parts were retrospectively judged for this scheme, but fundamental questions remain.
The €34m in compensation is a clear admittance of wrongdoing on the part of the State, despite what the report intimates about ‘victims,’ bloggers, misguided applications and advocacy groups.
This story is far from over and it remains yet another example of Irish women’s bodies on trial.
  • Prof Linda Connolly is a sociologist. She is the director of the Social Sciences Institute at Maynooth University and has authored a number of books and articles on Irish women’s social and political rights

Interrogating Commemoration: Reconciling women’s ‘troubled’ and ‘troubling’ history in centennial Ireland

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