Recently fundraising for a play about Mary Quaile, an Irish trade unionist, our group contacted all the feminist historians in this country and Ireland. Only 2 responded and made a donation they were the socialist feminists. One of them was Sheila Rowbotham who recently commented to me that the term “socialist feminist” is rarely used these days.
Judith Orr’s accessible and readable history of the struggle for women’s liberation explains why the term feminism has been disengaged from the term socialist. She traces the history of the various stages of women’s struggles for equality but sites class as the main reason for the oppression of women.
“This book seeks to offer an analysis of the position of women in modern capitalism building on the tradition of Marx and Engels and the many revolutionaries who followed them.”
She shows how their analysis of the privatisation of property, the state and the family as we know it today has led to the oppression of women even today in 21 Britain.
This book is wide ranging; incorporating the history of the US women’s movement as well as reviewing some of the major historical events that have affected women’s struggle for equality and justice over the last 100 years.
But like many books produced by left wing activists today there is a major omission; the affect of the conflict in Ireland and the way it has shaped the politics of this country. Marx understood this; The task of the International was “to make the English workers realise that for them the national emancipation of Ireland is not a question of abstract justice or humanitarian sentiment but the first condition of their own social emancipation”.
Over the centuries the occupation of the island of Ireland by the British has shaped the politics of this country. Not just in terms of how we view colonialism but the way in which the Irish have been involved in the trade union and labour movement in this country.
I am from an east Manchester Irish working class family and even from an early age I realised how different my family were from other families. They lived in this country but were always looking back to Ireland. When the civil rights movement started in the North of Ireland in ‘68, for my father,like many Irish people over here, it was a time of celebration, and for me it was a realisation that one of the key figures in contemporary politics was on my TV screen most nights and it was a woman; Bernadette Devlin. It is hard to explain to people outside the Irish community the affect that she had and the way in which in particular, men such as my father, working class intellectuals, saw her as equivalent to James Connolly.
The new phase of the war in the north of Ireland from the late 60s-90s had a profound affect on many Irish women in this country as well as on the island of Ireland. Groups such as the one I was active in, the Irish in Britain Representation Group, reflected the politicisation of a whole new generation of second generation Irish young people; many of them were young women like me who came from a socialist and trade union background. Some Irish women chose to organise independently on issues as wide ranging as abortion, culture, and sexuality.
Groups such as Women and Ireland organised annual delegations to the North of Ireland and when I went on the 1984 delegation it included women from the pit villages as well as women trade unionists. They gave support to republican women who were imprisoned for their political activity as well as women active on issues around discrimination and poverty.
The war in Ireland, over the centuries, has affected the history of political struggle in this country; even if people on the Left want to ignore it. The north of Ireland was the laboratory for the British state to try out methods from torture to surveillance techniques. These have had a major effect on the freedom of people of people on this side of the Irish sea to organise and campaign; the miners instantly understood this when they went on delegations to the north of Ireland. It was a mirror image of their lives in pit villages.
Judith has written an important book challenging the feminist lite brigade that dominate the discourse on women’s struggles. But for a book concerned with the role of the working classes there are too many quotes from London based middleclass feminist commentators. And what a dull title! It does not do justice to the content. Hopefully her book will start a more wide ranging and inclusive dialogue about the real lives of women in this country.
Hear Judith speak about her book on Wednesday 25 November 7pm at Friends Meeting House see