Telling #Herstory means getting rid of shame

I spoke this week at the Herstory Salon in NUI Galway, an event where people told some forgotten stories of women from Ireland’s past and present. It was thrilling. The following notes capture most of what I, in my brief talk, tried to say.

This talk, in a way, is the opposite of Herstory; it’s about the force that brought us to our problem, the missing women’s voices. I’m going to talk about the emotion of shame, and the particular part it has played in the construction of the Irish nation and Irish womanhood. In doing this, I will draw heavily on the work of one scholar: Clara Fischer, a UCD philosopher, who wrote a powerful article for Signs journal called Gender, Nation and the Politics of Shame: Magdalene Laundries and the Institutionalisation of Feminine Transgression in Modern Ireland.

First, a brief reflection on what exactly shame is. Shame is an emotion, best described as a global, negative self-assessment. A negative self-assessment: that means I feel bad about myself. A global negative self assessment: I feel bad about my whole self. Shame attaches to the entirety of the self, and in this sense, it is distinct from that other negative social emotion, guilt. Guilt relates to a given act, and so guilt feelings can be atoned for. Shame on the other hand diminishes the very identity: it is, as Fischer says, post-remedial. Once you feel shame, there is very little to be done about it, your identity is spoiled.

Shame is an emotion, and as a sociologist, I tend to see emotions as matters of individual, psychological concern. But it is a social emotion, co-constructed in the space between individuals and their relationships. And if it’s social, then it’s necessarily gendered. We know that men and women are typically triggered to feel the emotion of shame for different reasons. Once they have the shame feeling, they also react differently. Men are more likely to externalise the emotion, turning blame towards others, or transforming the feeling into narcissistic rage (remind you of any contemporary American autocrats?). Women, meanwhile, are much more likely to internalise the feeling, to feel smaller, less significant, to shrink out of sight. The feminist philosopher Sandra Bartky analyses shame as an instrument of oppression, and one which plays particularly on women, who police themselves to comply with society’s expectations, in mortal fear of shame throughout their lives.

I want to argue that the emotion of shame can be deployed to social and political ends, and that this is what happened in Irish history. In doing this, I’m building on Clara Fischer’s work, which looks at gender in the formation of the Irish state. The construction of the Irish national identity occurred in the ferment of Irish nationalism at the turn of the 20th century, and in the aftermath of the War of Independence. Our postcolonial nation was founded on a gendered basis: although women had been activists in the struggle for independence, the new nationalist regime was very clear on the proper assignment of gender roles. Ireland was equal to the valour of her men, and the purity of her women. Arthur Griffith, founder of Sinn Féin, stated confidently: “all of us know that Irish women are the most virtuous in the world”. Such patriarchal constructions in the aftermath of nationalist uprisings are not uncommon: Cynthia Cockburn has demonstrated the ways in which militarised masculinities and female submissiveness are frequent tropes in nationalist identity construction. But in Ireland, the gendered process of identifying Irishness was distinct in certain ways.

Post-colonial Irish patriarchy gains its unique flavour through particular cultural forces. It’s impossible to overlook the structural position of the Irish Catholic Church, and in particular its responsibility for the provision of social services, which persisted through the twentieth century. Diarmaid Ferriter highlights the absence of a strong secular left in Ireland, in the absence of which, Catholic moral teaching easily filled the gap left by colonial authority. There was overwhelming consensus around the national identity narrative, premised as it was on female virtue and male valour.

If women are pure, marriage is the foundation of the nation, and motherhood is natural to marriage — what then were we to do with all the deviants? Unmarried mothers, single girls, rape victims, sex workers, and many others, they presented no less than an existential threat to the identity of the nation. And so, not to put too fine a point on it, we locked them up. By the 1950s, 1% of the Irish population was confined in institutional care — whether in prisons, mental asylums, institutional schools, mother and baby homes or the eventually infamous Magdalene Laundries. Fischer outlines in fascinating detail the hierarchies and power dynamics at play between inmates and rulers within and between the institutions of female transgression — but I’m interested in their impact on the rest of Irish society.

What do you do when there’s a brick building in the middle of your town devoted to hiding and punishing pregnant bodies? The message of this carceral state to women, all women, was very clear. Their embodied transgression was the nation’s shame. Some surely left, to escape the “inordinate strictures of Irish patriarchy”, as Fischer puts it. The rest — they were left to a life of self-regulation, silence, endurance, uncertainty and solitude. Anne Lovett, surely, died of shame.

My research investigates the social impacts of violence against women, and I believe that the political deployment of shame plays an important part in mediating these impacts. For while women’s bodies were a matter of national concern, each individual woman was alienated from her own body, denied choices and even knowledge. And before anybody could reach out openly to speak up about an experience of violence (whether physical, sexual or emotional), before women could even work to support one another, each and every individual had to confront the societal shame of what they were doing. Coached all their lives in silence, how could women seek help? Of course, for the most part, they didn’t.

Where does this leave us today? 79% of Irish women who have experienced physical or sexual violence never reported the most serious event against them. Not to the Garda, not to a doctor, not even to a women’s support organisation. This is not an uncommon figure; in fact, it’s in line with European averages. But there is always an Irish context. Asked about their emotional response to the same instance of violence against them, 43% of Irish women reported feeling shame. The EU average in this case was 28%. Ireland is far and away the European leader when it comes to shame feelings among victims of violence. Even today, we are ashamed of our bodies, ashamed of our transgression, ashamed of our female failings — even when those failings are in fact crimes in which women are the victims. Shame is one of the things that prevents us from seeking help, or seeking justice. It is written in the national psyche.

In the course of my research, I collect stories about violence against women, and I scan them for evidence of shame. On occasion, I come across stories which are shame-free, in which violence is recognised as just another crime and victims courageously refuse to be shamed; these stories give me hope. It is possible to create a society in which gendered shame is eliminated, and violence against women can be addressed transparently.

But if we’re serious about that, we would do well to remember that in Ireland, we built institutions to underwrite women’s shame. Brick and mortar buildings in the centre of towns that communicated clearly what we could do with our messy female bodies, when they failed (for whatever reason) to conform. And in order to undo generations of institutionalised shame, we will need to build new insititutions, as solid and inescapable as the laundries and the homes, which will refuse to shame the 21st century’s Others.

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