Athena Talks
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Athena Talks

How a Feminist Movement Changed Ireland

The Irish people made history on the 25th may by voting out the oppressive, misogynistic law commonly known as the 8th amendment and paving the way for safe, legal abortions to happen without restriction up to 12 weeks.

It was the latest in a series of blows for the religious right who still regularly occupy airwaves, espouse in opinion columns and are invited on as talking heads on tv. Those who opposed the repeal of the 8th amendment were well funded and had lots of support from people outside the country, in particular Americans who came over to canvass, strategize and put up signs.

Many of those who campaigned against the insertion of the 8th amendment in 1983 took up the fight again to repeal the 8th, while some of the original protesters had never stopped being involved in the campaign for reproductive freedom. It was the creation of the Abortion Right Campaign, a feminist, non-hierarchical, grass-roots organisation in 2012 that was a real game changer.

The Abortion Rights Campaign organised the annual ARC March for Choice and each year the crowd attending roughly doubled in size, so that by 2017 there were estimates of up to 40,000 people present. ARC also invested time and resources into building localised groups in as many counties as possible, so that by 2018 there were 36 different regional groups set up. These groups were all organised along the same non-hierarchical lines as ARC and had a feminist agenda.

I set up the regional ARC group in Donegal, and within weeks we had complaints about our openly feminist manifesto, with people saying that the feminism aspect would deter people from joining the group. We were fully supported by ARC in Dublin who advised that ARC is unashamedly a feminist organisation. Despite the concerns raised by those people the group continued to grow and had a healthy male membership as well, with men outnumbering women at most meetings.

It was these feminist regional groups that were organised, with social media presences established and teams ready on the ground for the re-branding as Together 4 Yes when the referendum was called. There was only weeks in which to organise large scale canvassing of each county and it is hard to imagine that this would have had the success or reach it did had it not have been for the groups already set up by ARC.

Our Taoiseach Leo Varadkar called the historic Yes win the result of, “a quite revolution”, which sounds very gentle and lovely but is as far from the truth as possible. The women or Ireland (and a good few men & NB folks too) have been screaming, shouting and singing for years for abortion rights. Our loudness lead to many a (male) newspaper columnist accusing us of being “too shrill”, which only upped the ante, leading many to embrace the derogatory term and become even “shrill-er”. Our Taoiseach was perhaps not paying attention to all the noise we’ve been making as we’ve been demanding our human rights.

In the weeks leading up to the referendum date we saw think-pieces stating that we would lose because we didn’t have a clear leader, and others saying that our campaign didn’t seem organised — what ever way you looked at it, we were doing it wrong. These assessments of the campaign displayed a profound lack of understanding about the way women organise, and the effectiveness of how we organise. I admit to having a quiet snigger to myself as yet another straight, grey male scratched his head in confusion at a campaign that wasn’t being run along the usual patriarchal lines. It was tough for them to see how we could possibly win, and even the ones who wanted us to win couldn’t help but tell us we were doing it wrong.

Yet win we did. 66.4% of voters said yes. The win for Together For Yes was a decisive landslide that bucked the global trend against women’s rights and in particular against reproductive rights. That we won despite being up against the same campaign tactics used by Trump and Brexit is all the more astounding, again the power of women on the ground talking and sharing made all the difference.

While the organising of ARC was run along feminist lines it has to be acknowledged that Together For Yes failed at being intersectional in it’s feminism. Migrant voices were purposefully sidelined (especially migrant women of colour) and trans people were also deliberatly kept out of the campaign. The message some women of colour were told was that they “wouldn’t appeal to middle Ireland”. Some regional groups, notably Mayo ARC, refused to leave migrant voises and trans people out of their campain materials. Migrant groups and individuals and trans people were heavily involved on the ground campaigning.

The victory of abortion rights is a win for every person with a uterus in Ireland but it is also a victory for global feminism. Ireland, where 78% of people define as Catholics has voted democratically to allow unrestricted abortion access up to 12 weeks. The world-wide symbolic importance of this cannot be understated, especially coming off the back of the successful marriage equality referendum in 2015.

I was at Dublin castle for the announcement and I didn’t see one member of ARC on the stage. I saw politicians from the main parties, lots of journalists and some celebrities, but no one from ARC. It seems to me to be a shame our government isn’t also run along feminist lines.

There is a strong desire to return the solidarity we were shown by our Northern Irish sisters who worked along side us in this campaign. The gaze has rightly turned to the North where the abortion laws are even more oppressive than they are/were here. After that who knows, the feminists of Ireland could turn their attention to any number of social issues facing people in Ireland. There are already movements starting around the cervical cancer scandal, the treatment of sexual abuse victims and the homelessness crisis.

I can only hope the shock of our landslide win has lead some of the male naysayers to undertake some feminist reading - as they themselves delighted in telling us to be prepared — and they will surely wish to be prepared themselves. For it’s a Feminist revolution that happened in Ireland and there’s more to come. We can assure Mr Varadkar it will not be quiet.

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Taryn De Vere

Joy bringer, writer, podcaster, mother of 5, colourful fashionista