In Hanna Sheehy Skeffington: Suffragette and Sinn Féiner, Margaret Ward has undertaken the vast and painstaking task of compiling Hanna Sheehy Skeffington’s own writing (journalism, speeches, memoir), so that we can now get to know her in her own words. UCD Press hosted an event at the RIA on 4th October, consisting of a panel discussion followed by a launch.
Orla Feely (UCD VP for Research, Innovation and Impact) opened the event and introduced Martina Devlin, who would chair the panel discussion. The speakers were Margaret Ward, Ivana Bacik and Caitríona Crowe.
Martina Devlin told us that we were there to explore the differences between the Ireland that Hanna Sheehy Skeffington and her generation envisaged and the Ireland that came about. Are there gaps? she asked, somewhat incautiously – we could have been there for the rest of the year, except that she was an effective chair and kept the discussion flowing.
Ever since her Unmanageable Revolutionaries was published (1983) Margaret Ward has been a champion for the women of Hanna Sheehy Skeffington’s generation (she’s also published biographies of Hanna and of Maud Gonne). She has a measured way of speaking about her subject that lets you know how assured her knowledge is but leaves you in no doubt as to her commitment to, belief in and feelings about these women. She spoke eloquently about the life and work of Hanna Sheehy Skeffington, who was writing her memoir in her final illness. She was also a meticulous record-keeper, preserving many boxes of precious documents and memorabilia which she donated to the State. As Caitríona Crowe pointed out later in her launch speech, she didn’t ask for money and there was no question, in those days, of tax credits or exemptions. Hanna’s husband Frank and their egalitarian views on marriage were talked about, as well as his murder and Hanna’s subsequent lecture tour of the USA.
Martina Devlin asked Caitríona Crowe if today’s Ireland realises Hanna Sheehy Skeffington’s dream. Caitríona Crowe said no, but it never could have, given Irish politics. She reminded us that the socialist feminist vision of the time was a minority view.
There was some discussion of the many waves of feminism – which wave are we in now? If Hanna Sheehy Skeffington’s generation were the first, and Betty Friedan’s was the second, then, the panel agreed, we are probably in the third. (I disagree. I think the third wave began with an intellectual movement represented by Margaret Ward’s own work – the retrieval of women’s history, the rediscovery and re-issuing of women’s writing through the work of e.g. Arlen House in Ireland and Virago in Britain – that started in the eighties; we had campaigns in the nineties related to sexual violence, divorce and abortion rights led by activists like Ailbhe Smyth. That would put us in the fourth wave now. But what about going back to Susan B Anthony? Sojourner Truth? How quickly we lose sight of ourselves …)
Caitríona Crowe recalled events and campaigners of the seventies including Eileen Proctor’s campaign for the Widow’s Pension, campaigns for changes in the contraceptive laws, for divorce etc. The Contraceptive Train was fondly recalled, along with the appearance of those brilliant women on the Late Late Show (June Levine was a producer) which resulted in the then Taoiseach Garret Fitzgerald leaving his sitting room and driving to RTÉ to march straight in to the studio to confront them. ‘No one stopped him’. (Well, of course they didn’t: it made great television). Hanna Sheehy Skeffington was fearless. So is Nell McCafferty.
Consciousness Raising was big in those days, a ‘fetish of Second Wave feminism’ – she mentioned Our Bodies Ourselves – a cult favourite and sourcebook for young women at the time. Lifting the marriage bar so that married women could continue in paid employment and the right to equal pay were important issues but those rights were won for us by Europe. (Please, let’s not ever forget how much we owe the European courts in questions of civil liberties and equality legislation.)
Asking Ivana Bacik what she considers to be the most outstanding issue Irish women face today got a laugh from the audience. Ivana Bacik said, ‘that’s what we lawyers would call a leading question.’ Because of course she is – and always has been – a committed campaigner for reproductive rights; she’s prominent in the campaign to Repeal the Eighth Amendment now. She reminded us that the Second Wave was followed by a strong pushback from the forces of the right.
She pointed to the lack of female representation in politics, on boards and so on as a problem. She’s (rightly) proud of the 2012 Equal Opportunities for Women in the Workplace Amendment Bill and of other cross-party work to pursue equality objectives.
Where does she stand on quotas? She agrees with the concept at the level of opportunity – e.g. putting women forward as candidates and then allowing voters to decide. She reminded us of a great quote from Kathleen Lynch, who said that all her life she has voted for mediocre men; she would like the opportunity to vote for a mediocre woman. She reminded us to look at the mechanisms that work against it (lack of cash, confidence, child care …)
There was a lot of talk about historical elections – how Hanna Sheehy Skeffington was not elected when she stood for the Dáil in 1946 and how she was offered an impossible seat (North Antrim, Ian Paisley’s constituency) in 1918 and turned it down. Ivana Bacik pointed out that Sinn Féin had no problem instituting quotas for ex-prisoners in 1918 but wouldn’t do the same for women.
How do we break down deeply ingrained attitudes? Is a big question. Martina Devlin pointed out that Women For Election are doing excellent work, which led to discussion of the Women’s Coalition in the North, how they were treated with derision when they first appeared on the scene but how other parties subsequently ran women candidates in their constituencies, so there was a positive outcome for women in the end. Margaret Ward lamented the fact that young women in the North don’t know anything about the Women’s Coalition. Should we have a Women’s Party now? Martina Devlin asked.
Caitríona Crowe doesn’t think there’s an appetite for it. Ivana Bacik would rather see some sort of coalescing around issues of social democracy
Ivana Bacik also told us of activities planned for next year’s centenary of women getting the vote in Ireland and Britain. Details are available on the Oireachtas website. www.oireachtas.ie
The Q & A was lively. Some people were shocked to learn that history is no longer a core subject in the school curriculum. (Some of us have been shocked about this for quite a while. We wonder if it’s too late to oppose it?) Caitríona Crowe pointed out that Geography has suffered the same fate. It’s ridiculous, she said. Time and place. They’re so important.
Someone else suggested that Home Economics should be compulsory for boys. For everyone, the panel agreed. The number of elephants in the room was noted, the most obvious being that while we were all for quotas, there was an all-woman panel. Margaret Ward referred to a story in today’s Guardian about a panel on feminism held in Mexico, which featured eleven speakers, all men.
We adjourned to the reception, where Caitríona Crowe gave a great speech about Margaret Ward, about Hanna Sheehy Skeffington in general and about this book (Hanna Sheehy Skeffington: Suffragette and Sinn Féiner) in particular. She called for the reissue of Margaret Ward’s biography of Hanna so the two books can be read together. Publishers take note.
Incidentally, Noelle Moran of UCD Press told us that she took Unmanageable Revolutionaries as the basis for her Leaving Cert history project and she met Margaret Ward at that time. She was so inspired she got an A and went on to study history and work in publishing historical books. (See above, about the school curriculum.)