Women's Movement in Northern Ireland

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Women's Movement in Northern Ireland

The women's movement in Ireland, as elsewhere, was associated with second-wave feminism and the wider civil-rights movement of the late 1960s. In Northern Ireland it was affected by, and in turn influenced, broader movements for social justice in the region. While disagreement about methods and principles was not uncommon among women activists, the ongoing political and military struggle heightened existing differences and injected a sense of urgency and emotion into all proceedings.

Although women had come together before on occasion to protest (for example, against the ending of free school milk for children) or to focus attention on the issue of domestic violence, the year 1975 saw the formation of the first organized group, the Northern Ireland Women's Rights Movement (NIWRM). This group aimed "to spread a consciousness of women's oppression and mobilize the greatest possible numbers of women on feminist issues" (NIWRM Manifesto 1974). They called specifically for the extension of Britain's Sexual Discrimination Act to Northern Ireland. But in a movement that encompassed a diversity of political allegiances and aspirations, involving academics, trade-union activists, civil-rights activists, communists, unionists, and republicans, tensions were bound to surface.

Many Northern Irish women had become politicized not from ideological conviction, but as a result of their immediate experience. For the wives of interned men, for example, the battle for justice was waged not merely against men, but against the institutions and instruments of the state. So while on the constitutional question the NIWRM declared itself to be nonaligned, its attempts to distance itself from the wider struggle were met with accusations of their complicity with the state. Support for women political prisoners, all of whom were republican, was a particularly emotive and divisive issue. Those who aimed to combine their commitment to socialism with feminist and nationalist concerns formed the Socialist Women's Group in 1975; it dissolved two years later, and many members reunited in the Belfast Women's Collective. Women against Imperialism and the Relatives' Action Committee provided forums for campaigns more closely linked with the rights of political prisoners. During the 1980s they were heavily involved in support of women prisoners in Armagh jail who went on hunger strike, took part in a "no wash" protest, and were frequently subjected to strip-searching. But with the NIWRM refusing to engage in the protests, "Armagh became a metaphor for what divided women here from each other" (Ward 1991, p. 156).

The consequences of "lobbying for change in a context where the legitimacy of the legislature is contested" (Rooney 1995, p. 43) offered a potent reminder of the multiple identities and conflicting loyalties held by women everywhere. However, an overemphasis on the problems of division draws attention away from what was achieved during these years: An Equal Pay Act was passed in 1970 and a Sex Discrimination Act in 1976. The setting up of the Equal Opportunities Commission in the same year was seen as particularly helpful by those feminists and trade unionists for whom the right of women to work, and to be given equal opportunities and rewards, were considered fundamental entitlements. The establishment of women's aid refuges, rape crisis centers, and well-women clinics can also be attributed to feminist lobbying.

Perhaps one of the most distinctive and important developments in Northern Ireland, however, was the growth of local women's groups. Coming together for solidarity and mutual aid in their strife-torn communities, women learned from and built upon their own experience. Through consciousness-raising classes and educational courses in women's history, literature, and place in society, women in many areas became both more politicized and more experienced in dealing with local problems. During the 1980s and 1990s a series of meetings and conferences highlighted women's issues and sought ways to facilitate their inclusion in the political process. As a result, many women became more active in a range of political parties, and in April 1996 the Northern Ireland's Women's Coalition was formed and succeeded in winning two seats in the newly established Northern Ireland Forum. The party sought to bring a new gender perspective to national politics with the key principles of "inclusion, equality and human rights" (Fearon 1999, p. 13). But while many women viewed the party as a catalyst for change, others were uneasy, both about the party's evasion of the constitutional question and about the way in which it was assumed that "women's voice would change everything, simply by virtue of their gender" (Ward 1997, p. 151). The coalition, however, is only the most visible aspect of the undercurrents of change. Although political tensions in Northern Ireland may have prevented the emergence of an autonomous feminist movement, the experiences of working-class women and their community activism perhaps hold greater potential for fundamental change.

SEE ALSO Peace Movement in Northern Ireland


Evason, Eileen. Against the Grain: The Contemporary Women's Movement in Northern Ireland. 1991.

Fearon, Kate. The Story of the Northern Ireland's Women Coalition. 1999.

Northern Ireland Women's Rights Movement. Manifesto. NIWRM Archives. Linenhall Library, Belfast. 1974.

Rooney, Eilish. "Political Division, Practical Alliance: Problems for Women in Confict." In Irish Women's Voices: Past and Present, edited by Joan Hoff and Maureen Coulter. 1995.

Roulston, Carmel. "Women on the Margin: The Women's Movement in Northern Ireland." Science and Society 53, no. 2 (summer 1989): 219–236.

Ward, Margaret. "The Women's Movement in the North of Ireland: Twenty Years On." In Ireland's Histories: Aspects of State, Society and Ideology, edited by Sean Hutton and Paul Stewart. 1991.

Ward, Rachel. "The Northern Ireland Peace Process: A Gender Issue?" In Peace or War? Understanding the Peace Movement in Northern Ireland, edited by Chris Gilligan and Jan Tonge. 1997.

Myrtle Hill

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Women's Movement in Northern Ireland