Book Review: Sexual Politics in Modern Ireland

sexual politicsSexual Politics in Modern Ireland

Edited by Jennifer Redmond, Sonja Tiernan, Sandra McAvoy and Mary McAuliffe

Published by Irish Academic Press, Dublin 2015.

Reviewer: John Dorney

Inevitably women’s role in history never gets its due attention. In virtually every society that comes to mind, until very recently, women’s role was subservient to men, who dominated all positions of power and influence.

In practice, real women did wield power in the past, as mothers, as wives as heads of households, as lovers and mistresses. You can make the argument that men’s obsession with controlling or repressing female sexuality over the centuries was an implicit acknowledgement and even fear of this power.

But this was not the kind of power that tends to survive in written sources. It was only in the twentieth century that women began to play an active part in politics for example, and much the same is true of other fields of influence such as business or higher education. And so virtually all written history really is ‘his story’.

Virtually all written history really is ‘his story’.

This book, a collections of articles by historians, sociologists and others goes some way towards redressing the balance in an Irish context. It contains a range of essays on topics as various as women convict deportees to 19th century Australia to sexual education in modern Ireland.

It is always difficult in reviewing a book of this type to pull all the strands of the various contributors together.

One tendency among the contributors was to search for ‘counter’ or ‘oppositional’ narratives to the historically dominant  male, heterosexual (and in Ireland Catholic) ones. Thus in a fascinating chapter, Blaithnead Nolan takes us back to the experience of Irish and English women locked up in ‘female factories’ – really prison or holding centres – in early 19th century Van Dieman’s Land. Some women were being held there for crimes such as theft or prostitution, others detained there until they were assigned to free settlers as domestic servants.

Some chapters in this book look for examples of women’s resistance to male domination.

It sounds like it was a grim experience. Nolan shows how the ‘factories’ were dominated by tough gangs of convict women, who were also frequently unashamed lesbians. Such was their resistance to the patriarchal system that on at least one occasion – after two prisoners engaged in a sexual relationship were split up – they rioted, forcing the authorities to recruit male prisoners armed with crowbars to put the revolt down.

I did feel that Nolan romanticised these women somewhat. They were, after all convicts, sometimes violent criminals, who ruled over other prisoners by force. She also reports that their sexual advances on other prisoners were often unwelcome. Other women may have seen them as much as predators as freedom fighters.

At the same time, the point is well made that the struggle within the prison does show themes such as the struggle against male domination and uniform heterosexuality are not new inventions.

In a somewhat similar vein, Conor Reidy looks at attempts by the state (at this point British) and private charities to rehabilitate ‘inebriate prostitutes’.  A world of almost stunning human suffering is opened up.

Take the case of ‘Annie’, a native of Derry an inmate at Ennis ‘inebriate reformatory’. In 1903, she was 40 years old.  She had a long list of convictions for theft, prostitution and drunkenness, had spent most of her life in and out of prison, was an alcoholic (and also a snuff addict) and on more than one occasion had tried to hang herself in prison.

Her only living relative was her mother, who was also a an alcoholic and prostitute. She was discharged in 1905 but within a year the local RIC (police) reported she was again in trouble for ‘drunkenness and vagrancy’. And so the stories go on. Reidy points out that none really had a happy ending.

He argues that the inebriate homes were conceived of as ways of controlling as well as rehabilitating women. They were seen not only as victims but as corrupters of society.

Similarly, moving on to independent Ireland of the 1930s, Jennifer Redmond describes the ‘moral panic’ about young single Irish women emigrating to Britain, where, again that word, they might be ‘corrupted’, or to speak plainly, might have sex or even conceive children outside of marriage. Redmond’s point is that there was no such outcry over the ‘morals’ of young Irish male economic migrants.

This book includes some harrowing accounts of human suffering in prisons and institutions but also a charming tale of an early 20th century courtship.

The theme of resistance to conservative forces that wished to control women is also taken up by Mary Muldowney in a chapter on ‘pro-choice’ activism since the 1980s.

Some other contributions however merely set out to describe changing gender roles, as in John Johnstone Kehoe’s essay on female Garda assistants in 1950s Dublin. The standout chapter for me however in this regard was the contribution of Maeve O’Riordan on the courtship of Mabel Smyly and Dermod O’Brien in 1901-1902.

An upper middle class couple in their 30s, the two were engaged to be married and we follow their relationship through their letters from chaste walks (with chaperone, as people might talk), to following engagement, more intimate moments of kissing and finally to the consummation of their sexual life following marriage. It is fascinating and oddly charming to read how Dermod and Mabel discovered each other sexually  and, to both of their surprise, that women could enjoy sex.

Before engagement the couple were not allowed to be alone together. After betrothal they were discretely allowed private time together behind closed doors but it was only after marriage that they could be fully sexually active. In fact Dermod had some previous experience with women, but Mabel seems to have led a life of total chastity prior to her engagement. These were not, the 21st century reader should remember, teenagers but mature, well educated adults in their 30s.

Although by upbringing a conservative and religious member of the Church of Ireland, Mabel was in her way, something of feminist. Writing to her husband to be, she wrote that she wanted to be a partner, ‘not an ornament’ in the marriage; ‘of course times change but I suppose it is the actions of people like ourselves that make them change’.

In an Ireland where women can still die in childbirth from entirely preventable causes, due to outdated and impractical laws, Mabel’s quote seems a good way to end this review.

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