8M IRELAND : Socialist feminism more relevant than ever
Updated: Mar 3, 2021
In recent years, working-class women and LGBTQ+ people fought for and won significant victories. In the South, the historic marriage equality referendum was passed in 2015. In 2018, young working-class women led the way in removing the constitutional ban on abortion and implementing pro-choice legislation. Working-class people were decisive in both voting for these changes and actively organising support.
2018 also saw the #ibelieveher protests in response to victim blaming in a rape trial in Belfast. Further protests were sparked by a similar situation in Cork a few months later. In the North, abortion was finally decriminalised in 2019 but for many accessing abortions remains very difficult. These movements and protests fought for specific reforms in society, but they were wrapped up in the historical mistreatment of women in Ireland, and the daily experiences of misogyny for young women in their schools, workplaces and homes.
Fast forward to 2021: many of the young women dubbed the “Repeal generation” are now frontline workers in the middle of a global crisis. Governments here have asked ordinary people to clap for these workers, yet they continue to deny them decent pay and have failed multiple times to provide adequate PPE. Furthermore, they have relied on student nurses while offering no or very little pay. In 2019 health workers had already been organising for pay increases with a tremendous strike of health and social care workers in the North in December 2019. Anger and frustration are continuing to build among this, mainly female, workforce.
Meanwhile, teachers, which are between 80-84% women, have found themselves in a central role when it comes to the question of the reopening of the economy. In January, when the Southern government attempted to reopen schools for final year students, despite Ireland at the time being the most infected country per capita, secondary school teachers through their union refused to return to work, foiling the government’s plans.
Due to CoVid19, women have been more vulnerable to unemployment as women are overrepresented in part-time and precarious retail and hospitality work. 70% of part time workers in the South are women, and only 60% of women in the North with children work full time. As a result, women have experienced higher rates of unemployment under the pandemic, and this has been even worse for young women. In the South the Debenhams workers, mostly women retail workers, have led an inspiring nearly year-long struggle against their employers in the fight for fair redundancy. They correctly see their struggle as being on behalf of all working-class people.
With women disproportionately impacted by lockdowns, unemployment, increased child care and other caring responsibilities, and exacerbated housing precarity, gender-based and intimate partner violence have increased significantly. Both North and South this “shadow pandemic” has resulted in an increase of 88% of reported cases of domestic violence from 2019 to 2020. Access to abortion during covid is also a major issue and in the North, one of the main parties, the DUP, has launched a new attempt to restrict abortions.
This Mother and Baby homes report, which was cynically delayed by the Southern government but released this year, details the horrible historical mistreatment of mostly young women and their newborn babies, many of whom died, in homes run by Churches who were receiving funding from the state. The outrage expressed by the public is linked to the daily disdain the Irish state shows working class women. Single mothers who receive the One Parent payment are routinely harassed by welfare officers, who search their underwear drawers for signs of a sexual partner who might be contributing financially. Single mothers are forced to seek maintenance payment from abusive ex partners through dehumanising court proceedings. The state outsourcing cervical checks to a private company has resulted in women receiving inaccurate cervical test results, with working class mothers spending their dying days fighting in the courts so they can guarantee some sort of security for their children after their deaths. The complete disregard the Irish state shows working class women extends from Mother and Baby home and into the present.
All of these issues point to significant tensions and potential for further active struggles.
As we saw with the murder of George Floyd in the United States, and the wave of global protests against racism (which in Ireland, were led by young women of colour), a similar trigger could activate a larger movement on women’s oppression. This International Women’s Day may seem quieter under the restrictions of the pandemic; but the tensions and contradictions that exist just under the surface of the apparent calm, promise inspiring struggles led by working class women in the months and years ahead. The experiences of working class women in their workplaces, in their homes, on the streets, in hospitals and schools and at parties - all of it has culminated in this moment, where the ideas of socialist feminism seem more relevant and attractive than ever before.