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Irish Women and Street Politics 1956 – 1973 by Tara Keenan-Thomson

Dublin: Irish Academic Press 2010, pp.272, € 24.95 pb. ISBN: 978 0 7 165 3027 5.

Reviewer: Fiona Buckley*

Keenan-Thomson tracks the development of women’s activist agenda in both parts of Ireland during the period 1956 and 1973. The book is concerned with describing how the changing roles of women within radical politics contributed towards redefining gender roles throughout Irish society. In particular, it seeks to examine how radical activist networks, specifically street politics, contributed to the renegotiating of gender roles. The author advises that the word radical is used to describe those women who utilised street politics to push for a comprehensive restructuring of the state (p.5). These women employed a variety of tactics, such as staging marches and sit-ins to get their message across and create a woman-centred consciousness. The book charts the interaction between feminism and republicanism, civil rights advocacy, housing activism and left-wing politics as women sought to exert pressure on the establishment from outside the political structure.

Keenan-Thomson presents a comprehensive analysis of women’s roles within radical politics to reveal how women on the margins worked to change the attitudes of the mainstream. She argues that the involvement of women in radical politics during the period 1956 to 1973 lay the conditional seeds for the second wave of feminism to take root in Ireland. Written in an engaging style, this historical narrative analyses a number of episodes through which a new concept of womanhood emerges. The account of how working-class women in Dungannon in 1963 led a housing protest and engaged in civil disobedience to draw attention to their demands is revealing. It shows how women “defied the traditional notions of femininity and political inertia dominant within the nationalist community” (p.14) to highlight institutionalised discrimination against the Catholic population of Northern Ireland. Later in the book, Keenan-Thomson argues that the unfolding conflict in Northern Ireland in the early 1970s saw a renegotiation of gender regime. Women became heavily involved in street activities as the civil rights movement accelerated. Prominent women campaigners such as Bernadette Devlin began to emerge. Republican women began to join groups such as the IRA as full members rather than as auxiliary associates. While overt feminist concerns rarely dominated the agenda during this time, women’s involvement in various spheres set the scene for an evaluation of traditional gender roles in Northern Ireland.

Meanwhile, in the Republic of Ireland, women’s growing dissatisfaction with social reform in relation to such issues as contraception and equal pay increased in the 1960s and 1970s. Through publications such as the women’s page in The Irish Times, feminist authors and journalists challenged the status quo and demanded legislative reform in Ireland to bring it into line with international norms. The demands for social reform were aided by Ireland’s entry to the then European Economic Community which imposed legislative demands on the country. Through these various case studies, Keenan-Thomson recognises the organic nature through which gender regime change occurred. “It followed no recipe” but yet “a woman-centred consciousness grew out of these experiences, as women’s roles gained ground in their respective movements” (pp. 251/252).Irish Women and Street Politics 1956 – 1973 is an essential read for students of women’s studies, Irish history, civil rights, feminism and policy process. Its erudite account of the involvement of women activists in the civil rights, republican and social reform movements in Ireland makes this book an excellent reference point for anyone researching social change in Ireland. The book is rich in detail and its comprehensive archival research, media analysis and assessment of original interviews with key women activists of the period offers the reader a thorough guide through women’s activism in the period of investigation. Its strength lies in its acknowledgement of the organic nature of social and policy change. The book reflects this reality and documents how women were able to bring about change to the gender regime by campaigning for equality using street politics. In essence, the book tells the story of how change in mainstream politics can be brought about from the margins.

t The discussion on Northern Ireland is limited to the Catholic population as Protestant women did not engage in street politics to any large extent until 1974. For a discussion on the role of women in unionism and loyalism, see for example Rachel Ward’s Women and Loyalism in Northern Ireland, Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 2006.