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Women and War: Challenging the Archetype of Passive Women Throughout the Troubles

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Women and War: Challenging the Archetype of Passive Women Throughout the Troubles

In times of war, women have traditionally been associated with peace, maternalism and caregiving; the nurses, the mothers, the symbols of national unity. This has perpetuated the notion that women have a homogenous experience of conflict, namely as non-violent, passive victims. Only the most cursory of glances at the gendered experiences of the Troubles in Ireland quickly dissolves this monolithic view. Whilst it is true that Irish women were nurses, mothers, unifiers, and victims, they were also active subjects who played influential and notable roles in the violence - on both sides of the border. 

The media, the public, and the presiding historiography surrounding the Troubles has often found it difficult to capture the disparate roles that women played, in particular when women  rebelled against what Western society generally agrees is the conventional female experience within conflict zones. To homogenise the experiences of Irish women is to ignore the huge differences between organisations such as Women for Peace in comparison to the likes of Mairead Farrell who painted her menstrual blood on the walls of her jail cell, or the Price sisters who starved themselves in Armagh prison for 203 days, or the IRA’s ‘honey trap killers.’

Hopefully this article will reveal Irish women’s multiplicitous experiences of conflict, and how the media and the public alike have failed to conceptualise those who transgressed the pervasive and reductive victimisation of women in war.

It is widely acknowledged that conflict negatively affects the poorest and most vulnerable in society (Kangas, Haider, Fraser, Browne, 2015). Gender, race, class, religion, sexuality all have an impact on a specific person’s experience of structural violence and must be taken into account when analysing a particular conflict zone. The violence during the Troubles had a particularly negative impact on the women who lived in the working class areas of Northern Ireland; they endured daily armed police and military patrols, bodily and house searches, abuse, harrassment and murder (Begona, 1995). The loyalist and republican paramilitary organisations alike would punish ‘unfaithful’ prisoners’ wives for their perceived betrayals of their respectives communities (Begona, 1995). Research demonstrates that women and girls suffer disproportionately from violent conflict, but despite this, women and girls tend to be the ones overlooked in the media, public, and historiographical discourses surrounding conflict zones (Kangas, Haider, Fraser, Browne, 2015).

There is a presiding characterisation of women as domestic, childlike, and passive. This has influenced the representations of women in war, where they have been victimised and viewed as inactive, maternalistic pacifists. As Professor Vanessa Farr states, women’s apparent inclination towards peace is seen as a ‘supposed organic by-product of their ability to mother and nurture.’ (Farr, 2003) This has created what she describes as an oversimplified ‘women equal peace: men equal war dichotomy (Farr, 2003). In the Troubles these narratives were just as dominant as in any other conflict. This can clearly be demonstrated in three key ways; through the disproportionate focus and idolisation in the media of those women who were pacifists, the inverse pathologisation and victimisation of those women that turned towards violence, and the assumption that men are naturally inclined towards violence. 

The media characterisation of IRA members Dolores and Marian Price clearly demonstrates the ingrained gender stereotypes. In November 1973 the sisters were convicted of a car bombing in London which injured over 200 people and sentenced to life imprisonment. Marian Price explained that ‘It doesn't seem to matter if it's Irish people dying…’ and so they attempted to ‘bring it [the violence] to the heart of the British Establishment.’ (English, 2012) After the sentencing the sisters immediately declared a hunger strike, arguing that they should be classed as political prisoners and allowed to serve their sentences in Northern Ireland. Two weeks later, the authorities began a process of force feeding, which lasted for 203 days. The fact that they were two young, attractive, female sisters provoked intense media and public fascination (Miller, 2016). The force feeding of the two men with whom the Price’s were convicted - Gerald Kelly and Hugh Feeney - received far less attention. 

Irish republicanism has predominantly been associated with ‘robust masculinity’, with active republican women often being overlooked or sidelined (Miller, 2016). As Sikita Bannerjee states, militant women occupied an ambiguous space in Irish republicanism when the ideal Irish woman was conceived as passive and chaste (Miller, 2016). The Price sisters disrupted all of these conventional narratives. Academic Ian Miller writes that, ‘In contemporary discourse, adolescent girlhood is marked by desirability, immaturity, malleability rather than independence and maturity.’ (Miller, 2016)  The media, therefore, quickly turned to victimisation and pathologisation to explain the sisters’ deviation from traditional roles; they were predominantly referred to as ‘girls’, shown as passive victims of their social context in Belfast which was viewed as having corrupted and psychologically damaged them. The notion that these women had agency in their choices was not considered. 

The general attitude at the time towards the sisters can be seen in an article in The Kerryman newspaper which described them as, “Very young and... very much victims of their environment and background.” (Kerryman, 1974) A Daily Mail interview with Albert Price, the sisters’ father, followed suit. Interviewer Paul Dacre explained away the Price sisters’ deviation from feminine norms, citing the normalisation of violence in Belfast which must have psychologically damaged the women (Daily Mail, 1974). However, the sisters constantly rejected claims that they were passive victims; Marian Price stated in a 2003 interview concerning her membership of the IRA, ‘It wasn’t an emotional reaction… It was a question of fulfilling the beliefs I still hold.’ (Cowan, 2003) Women can be active, violent subjects just as much as men can.

The case of Mairead Farrell further epitomises the media representation of women at the time. As an IRA militant, she spent 14 years in Armagh jail and became leader of the female prisoners there. On the day she was arrested, the headline in the Irish Times read ‘Girl Jailed for 14 Years’ and continued to refer to Farrell as a ‘girl’ throughout the article (Jacobsen, 2020). She was the first woman and second person to refuse to wear a prison uniform when the British government recategorised Irish republicans as common criminals rather than prisoners of war. Farrell went on hunger strike and instigated a ‘dirty protest’ in February 1980, wherein she led other prisoners in refusing to wash for a full year. The fact that female prisoners also partook in dirty protests is often overlooked in the memory of Irish republicanism, with the added element of not only excrement but also menstrual material being a part of the protest. She was eventually killed in Gibraltar by British security forces in 1988 and has since become a hero for republican women. Her memory, like that of the Price sisters, defies any characterisation of women as passive victims. 

Ironically, the underestimation of women’s capacity for violence often worked in the favour of certain active republican women. Dolores and Marian Price were members of an elite IRA squad called the Unknowns, and could run missions across the Northern Irish border with very little suspicion aroused because they were young, attractive women (DenHoed, 2020). Another obvious example of this is the case of the IRA’s Honey Trap killings, wherein three young Scottish soldiers were ‘lured’ out of Mooney’s bar in Belfast by young Irish women, believing they were headed to a party, and ended up being shot in the back of the head by the undercover IRA members. British soldiers were searching for aggressive Irish men rather than young Irish women. In these cases, these women were able to capitalise on sexist assumptions and sexualisation, demonstrating that the ways in which gender, the body and conflict converge are complex and not always consistent. 

Not all women chose violence as a way to express themselves, of course, but were nevertheless active during the Troubles through different means. Irish men were being killed, arrested, and detained under the policy of internment by the hundreds during the 1970s and with this came a new responsibility for Irish women to step up as head of the household. Ireland was, and still is to an extent, a traditionally patriarchal society, with men having ‘a strong influence over economic, legal, political and societal structures in Ireland.’ (Sheehan, Berkery, Lichrou, 2017) Whilst the men were being caught up in the struggle, women therefore began to gain more public, bread winning, and political responsibilities. When the policy of internment ended in 1976 and men returned back to their families, one nationalist woman stated that, ‘Women were not willing to go back into the house again. It was a big shock!’ (Begona, 1995). Irish women had got a taste for active public life and didn’t want to give it up. 

During the 1970s, newspaper records show that Catholic women in the poorer areas of Belfast demonstrated almost every single day against the British army (Begona, 1995). The Northern Ireland Women’s Rights Movement was created in 1975, wherein Irish women discussed the gender issues that Ireland was falling behind on; abortion, discrimination in education and salaries, and divorce legislation (A Century of Women). Women also organised campaigns against the policy of internment, and reported feeling empowered by the collective experience of confronting armed police and British soldiers (Begona, 1995). They read political literature, spoke at public meetings, created activist groups; women forged new, politically empowered identities for themselves through their role in the conflict (Begona, 1995). This grassroots political action by Irish women has often been overlooked, but these women were anything but the passive victims that overarching, gendered narratives would have us believe.

Women were also incredibly important to the eventual peace process, and this involved active political campaigning. The Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition was a political party formed in 1996 to think about how women could be written into, rather than written out of, the peace process. They became vital to the discussions, being one of the few organisations that worked across both Protestant and Catholic communities. The Women for Peace, later renamed The Community of Peace People, are another key example. Led by Mairead Corrigan and Betty Williams, the organisation was created in the wake of three innocent children being killed in Belfast. The two founders received the Nobel Prize in 1977, and worked to promote peace, justice and women’s rights. Women were vital to the peace process and many advocated for pacifism throughout the Troubles, but this is not to say that their pacifism made them in any way passive.

Irish women had completely diverse experiences of the Troubles. A 1989 round table Queen’s University in Belfast exposed these divisions clearly. Composed of various nationalist parties, they discussed the role of women in the violence. A member of the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) claimed that ‘War is a men’s thing… Women and war do not go together… The use of guns is a male way.’ (Begona, 1995) This encapsulates the gendered assumptions that often surround conflict, but many others around the table fought back, instead citing the likes of Mairead Farell and defending the rights of the armed struggle. Women were opposed to each other’s political persuasions far more than their gender seemed to unite them; women were clearly just as divided as men on the political issues of the day. However, this is not the narrative that has been portrayed in the dominant discourses surrounding the Troubles.

When looking at gender and the Troubles, it is important to remember that the specific intersections of identity politics will always create completely unique diverse reactions and beliefs in every person. Working class or middle class, Protestant or Catholic, republican or loyalist, there are an incredible number of factors at play which lead people to be pro or anti-violence. This is why gendered presumptions that women are naturally more inclined towards peace is an incredibly over-simplistic narrative. The dichotomy of women and peace, men and war will always be a shallow and superficial analysis. But, as hopefully has been demonstrated, women’s experiences, reactions and ideas of war, violence and Irish nationalism are just as complex and multifaceted as any man. 

Around the world today there are millions of women involved in conflict zones; women partaking in violence, women organising protest groups and political parties, women suffering from the specific intersections of oppression that occur to women in war. Not all of these conflicts look like the Troubles, but through remembering women’s involvement in Ireland, we are more readily able to focus on the women who are still today at the centre of violent struggles. It is vital that we look back and recognise the differences of experience, the figureheads as well as the everyday female citizen, so that we can further our understanding of the way identity, war and gender intersect to this day. 

Bibliography

A Century of Women, https://www.acenturyofwomen.com/1970s/

Begona, Aretxaga (1995) ‘Ruffling a Few Patriarchal Hairs: Women's Experiences of War in Northern Ireland,’ Cultural Survival https://www.culturalsurvival.org/publications/cultural-survival-quarterly/ruffling-few-patriarchal-hairs-womens-experiences-war

‘Comment’, Kerryman (18 January 1974)

Cowan, Rosie (13 March 2003), ‘I have no regrets’, Guardianhttps://www.theguardian.com/world/2003/mar/13/gender.uk

DenHoed, Andrea (2020) ‘The Trauma of the Troubles,’ Dissent Magazine, https://www.dissentmagazine.org/article/the-trauma-of-the-troubles

English, Richard (2012) ‘Armed Struggle: The History Of The IRA’, Macmilian

 Farr, Vanessa (2003) ‘Gender Awareness in Research and Policy Making’, African Security Review, 12(1)

Jacobsen, Laura (2020), ‘Women for Ireland: Republican Feminism in the Northern Ireland Troubles,’ St. John’s Scholar

Kangas, Ann;Haider, Huma; Fraser, Erika; Browne, Evie, (2015) ‘Gender in fragile and conflict-affected environments,’ GSDRC Applied Knowledge Resources, https://gsdrc.org/topic-guides/gender/gender-in-fragile-and-conflict-affected-environments/

 ‘Lest we Forget’, Daily Express (1 June 1974)

 Miller, Ian (2016) ‘An Experience Much Worse Than Rape’: The End of Force-Feeding?’, Palgrave, Macmillan

Sheehan, Ashling, Berkery, Elaine, Lichrou, Maria, (2017), ‘Changing role of women in the Irish society: an overview of the female consumer,’ Irish Journal of Management  

 




Authored by Martha Bird

Martha Bird

Martha is a postgraduate student currently studying Gender Studies at the University of Bologna.


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