Mairéad Farrell, on “dirty protest” at Armagh jail in 1980. Armagh women’s prison protests promoted feminism within the republican movement and challenged sexist attitudes, but women’s issues were not a priority for Sinn Fein.
From the Irish Times: Second-class republicans? Sinn Féin, feminism and the women’s hunger strike
Hunger striking as a feminist issue
Nell McCafferty, the Irish feminist writer, believed that the issue of the Armagh women prisoners was a basic issue of integrity for feminists. She argued that the protests were a direct consequence of the very imperialism which feminists believed was violating the rights of women through the direct denial of – among other things – medical care and attention to the prisoners. She stated that “the choice facing feminists on the matter of Armagh Jail are clear-cut. We can ignore these women or we can express concerns about them. Since the suffering of women anywhere, whether self-inflicted or not, cannot be ignored by feminists, then we have a clear responsibility to respond.” (Irish Times, August 22nd, 1980)
In this argument, Women Against Imperialism, who organised the annual protest outside Armagh prison on International Women’s Day, supported McCafferty. In a 1983 article in Spare Rib they argued that Women Against Imperialism “maintained that to support the prisoners didn’t mean a neglect of feminist demands, but they could not ignore the direct effect of British Imperialism in Ireland” (May 1983). Whilst the editorial team and writers of Spare Rib were on the whole sympathetic to republican feminists and the Armagh protesters, their readers were not, and on its letters page it is hard to find a letter supporting women campaigning from a republican feminist perspective (apart from one from the Armagh protesters themselves).
Such writers supported the views put forward by the feminists replying to Nell McCafferty’s Irish Times article, and expressed a cynicism about the place of women in the nationalist movement: “the so-called nationalist cause has no more place for women than the present ‘imperialism’ which is supposedly oppressing women”. (Spare Rib, June 1980)
Feminists writing from this point of view not only abhorred the violent nature of the republican movement but argued that “their [feminist republicans’] male mentors had so thoroughly inculcated the belief into their minds that socialism automatically represented liberation for women that they refused to examine it for themselves”. (Irish Times, September 5th, 1980)
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