Professor Ailbhe Smyth, ‘When Feminism Wins: Gaining the Right to Abortion in Ireland’
it was really personal for all of us, as well as totally political
Referring to the recent decriminalisation of abortion in Northern Ireland, the first thing Professor Ailbhe Smyth (pictured below) announced to her audience last Friday was ‘Perhaps I should have renamed my talk ‘When Feminism Wins – Again!’.’ It was a privilege for Queer History Warwick to support this event organised by the Centre for the Study of Women and Gender and Ailbhe’s hour-long discussion of her role in the campaign to repeal the eighth amendment was nothing short of inspiring.
Ailbhe is a life-long feminist, lesbian and socialist activist who founded the first Women’s Studies Centre at University College Dublin in 1990. She has been dedicated to the fight for women’s right to choose in Ireland for the past 35 years and was a co-founder of the triumphant ‘Together for Yes’ national referendum campaign in 2018. The following year she was featured in Time Magazine’s list of ‘100 Most Influential People’.
She began her talk by explaining the socio-religious back-drop to the campaign, detailing how the Catholic Church worked ‘hand in glove’ with the Irish state and the myriad ways in which Irish women’s bodies have historically been used as sites of control. According to Ailbhe, the 2018 referendum marked the demise of ‘older, Catholic Ireland’ and her attitude towards Ireland’s future – and particularly that of its women – was one of hope.
Many of the facts and figures Ailbhe mentioned were as shocking as they were celebratory. The fact that the ‘Together for Yes’ campaign won the referendum by a landslide margin of 66.4% was obviously great cause for celebration. However, it was deeply sobering to learn that between 1983 and 2018, on average twelve Irish women per day were travelling to Britain to seek abortions.
The details of the referendum campaign itself was no doubt the most compelling part of Ailbhe’s talk. She explained how the tragic case of Savita Halappanavar – an Indian woman living in Ireland who died from sepsis after being refused an abortion in 2012 – caused a national outcry and galvanised the organising efforts of pro-choice campaigners. The challenge was then to draw the left together and unite them in the effort to achieve a very precise goal. Ailbhe recalled how the flippant slogan ‘I can’t believe I still have to protest this shit’ helped to bridge generational divides and encouraged older and younger feminists to work together.
The focus of the ‘Together for Yes’ campaign was very much on the detriment that abortion denial poses to women’s health and careful emphasis on ‘the 3 C’s’ – care, compassion and change – helped to shift the debate in this direction. Ailbhe showed us images of the striking black and white ‘REPEAL’ jumpers (pictured below) designed by one campaign member which acted as great conversation starters across the country. She also spoke of how Ireland’s equal marriage victory in 2015 gave an enormous boost to the campaign to repeal the eight amendment. ‘We knew deep down that people were on our side, that people wanted us to win.’ In spite of this knowledge, Ailbhe admitted that she never expected their campaign to win by such a landslide. ‘The jubilation was incredible. It was an extraordinary day.’
The post-talk discussion was led by Dr. Sara Bamdad. One of the most striking points to emerge from it was just how much Ailbhe’s work serves as an inspiration for other activists. It was truly inspiring to share the stories of someone who played such a pivotal role in changing the landscape of women’s rights, not just in Ireland, but in the many other countries that took heart in Ireland’s victory. Ailbhe’s own reflection perfectly captures the gravitas of this: ‘it was really personal for all of us, as well as totally political.’