National Women’s Council: from radicalism to conservatism and back

Its equality agenda includes political gender quotas, mitigating austerity and promoting abortion legislation, despite lack of fundingIvana Bacik 


In the first week of January, the Oireachtas Health Committee held a series of high-profile hearings on abortion law. The National Women’s Council of Ireland was among the groups presenting. Its Director Orla O’Connor spoke strongly in favour of legislation to implement the X case. She was challenged by several Oireachtas members who criticised this position, and questioned the Council’s entitlement to State funding. Their orchestrated attack, forty years after the Council’s establishment, highlights the continued importance of its role in representing the cause of gender equality, and the voices of women in Irish society.

A century ago, women’s voices were prominent in the struggle for Irish independence, but after 1922 were suppressed by a deeply conservative nationalism. Few women were involved at a policy-making level in the new state, and women’s groups generally mobilised around domestic roles as wives and mothers. In 1970, under pressure from more radicalised women’s groups, a Commission on the Status of Women was established to make recommendations on achieving the equal participation of women in public life. In 1973, the Council for the Status of Women was formed to implement the Commission’s recommendations, and be a co-ordinating structure for women’s organisations nationally. Seventeen women’s groups joined originally. Their only funding was derived from private subscriptions.

In 1979 the Council began to receive state funding, and in 1995 changed its name to the National Women’s Council of Ireland. Today it represents over 160 different women’s groups. Funding remains an issue, with the resignation of Director Susan McKay in 2011 in protest over significant government cuts to the Council’s budget – cuts which have continued since, and which may erode its ability to mount effective campaigns.

Over the years, the Council has gone through many different incarnations; subject to criticism by feminists for its conservatism at particular times (even labelled ‘the Council for Women of Status’); but more recently suffering attacks from the right, for being too radical – as in the abortion-law hearings.

To some extent, critiques of the Council from different sides are inevitable, as it represents such a broad range of groups. It has been questioned whether a representative ‘Council’ of this sort is an appropriate means of organising; and whether it is possible for such a body to represent women’s interests generally, given the diversity of women and the diversity of interests.

However, these are questions that have been asked ever since women began organising to demand equal rights. As Susan Faludi has noted, the ‘backlash’ began just as the early second-wave women’s movement became mobilised. As long as women experience structural and institutional gender discrimination – and they continue to do so in 2013 Ireland – there is a place for a national body to represent women’s groups, conduct research into women’s lives, and campaign for equality. Indeed, while it is questionable whether any national co-ordinating body can be truly representative, the Council’s role is best understood as representing a diverse range of women’s groups rather than representing particular individual women. The Council’s stated aim “to achieve women’s equality and empower women to work together to remove inequalities” remains a useful focus today – but adequate resources are necessary to enable it to carry out this aim.

Notwithstanding the shortage of funds, the Council has identified several campaign priorities for the future – to include increasing women’s political participation rate. This campaign is very important in a country where the proportion of women TDs has never exceeded 15 per cent. The Council was very active in securing the passage of new gender-quota legislation which comes into effect for the next general election – but a nationally representative women’s body will be necessary to ensure effective implementation. Other campaigning priorities should focus upon the effects of austerity on women. Here the Council could play a powerful role at a time when the voices of civil society are increasingly silenced. Finally, a key priority must be the introduction of abortion legislation – and for its increased radicalism and activism on this issue, and in its other endeavours, the Council deserves our continuing support.