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There are many limits to the possibilities for women’s liberation

They include responsibility; the consequences for others; and, perhaps, biology itself
Mary Kenny

The feminist movement of which I was a founder-member in 1970 was called the Women’s Liberation Movement, and that word ‘liberation’, being cognate with liberty, was a key concept for me.  Women’s Lib was of course about ending certain forms of prejudice, and campaigned to bring down prohibitions against women at work, in finance, and in certain cases before the law, as well as abolishing archaic legislation which forbade the importation of ‘birth control artefacts’.  The contraceptive Pill was never banned in Ireland, since it was a medication: but a 1935 law prohibited barrier forms of birth control, meaning, basically, the condom and the diaphragm (known as the ‘Dutch cap’), and we took a celebrated train from Belfast to Dublin as a deliberate ploy to breach this act.

I am certainly glad to see how successful, confident and ubiquitous younger women are in public life today.And the removal of so many of those old barriers – the ban on married women working in civil service jobs (including teaching), the disabilities women had in gaining control of their financial affairs (a woman could not, formerly, open a bank account without the endorsement of a man), and the greater availability of access to fertility control – has empowered subsequent generations of women to affirm their choices and to find greater fulfilment in their professional lives.

‘Women’s Lib’ achieved a lot partly because the time was right – and ripe.  A successful revolution has been defined as pushing open a door which is already ajar.  The women’s revolution came in the slipstream of the 1960s social revolutions, globally perceived: the sex revolution which entered its most flamboyant phase after the contraceptive Pill was launched in 1961.  The contraceptive Pill – correctly nominated as one of the three most world-changing inventions of the 20th century – altered all social mores everywhere, because it undid a previously draconian deterrent to permissive sex.  In the whole of human history, sexual congress has always carried the possible consequence that a pregnancy might follow.  Most societies stigmatised what they called bastardy: Jewish law said that the birth of an illegitimate child must be punished “unto the fourth generation”.  But in a trice, the Pill virtually abolished aeons of sexual control – and stigma – because from the moment you swallowed that anovulent, you could be certain there would be no consequent pregnancy.  Discreet, personal, a medication taken in the privacy of the bathroom, so that not even a husband knew whether his wife was contracepting or not – the contraceptive Pill changed everything from family authority to patriarchal mentalities.

Once the Pill was being used widely – and it was used widely in Ireland during the 1970s – a social revolution demanding changes in the status of women was bound to follow.  From the perspective of history, I see another angle too: some of the other social changes in Ireland were catch-ups from World War II.  Most of the aforementioned restrictions on women’s lives applied to most countries in Europe until 1940 (and France had an anti-contraception law until 1967).  But in the maelstrom of war, women were needed in the workplace, and so the countries at war dropped the prohibitions against, for example, hiring married women as teachers, or insisting that women resign from their jobs on marriage.  Ireland’s neutrality in that war kept women behind.

So we had the Women’s Liberation movement of the 1970s, and the many social changes after that: although women – or even feminists – were not necessarily of one mind on such matters as divorce, for example.  Some women felt that divorce would leave ex-wives more exposed financially, and encourage men to abandon their first marriages for younger models.  A study published in London in November 2009, by a famous firm of divorce lawyers, claimed that a third of children in divorces NEVER see their fathers (or, indeed, the extended family, such as paternal grandparents) again; and many a man claims, now, that he has been fleeced by the divorce courts.  It may turn out that it is men, and children, who pay the price for this particular liberation.

Because that’s the nub.  Liberation is fine and dandy: but there always will be a price.  For every social advance, there are always disbenefits.  The sex revolution brought pleasure to many: but some of us felt pretty messed-up by the experience of promiscuity.  We wanted the right to have equality in our careers, and even in our home lives: we got it, but many of us found that life was simply exhausting, trying to juggle so many demands, and that a stress-filled double-career family didn’t always lead to harmony in the home.  As we rushed around being liberated, we knew we were quite often neglecting our children: dumping them on child-minders at all hours of the day and night, leaving them with unreliable Scandinavian au pairs who were themselves more interested in smoking dope and getting laid.  (The likes of Virgina Woolf affirmed women’s freedoms, but never dreamed that the servants would demand liberation too!)

And now …  that generation of Women’s Lib are the grandmothers, and we see the changes and developments with that longer view that grandmothers historically have.  Of course most of us are pleased that young women today have so many more opportunities, although we also see that daughters and daughters-in-laws have their own difficulties.  We differ, somewhat, as individuals – as we always did – about the meaning of ‘liberation’: there is always a tension between equality and liberty and if you choose liberty, then you must accept that men, too, should have the liberty of, for example, belonging to golf clubs which do not extend equal entitlements to women.  Forcing people to change their habits of recreation is only done in dictatorships, surely.  Some women think ‘the Government’ should do more.  I personally think “the Government” should meddle less in private life.  Indeed, that was my primary objection to the archaic contraceptive laws back in 1970: the State had no place in the citizen’s bedroom.

Overall there are many limits to liberation: responsibility; the consequences for others; and, perhaps, biology itself.  The next most significant phase of feminism, I believe, will be the fight for the right to motherhood, for motherhood to be respected as a choice, and for mothers to be entitled to be with their young children, and to raise them at home.  The whole focus on childcare has been about getting women out of the home and putting their children in external care (as earlier generations dispatched quite young children off to boarding schools).  But the seeds of the contraceptive revolution have brought forth something else: now that motherhood is, to a much greater degree, voluntary, many women cherish the mothering role more.  The child today is better valued because parenthood has become a much more conscientious choice.  The confidence that feminism has bestowed is also empowering a younger generation of women to choose to be mothers, to do so confidently, and to affirm their pleasure in spending time with their children: an omission which we in the grandmother generation most often regret.

Mary Kenny, doyenne of Irish feminism, was born in Dublin in 1944; expelled from a Loreto convent at 16; au-paired in France; worked in London as a journalist on the Evening Standard; was Women’s Editor of the Irish Press from 1969; was then centrally identified with the early phase of the women’s liberation movement in Ireland and a famous 1960s lifestyle; organised the ‘Pill Train’ to Belfast; returned to London as an increasingly conservative journalist; and wrote There’s Something About a Convent Girl (1991, Goodbye to Catholic Ireland (1997), expressing her revised views of Irish Catholicism, and Germany Calling, a critically acclaimed biography of William Joyce (2004).  In 2006 she wrote a play, Allegiance, about the celebrated encounter between Churchill and Michael Collins and this year a book Crown and Shamrock: Love and Hate between Ireland and the British Monarchy which sets the context for the anticipated first visit by Queen Elizabeth II to Ireland.