Feminist Identity Development and Activism in Revolutionary Movements by Theresa O’Keefe (2013, Palgrave MacMillan)
Theresa O’Keefe’s 2013 monograph ‘Feminist Identity Development and Activism in Revolutionary Movements’ offers fascinating and thought-provoking anthropological findings on the conundrum of armed female combatants in violent nationalist conflicts. Feminist literature on nationalist struggles has found plenty of evidence of the marginalisation and manipulation of women and their bodies in the service of nationalism. However, such literature tends to draw on feminine passivity in nationalist discourse, both in the symbolic sense as metaphorical bodies to be protected by men and as ‘womenanchildren’, a code that assumes women’s automatic victimhood and infantalisation (Enloe, 1989).
O’Keefe argues that such a focus leaves out the voices and agency of women who are in many cases central to nationalist struggles. Of particular contention is the question of women in armed struggle which poses problems for traditional nationalist discourse and new paths for rethinking feminist consciousness during conflict. Emboldened by feminist thinking, women in armed struggle shatter nationalist stereotypes of women as peace-keepers and guardians of the hearth.
‘Feminist Identity Development and Activism in Revolutionary Movements’ addresses these problems and feminist issues through an in-depth exploration of women in the contemporary Irish republican movement and in the ‘mainstream’ women’s movement in the republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland before and after the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. The modern history of Irish self-determination is captured by O’Keefe as intertwined with women’s history of activism and resistance.
O’Keefe’s book consists of six main chapters. The first chapter on the prevailing literature of women’s negative relationship with nationalism sets the stage for O’Keefe’s rebuttal on the subject. Through ethnographic findings on the women in the Irish republican movement that begins in the second chapter, O’Keefe re-presents their voices on harassment and violence they experienced during detainment and humiliating strip searches for suspicions of anti-British activity. These harrowing accounts demonstrate that gender-based violence are not only inseparable from ‘ungendered’ violence experienced by all Irish rebels but are aggravated by existing sexism and taboos surrounding female sexuality.
Although the women argue that there were no barriers to their participation as armed ethno-nationalists, the oppression they faced and their modes of resistance were different because they were female. They were sexually targeted by British troops during the Troubles in ways that would cause the greatest humiliation in conservative Irish society; through the denial of menstruation products during raids and detention. In protest, imprisoned republican women would smear their menstruation blood on walls, an act regarded more horrific than their male counterpart who smeared their confines with excrement.
The book makes a powerful turn in the third chapter where it discusses the reasons why republican women took up arms and rejected normative expectations of femininity. Their republication consciousness was triggered by, among other things, anger and the refusal to be helpless in the face of escalating British and anti-Irish-Catholic brutality. Conscious also of their transgression against stereotypes, women of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) had to make more of an effort than the men to demonstrate their commitment to the cause despite increased risks.
Despite their determination to be recognised as equals, women were largely absent in the leadership ranks of the IRA. While essential, women in the IRA only assumed roles of leadership when their husbands were in prison during the period of political internment between the 1970s to the early 1990s. In O’Keefe’s words, ‘women in power were seen as a temporary necessity’ (p.77). Women without children over-represent those with, as mothers were expected to stop volunteering in the IRA leaving men (with children or not) to remain longer in the movement and gain more seniority and access to greater power.
The pathologisation of republican women in armed struggle continues in the fourth chapter with a case study of the so-called mini-skirt brigade; Irish Catholic women who were sexualised by the national media as sexy gun-totting and bombing bombshells. IRA women who pick up weapons ‘engage in “unlady-like” acts and move into male-dominated spaces, [crossing] the border into “sinful” territory, a space occupied by “loose women”’ (p.87). Despite the uneasiness within the republican movement about women with weapons, normative assumptions of traditional peace-loving femininity made women unlikely suspects of terrorism by the British government. But when they were identified, armed republican women were regarded as deadlier and more ruthless than men.
The fifth chapter on manifestations of Irish feminism throughout the decades is the weakest in the book as it re-iterates the book’s theme of politicisation already explored in previous chapters. It also revisits the prisons where consciousness-raising efforts were established through the circulation of feminist literature and talks. Aspects of this chapter, such as the early manifestation of Irish feminism, could be better served in the beginning of the book to provide a historical context to launch a guide to the dynamic women’s liberation and resistance groups in Ireland and Northern Ireland.
Domestic violence and abortion are issues that divide members of the IRA. Women were exposed to a more dangerous kind of patriarchy where many men were armed, whether as members of paramilitary or the police. Because the police were complicit in anti-republican violence, republican women could not turn to them when they were escaping a violent male partner. Although considered the more ‘progressive’ party compared to other Irish parties on abortion, Sinn Féin was reluctant to make extensions of the 1967 British Abortion Act that allowed access to termination beyond the limits of serious health issues, rape, and incest. To legislate full reproductive rights for women was, according to Sinn Féin, against the party’s principles of not legitimising British rule through its laws in Northern Ireland.
Divisions that separate the women’s and feminist movements in Northern Ireland constitute the central concerns of O’Keefe’s sixth chapter. Like most political mobilising anywhere, the issue of a ‘unified’ front is commonly a contentious one. In the case of women in Northern Ireland, such fractures are found along political, queer, and class lines. Political differences – one aligned with the republican feminist struggle and the other, ‘mainstream’ feminism – are at the forefront of O’Keefe’s analysis. Compared to ‘mainstream’ feminism’s approach to ‘lowest common denominator’ politics of mobilising simply as ‘women’, republican feminists pushed for greater inclusivity and a comprehensive agenda that included politicised concerns that other women’s groups would not touch: abortion. In O’Keefe’s final analysis, the autonomous (i.e. non-partisan) ‘mainstream’ feminism’s failure was attributed to its refusal to adopt intersectionality as its outlook on oppression and resistance, making it un-radical and un-progressive. The residual effects of ‘mainstream’ feminism’s emphasis on unanimity, according to O’Keefe, are the continued restrictions on abortion in Northern Ireland, making the movement an oxymoron by contemporary standards of what feminism should stand for.
This is a fine achievement of a book and will sit well with other books on women’s roles in contemporary nationalist struggles. O’Keefe writes with a vitality and lucidity that invites a reader completely unfamiliar with contemporary Irish politics (i.e. me) to delve beyond the pages of the book and into other sources on modern Irish political history. However, it is less successful in its nod to intersectionality, de rigueur now in feminist discourse. Intersectionality, which ‘mainstream’ Irish feminism is purported to reject, is more than about identifying the multiplicity of social categories that are impacted by different forms of institutional oppression. Rather than a ‘race to the bottom’ (Carbado, 2002), intersectionality is just as much as about those ‘at the top’ of the social hierarchy, those who deny the inter-connectedness of oppression. The portrayal of the Irish ‘mainstream’ feminism’s failure to live up to the radical project of ‘proper’ feminism can be better illuminated beyond a limited definition of intersectionality.
Alicia Izharuddin is a PhD candidate in Gender Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. where she specialises in gender and religion in Indonesian visual culture. Her other research interests include feminist activist movements in Southeast Asia and decolonising feminist and queer theory
Carbado, Devon (2002) ‘Race to the bottom’, ULCA Law Review, 49(5): 1283-1312.
Enloe, Cynthia (1989) Bananas, Beaches, and Bases: Making Feminist Sense of International Politics, University of California Press: Berkeley.