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IRELAND’S METROPOLITAN FEMINISTS AND COLONIAL WOMEN CAROL COULTER INTRODUCTION Over the past decade or so the experience of women in “Third World” countries, and of non-white women in the Western world, has increasingly been brought into the mainstream of feminist writing by a range of writers. Some, like Egyptian writer Leila Ahmed, come from within those communities; others, like Australian Cilla Bulbeck, are from the heartland of Western society. They have challenged the emphasis on freedom , rights, and agency—and sought the integration of issues like community and connectedness into feminist discourse (Bulbeck 16). Volumes of work now exist in this area, of which a few examples must suffice for the purposes of this article. In her magisterial study of women’s experience in the context of colonialism and underdevelopment , Bulbeck writes: “colonised women were not passive recipients of western feminism or indigenous nationalism. But neither did they refuse all that colonisation demanded, taking and remaking some of its aspects as opportunities” (29). Haleh Afshar writes, “Western feminists negated Third World women’s choices of paths of political activism which used the local prevalent ideologies and were often located within religious or maternal discourses” (Afshar, Women and Politics 1). Gayatri Spivak says, “There is nothing necessarily meritricious about the western feminist gaze” (180), adding, “I am uncomfortable with the notions of feminist solidarity which is celebrated when everybody is similarly produced” (190). Recent years have also seen a surge of interest in Irish women’s history , and in sociological and cultural work on women in Ireland, recovering their role in the country’s political and social history, religious and cultural life. The work of writers like Cullen, Curtin, Daly, MacCurtain, Luddy, O’Connor, Ward—the list is now lengthy—has established that IRELAND’S METROPOLITAN FEMINISTS AND COLONIAL WOMEN 48 Irish women have been far from passive in the development of modern Ireland. It is all the odder, therefore, that there appears to be no fusion between this work on the place of women in Irish society and recent writing on the place of women in other societies confronting a colonial past. Like them, Ireland does not fit neatly into the ideological straitjacket of writers who universalize the experiences of urban, middle-class, predominantly white women in the developed countries in the second half of the twentieth century. But Ireland seems to suffer more than most from the work of writers from this background and perspective who then distort the actual experiences of the women concerned to fit it into such writers’ ideological preoccupations. This distortion is especially relevant in relation to Northern Ireland, where, undeterred by the work of women like Bulbeck, Spivak, Mohanty, and others, certain feminist writers either ignore the relationship between women and nationalism or reiterate recurring themes. These project an image of Northern Irish women, especially nationalist women, as the victims of a double oppression, by nationalism and Catholicism, and refuse to acknowledge the ambiguities that exist in their relationship to both. The best known academic feminist in Ireland is undoubtedly Ailbhe Smyth, pioneer of Women’s Studies in University College, Dublin, and a regular contributor to national radio and television. In 1993 she edited the Irish Women’s Studies Reader, in which she wrote of the need to be exhaustive , and to examine “the reverberations for women of the political division of Ireland into two separate parts”—yet makes no further reference to this need in her introduction (Smyth, Irish Women Studies Reader 2). Only one essay, “The Church, the State and the Women’s Movement in Northern Ireland,” by Monica McWilliams, addresses this issue. In 1995, following the declaration of the first IRA cease-fire, the Journal of Women’s History published a special issue devoted to Irish women. In an essay stylistically characterized by parentheses and replete with unsupported generalizations, Smyth wrote: Women are coerced and intimidated into silence—in itself a serious violation of human freedom—in many ways, not least of which is the primacy attributed to “The Cause,” always male, on whichever side. The cause must never be betrayed, must never be represented as anything but wholly good and legitimate, even when—especially when—it is founded...


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