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Sexual Politics in Modern Ireland

Jennifer Redmond, Sonja Tiernan, Sandra McAvoy and Mary McAuliffe
Irish Academic Press


From the Introduction: Politicising Sexuality in Modern Ireland

Gender history in Ireland is now thriving after four decades of lively, diverse and interrogative scholarly research. This collection adds to the body of literature thus far produced on Irish women's and gender history by gathering materials related to conceptions of bodies as political terrain, in essence the politicisation of gender and sexuality, in various ways. Sexual Politics in Modern Ireland follows upon the tradition established in Irish women's history since 1978 with the ground-breaking publication of Women in Irish Society: The Historical Dimension, edited by Margaret Mac Curtain and Donnchadh Corrain, in bringing together new research by established and emerging scholars in the field. Building upon subsequent seminal collections, Sexual Politics in Modern Ireland offers new research on social and cultural aspects of women's experiences and conceptions of gender identity and sexuality in modern Ireland.

Focusing in the first chapters on the nineteenth and early twentieth century, an era in which women significantly expanded their public role yet faced many challenges in doing so, the book finishes with reflections on gender and the status of women in the public sphere in the late twentieth century. Continuity in these experiences can be seen in the fact that women were (and indeed are still) protesting for the right to make decisions about their own bodies, with the additional dimension of considering how people who do not fit neatly into gender binaries have been treated. In all cases, the body and the primacy of sexuality has been paramount in understanding how men and women, and intersex people, have been rhetorically constructed, treated under the law, and subsequently written about by historians. As Judith Butler has argued, bodies do matter; the materiality of the body has an intimate connection to the performativity of gender and hence the treatment of those bodies by the law, in the public sphere and in our conceptions of masculinity, femininity and otherness.

While Sexual Politics in Modem Ireland develops themes in the history of sexuality, political protest, legislation and women's treatment under the law that have been part of previous collections, it also expands our knowledge in these areas and enters new terrain. It examines these aspects in new lights and with the benefit of new source material, building upon some of the pioneering, foundational work by scholars in the field over the last four decades. Current trends in historical research have been emphasising personal experiences that were marginalised, suppressed, or ignored in the major historical works on modern Irish history and this volume contributes both individual and collective experiences that will add to our knowledge of the cultural and social milieu of Ireland in the last two centuries. Women's relationship to cultural change has been interrogated in the recent book by Gerardine Meaney, Mary O'Dowd and Bernadette Whelan, Reading The Irish Woman, in which the authors argue for the centrality of culture, and more specifically, cultural encounters, as a lens through which to view processes of change in society and how Irish women engaged with it. Similarly, in Sexual Politics in Modern Ireland the chapters weave a narrative that sees gender and encounters with the political sphere, or the politicisation of gender in the public sphere, as an important paradigm for understanding how people were shaped by and sought to shape their society.

While it is no longer the case that women's history is ignored in undergraduate and school curricula as was observed in the collection by Mary O'Dowd and Sabine Wichert in the 1990s, there still remains the 'more complex and more difficult to resolve [issue of] the relationship between women's history and 'mainstream' interpretations of 'general history." This collection offers new insights into modern Irish history that are not incidental to 'mainstream' histories but are in fact crucial to a wider, more inclusive understanding of our shared past. As Mary Cullen has observed, this does not simply affect women's understandings of history: 'The absence of gender analysis in the writing of history deprives men and boys, as well as women and girls, of an important part of their group and individual memory.' Yet while modern Irish gender history has moved beyond the simple process of recovery of women in the past, there are many groups that remain marginal to history as it is taught and written in many contexts, making it necessary to continue to revisit the past and our understanding of men and women's roles.

The editors of this collection are or have been members of the executive of the Women's History Association of Ireland (WHAI), (as are some of its contributors), a group committed to raising the profile of women's history and engaging the public in new research in regular colloquia. The diverse membership of the Women's History Association of Ireland and the interesting cross-section of people that attend its events attests to the appetite for insights from women's history on 'mainstream' or 'alternate' narratives of the past. It is hoped that this book will extend our collective forays into the past lives of women in Ireland, holding true as we do the belief that 'the history of half the human race is a worthwhile endeavour and integral to our continuing quests to understand the past' as Alan Hayes has asserted.

This collection stems from the 2011 WHAI conference on Sexual Politics in Ireland, held at University College Cork, and the publication of these chapters follows that of many other important collections in modern Irish history that have sprung from this annual gathering. Bernadette Whelan's edited collection Women and Paid Work in Ireland, 1500-1930 drew together a diverse range of scholars on women's employment in Ireland, resulting from the 1998 WHAI conference at the University of Limerick and highlighted the international context of Irish women's paid work, arguing that societal attitudes towards women working for wages were similar across Europe in the modern period. Maryann Valiulis' edited collection Gender and Power in Irish History emanated from the 2006 WHAI conference and asked questions about how power operated in and flowed through Irish society in the modern period, with essays on witchcraft, crime, republicanism and nationalism, migration and urbanism. Elaine Farrell's edited collection, She Said She was in the Family Way, examined pregnancy and infancy in Ireland from the seventeenth to the twentieth century and drew on the WHAI conference presentations at Queen's University Belfast in 2010. The collection explored these topics in their widest sense in Irish women's history, but with a focus on reproduction and the ways in which this process shaped social conventions and women's interactions with the state. Thus previous collections have in one way or another continued to examine issues related to women's traditional roles and deviations from these in the modern period.