I HAVE not always been a feminist. In fact, there was a time when I was very actively not a feminist and believed the whole concept was as dead as the Dodo. That was in 2008. Only three years ago. So what happened? I got into politics is what happened.
In my final year of college I was elected Equality Officer to the Union of Students in Ireland (USI) and moved to Dublin. Having come from an all-girl primary school, an all-girl secondary school and an all-girl college course, moving into a predominantly male environment was a culture shock.
Over the next year I realised things were happening to me that simply didn’t happen to the guys I worked with and it dawned on me that this was down to the fact that I was a woman.
Alongside this personal experience I was also, by virtue of my role, doing a lot of reading around inequality and slowly but surely began to gain some insight into the reality of our society. I can even recall the day I realised not only was I a feminist, but that I was ready to shout it from the rooftops.
It was February 2009 and I was invited to a seminar in Derry entitled Embracing Diversity hosted by Hanna’s House, a cross border feminist peace project. Rushing back to my seat after lunch, the afternoon speaker had already kicked off and so I had no idea who was actually talking. Whoever it was had an uncanny knack of telling a personal anecdote that turned into a political parable that was complemented by a great wit. I sat rapt in my chair listening to this woman speak so passionately of how the personal is political and the importance of having women-only spaces.
In ending her contribution she said: “I don’t know where you’re coming from but I’ve bad news for you, the fact that you’re sitting around this table I’ve a fair idea where you’re going. Welcome to the sisterhood.”
Clichéd and cheesy as it may sound, I knew sitting there clapping, that what I had heard that day had changed me and there was no going back. Feminism had found me. And the woman who spoke that day? Bernadette Devlin McAliskey.
McAliskey is now the subject of a documentary by Leila Doolan titled Bernadette: Notes on a Political Journey, which aired as part of the Corona Cork Film Festival and is currently on general release.
Up until recently, other than the event I just described, I knew very little about the woman. Back in 2009, her bio on the Embracing Diversity programme described only her involvement with a community group in Tyrone so I was completely ignorant of her earlier life story.
And from a quick straw poll of my friends who, like me grew up at the opposite end of the country to the Troubles, coming of age after the Good Friday Agreement had been signed, it would seem I’m not alone. So off I went to do a bit of research.
What’s interesting about McAliskey is that much of the information harks back to the late 1960s and early 1970s when she was clearly a force to be reckoned with. Seemingly overnight this Catholic working-class psychology student came out of nowhere to become a leading light in the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Movement. At the age of 21 she was elected an MP for Mid Ulster, which earned her the title of youngest female MP, a title which still holds true today.
On her 22nd birthday her maiden speech in Westminster, which she made without notes, garnered her praise even from Conservative colleagues. It is also said to have inspired Bill Clinton to get into politics. Add to this the fact that she was suspended after assaulting the Home Secretary Reginald Maudling in a disagreement over Bloody Sunday and you begin to see why McAliskey was given such monikers as ‘Joan of Arc’ and ‘Fidel Castro in a miniskirt’.
But having a baby out of wedlock in the early ‘70s led to a drop in support among her Catholic base and in 1974 she was not re-elected. Then, in 1981 three gunmen entered the McAliskey family home and shot her and her husband repeatedly. Both miraculously survived. A heroine to some and a harpy to others, there can be no denying with a CV like this, Bernadette McAliskey is an impressive woman.
This is the story the film documents. But what of McAliskey today? Recent information is scarce, referring for the most part to her daughter’s arrest for suspected involvement in the IRA in the mid-90s, and the USA refusing her entry in 2003. No wonder then that my generation knows little of McAliskey.
In an effort to educate myself, I decided to go back to the horse’s mouth and read McAliskey’s autobiography, The Price of My Soul.
What I like most about McAliskey from reading her own words is that is she is absolutely unapologetic about her own beliefs. Grounded in a practical socialism borne of her own reality, she knew what she wanted and went for it whether people agreed with her not — admitting herself that this attitude did not a good politician make. What is equally clear is that the beliefs that brought her to Westminster in 1969 still underpin her work today.
For McAliskey is not relaxing in retirement — far from it. She is still heavily involved in the South Tyrone Empowerment Project (STEP). Always a strong believer in people over formal political theories and systems, it comes as no surprise that McAliskey would return to the type of bottom up, community campaigning and organising that launched her career, working with people who are being excluded from society.
But in doing the same thing she has always done, not to mention her unwillingness to court the media, McAliskey has faded far back from the reality of my generation. In a world where glamour models are often listed as role models by young women, the woman I heard speak in 2009 is someone we should all know more about. So, grab a friend and go see McAliskey on the big screen — and most especially, read her book.
Linda Kelly is a co-organiser of Cork Feminista, a collective who meet monthly to discuss women’s equality and feminism issues.
For interviews and footage of Bernadette Devlin McAliskey, see the weblinks panel.