At the heart of the Ploughing Championships, the largest rural festival in Europe, is the stand of the Irish Countrywomen’s Association. And if the Ploughing has forced a rethink of the national relationship with rural life, maybe it’s time ICA forced a rethink of feminism.
My mother used to roll her eyes every time my granny mentioned ‘the countrywomen’s’. I took my lead from her and was prepared to smirk every time I heard about the ICA.
Looking back, I realise the ICA was suffering from what was, to my ignorant mind, a lethal combination: it was for women and it was rural.
Except it wasn’t really rural, either.
The ‘country’ in the title now refers to Ireland, rather than non-urban areas. Currently, the largest ICA guild is in Blanchardstown, in Dublin.
The ICA is the largest women’s organisation in the country, with 10,000 members in 500 guilds, including the Finn Valley ICA (which my granny supported all those years ago), from Stranorlar, Co Donegal.
Now, as then, its focus is practical. The ICA aims to “improve the standard” of life in Irish homes.
The association has always looked at Irish women’s lives as they are, not as anyone thought they should be, and focussed on the things that would make them better. Making women’s lives better was always going to transform the lives of their families, the life of their community, and Irish society.
In his 1995 book on the ICA, Mothers, Maidens and Myths, the historian, Diarmuid Ferriter, quotes former ICA president, Mamo McDonald, saying, in 1985:
Take rural electrification. There was a massive electrification imbalance in Ireland as late as the 1940s.
Nearly all urban homes in Ireland had electricity, but virtually no rural homes had, and the legacy of rural under-development and urban/rural division is probably still with us.
Ferriter compares these Irish statistics with those of Denmark and Holland, which had almost complete rural electrification by the same time.
By 1954, the ICA was focussed on getting electricity into the homes of Irish women.
They toured an ESB model cottage (by 1958, it had a microwave and a dishwasher) all over the country, demonstrating how electricity could transform the lives of Irish women.
Men are, arguably, more averse to change than women. Neither did they experience the worst of the daily grind that was keeping a family clean, fed, and watered without electricity.
They surely saw the value of this magical new energy source in their milking parlours, however, once their wives had convinced them to install it.
In 1960, only 12% of Irish homes had running water. The ICA lobbied hard to get taps into all Irish homes and the picturesque pump at the back of my granny’s Donegal home became redundant — though not, I’m afraid, the outside toilet.
The posters advertising the promotional tour said: “Who said love, honour and carry water?” and added, “Drudgery is out of date.” Irish feminists should channel their inner ICA and focus on
practical help for women, if we really want to improve their lot.
We should take to heart the statement of former ICA president, Alice Ryan, in 1939, that the organisation can “challenge the man’s saying, ‘a woman’s place is in the home’, with the alternative saying, ‘a woman’s place is where she can best help her home’.”
It’s clearly no-one’s business to tell a woman where she should or should not be, but I think Ryan’s dictum should be instructive to today’s feminists for this reason: she places women at the heart of their communities, rather than seeing them as individuals.
‘Second wave’ feminism, from the time of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (1962), tended to pit the individual woman against her home and her community.
Think of Germaine Greer’s comment in The Female Eunuch: “Mother is the dead heart of the home….”
There were surely many historical factors behind this change — which brought many important benefits to women — but among them was the rise of individualism in the consumerist society.
This surely reached its apogee in the 1980s, with the result that in Ireland, our feminism became increasingly focussed on the turbo-charged woman worker succeeding despite her family commitments, not because of them.
This was very confusing to some schoolgirls of the time, me among them. The truth is that personal fulfillment is to be found by nearly everyone through relationships with others.
Most women’s fundamental relationships are with their partners and children. Most mothers
consider the work of parenting the most important they do.
Tragically, its focus on the individual woman meant that mainstream Irish feminism from the 1970s on tended to devalue women’s work that was concerned with family and home, and glorify women’s work outside the home.
The fiction was born that there were two types of Irish woman: the liberal, often urban ‘working woman’, and the conservative, often rural ‘woman in the home’.
As a Dublin girl, I felt free to titter at my Donegal granny for her obsession with the countrywomen’s.
All of these divisions must be exploded, if Irish women are to advance themselves and their communities as much as possible.
I think the debate on the reform or deletion of the “woman in the home” clause in the Constitution — called for by the National Women’s Council — may be the first explosion.
As Irish women and feminists, we should question our often exclusive focus on how well women compete with men and how they can be harmed by them.
I think we should be inspired by the ICA and focus on women’s lives as engines of progress within their communities.
We should be focussing on internet access across the country to stop the impoverishment of rural families, for instance.
We should be advocating strongly for the women, many of them mothers, who make up over 40% of our homeless population, a far higher percentage than in other EU countries.
They can neither choose to work inside nor choose to work outside the home, because they don’t have one. Two-thirds of homeless families are headed by lone mothers.
I began to reassess my feelings about the ICA when an older friend came to rely on their counselling helpline to cope with her feelings when her daughter came out as gay.
I realised that women are not to be divided into neat groups, under headings like ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative’ or ‘working’ or ‘not working’.
Nor should they be divided from the communities, rural or urban, which they serve.
Our feminism became focussed on a turbo-charged woman worker succeeding despite her family
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