Academic journal article Estudios Irlandeses - Journal of Irish Studies

A Feminism of Their Own? Irish Women's History and Contemporary Irish Women's Writing

Academic journal article Estudios Irlandeses - Journal of Irish Studies

A Feminism of Their Own? Irish Women's History and Contemporary Irish Women's Writing

Article excerpt

It is possible to recognise the "foundations of Irish culture--state control of women's reproduction, and the nationalist and religious mythologies, Virgin Mary and Mother Ireland--that have framed and, therefore, limited Irish women" (Moloney 2003: 198). This emphasis on both the Virgin Mary and Mother Ireland has resulted in women occupying a unique position in Irish society; women have been recognised, not as subjects with their own identity, but have instead "been reduced to symbols of the nation" (Meaney 1991: 203). Because of this objectified status of Irish women, their "contribution to Ireland's cultural and literary heritage has not often been acknowledged or, indeed, recognised" (Hill 2003: 214).

Moreover, as Ireland moved towards the twentieth century, a series of laws were imposed by both the state and the Catholic Church which served to confine Irish women to the private domain, such as the marriage bar which required women to resign from work upon marriage, and women's issues were largely silenced and hidden from public knowledge. Domestic violence, for instance, was considered an issue to be discussed privately, and the silencing of female sexuality, which was often equated with "sin", meant that single mothers and other women who were seen to flaunt their sexuality were ostracised for their supposedly "deviant" behaviour. Both Church and state maintained that women should hold a certain morality, particularly relating to areas of sexuality and reproduction. This paper will examine two primary areas in which Irish women's lives have traditionally been repressed: women's sexuality and domestic violence. Additionally, it will discuss how these same issues are being represented in Irish chick lit novels, which are providing a truthful and positive voice for these largely female issues.

Sexual Experience

Despite the fact that "ancient Irish laws were remarkably liberal in their attitude to women" to the extent that a "woman could divorce a sterile, impotent, or homosexual husband, could marry a priest, and could give honourable birth to a child outside of wedlock" (Kiberd 1995: 215), this liberal climate was to change after colonisation. Later on, the increasingly conservative and sex-repressing mores in society arising from the pressures of a subsistence agrarian economy in post-Famine Ireland meant that women's sexual desire had to be denied or ignored; for any woman to admit to sexual needs, or to suggest that sex was a desirable aspect of a woman's life, presented "a significant challenge to traditional morality" (Joannou 2000: 58). Not only was the topic of sex left for men to discuss, but sex scenes in novels, even those by and about women, were described from a solely male viewpoint. Mary Lavelle (1936), a novel by Irish writer Kate O'Brien, received criticism for this very occurrence:

The passage describing Mary and Juanito's lovemaking is not focalised through Mary, which is what a reading of the book as a rehearsal of feminine self-liberation might lead one to expect, but is narrated from Juanito's perspective; and the description dwells in an undeniably sado-masochistic way on images of Mary's specifically feminine vulnerability and pain as themselves erotic and constitutive of Juanito's pleasure (Coughlan 1993: 69).

Therefore, sexuality was traditionally "based on male experience, desires and definitions" (Corcoran 1989: 6). Similarly, female sexuality was "masked and deformed ... Her sexuality is both denied and misrepresented by being identified as passivity" (Greer 2006: 17). This notion of 'passivity' has long been linked to the prototype of the ideal woman, and, from it, evolved the double standard which said that sex "was edifying for a man, immoral for a woman" (Levy 2005: 59). Traditionally, women could only be categorized in two distinct ways--as angels or as monsters. The so-called "angelic" women were those who abided by this idea of passivity, and, without question, allowed themselves to be treated as objects by men. …

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