Networks of Women's Groups in the Republic of Ireland
ÓRLA O'DONOVAN AND EILÎS WARD
Considerable significance has been attached to the growth in locally based women's groups that has taken place in the island of Ireland recently; it has been interpreted as both signalling a new vibrancy in the women's movement and as a means of increasing women's involvement in formal politics. Although such assumptions are frequently made, little research has focused on how the groups themselves are perceived by their members or on what their broader political function may be. Furthermore, commentaries on locally based women's groups have tended to ignore their highly differentiated nature and, indeed, the differences that exist among the members of each group. Much commentary assumes an untroubled relationship between activities by women and activities that can be said to be part of a women's movement.
This chapter focuses on the relationship between women's groups and the women's movement in Ireland. Its content is largely derived from empirical findings of research involving four Irish networks of women's groups.1 This exploration led to a consideration of the process of conscientisation and mobilisation, more specifically, to how an individual woman may come to view her situation in a politicised manner, that is, as one that requires collective action. Our concern in this chapter immediately raised two difficult questions: What is feminism? and What is a women's movement?
We argue that although many of the member groups involved in the four networks covered in this chapter are highly politicised and do collectivise women's concerns and issues, it cannot be said that they all, necessarily, form part of the women's movement. In making this case, we reject a "stageist" analysis that posits that joining a women's group provides the first step on a path of conscientisation towards feminism and