DUBLIN — “Sex class is so deep as to be invisible,” writes Shulamith Firestone in The Dialectic of Sex, first published in 1970. In the days leading up to today’s referendum on the status of the Eighth Amendment to the Irish constitution — introduced in 1983 to ensure that no future judicial ruling could make abortion legal — I spoke with Irish artists Anne Maree Barry and Cecily Brennan about making our relationship to sex and all its consequences visible. Art, they have shown, has the power to penetrate the meme-ification of current political discourse which oversimplifies the debate until it becomes counterproductive.
Layers of state and clerical history have kept women in Ireland in second-class status. Legislation has controlled women’s public production (for example, between 1932 and 1973, women were not allowed to work in the public sector once married), as well as reproduction and private life: contraception was illegal until 1979; marital rape was legal until 1990; and divorce was illegal until 1996 — which, for context, is the same year that the last of the notorious Magdalen Laundries closed.
The Repeal debate only appears to be strictly about the rights of women versus the rights of the unborn; deeper, historic, social complexities of female sexuality are all but lost in competing images that attempt to humanize women or endow the unborn with language. These are the limits of populist discourse. Art can go further.
The Artists’ Campaign to Repeal the Eighth Amendment, set up in 2015 by the artists Cecily Brennan, Alice Maher, Eithne Jordan, and the poet Paula Meehan, started over “a drink among friends,” says Brennan. First an online petition, garnering over 3,000 signatures, it became a movement with its own material culture; this year they were invited to participate as an art collective in EVA International, Ireland’s Biennial. On the 13th of April, artists from the group took their action “Repeal!” marching through the streets of Limerick bearing banners created by Alice Maher, Sarah Cullen and Rachel Fallon, Áine Phillips, and Breda Maycock, bearing depictions of Ann Lovett, or the church and state playing tug-o-war with a woman’s body. One of the most striking things about the imagery is how vibrant it is, tapping into the cultural penchant for mythology and storytelling, but with women’s experiences at the center. The artists reimagined Medieval-era confraternity marches that took place well into during the 1920s and ’30s in Limerick, sometimes ‘allowing’ a group of “penitent women” to process with them. One of the sites along their march, now the Limerick School of Art and Design, was formerly a Magdalen Laundry.
The banners, which have not been used in the wider political campaigns for Yes, have been exhibited in gallery spaces and in bigger public marches, such as the March for Choice in September 2017, which drew tens of thousands of participants.
“It’s become a successful movement,” says Brennan, “because our vision was clear and didn’t waver: our campaign is not pro-choice, it is pro-Repeal.” Brennan and Maher also claim that the power of the imagery has to do with with beauty, refusing to play into the dirty politics of shock value. “People consistently commented when we were marching, that we had created something beautiful out of a really toxic situation,” said Brennan. Her artistic practice, which has included interviewing victims of trauma, gave her the tools to tell women’s stories in “Witness,” recorded at “A Day of Testimonies,” organized by the Artists’ Campaign at Project Arts Centre last August. “It was important to use actors to tell the women’s stories, so as not to retraumatize them by forcing them into the public.”
Brennan noted that the movements to Repeal have only intensified, and commented, “You can’t overlook the power of the #MeToo movement.”
Anne Maree Barry says she decided to canvas for the Yes campaign after attending seminars organized by Trinity Academics for Repeal, which clarified, among many things, important facts around fetal development, such as brain development and capacity for pain. As she made her way through the city center afterwards, “this No van passed, blaring Bon Jovi’s ‘Living on a Prayer,’ with really graphic images of well-developed fetuses, and I just thought, enough is enough. If I was that emotionally affected by this van, right after the seminar, how are other people affected who don’t have the information?”
Her most recent film project Leisure with Dignity animates the lives of three women, Kitty D. (who draws allusion to James Joyce’s Ulysses), Madam May Oblong, and Lady Aldborough, whom Ireland would rather forget: the prostitutes and madams and aristocracy of the Monto (from Montgomery St, since renamed Foley Street), once thought to be Europe’s largest red-light district, catering to British soldiers and dignitaries, as well as imminent Irish Republicans alike. In the early 1920s the politically powerful Catholic Church backed Irish independence, dismantling the Monto during the infancy of the Irish Republic in the early 1920s — and with it, dismantling the only economy in which women had had any power.
In addition to actions as part of international art festivals, artists and writers have staged pop-up readings, dramatized testimonies (such as Not at Home, a “durational art campaign which aims to make visible the experience of Irish women who have travelled abroad to access safe abortion services”), and, like Barry, they have canvassed in whatever constituencies were likely to have the most No or undecided voters.
The 8th Amendment has had dire consequences for women’s physical, psycho-emotional and social health. For example: a woman with cancer may see treatment stopped if she becomes pregnant; legislation introduced in 1992 and 2013, following the X Case and the death of Savita Halappanavar, has allowed women to travel outside Ireland to seek abortions, and has made exceptions of cases of existential threat to the woman, or of rape, or fatal fetal abnormality — the ‘hard cases’ cited in the media. But cost, shame, and trauma are incurred by an estimated 3,000 women who leave Ireland yearly to end a pregnancy. These conditions are predictably exacerbated by class (not every woman can afford to travel), by resident status (not every woman has the legal right to travel), and by lack of adequate education about sexual and reproductive health (the majority of schools in Ireland are still controlled by the Catholic church). Put another way, the 8th Amendment restricts a woman’s ability to claim full human status in Ireland. There are strong arguments that the 8th Amendment is not a women’s, but a human rights issue, that “it shouldn’t have required a referendum in the first place…” said Barry. “But many people here wouldn’t be prepared to make that case.”
Whatever the result of the referendum — and Brennan, at least, is hopeful — the last 35 years for women in Ireland have born some resemblance to Firestone’s vision of “[the] first women … fleeing the massacre, and, shaking and tottering, … beginning to find each other. Their first move is a careful joint observation, to resensitize a fractured consciousness.” Let us hope that with the help of art we can finally cross the threshold.