Feminism Backwards, by Rosita Sweetman, Mercier Press, 288 pp, €13.99, ISBN: 978-1781177495
Rosita Sweetman came of age in Ireland at a time when women were restricted in every area of their lives: fertility, education, within marriage, outside marriage, in the workplace. Half a century of independence had effectively neutralised half the population.
In 1970, a small number of exceptional women, Sweetman among them, saw the injustice and decided to do something about it by founding the Irish Women’s Liberation Movement (IWLM). The story of this short-lived activist group that achieved so much is the fulcrum around which Sweetman’s book, Feminism Backwards, turns.
Part memoir, part history of the Irish women’s movement and beyond, this highly readable book covers a lot of ground. Sweetman has a lifetime of opinions and experience to impart, almost breathlessly cramming in important historical figures and events, from Mary Wollstonecraft to Kate Millet, from the Famine to the Eighth Amendment, as well as paying tribute to a host of Irish second-wave feminists.
There are many gems in her recollections and research, like this quote from Rosamond Jacob on how the Irish loved being told what to do: “The principle of authority had ten times more weight than the principle of liberty.”
Feminism Backwards is not only instructive; Sweetman’s voice is infused with fun and fury, lust for life and a healthy dose of recklessness. The storytelling is compelling and evocative when she speaks about her personal life.
Born in 1946, Sweetman was the middle child of nine. Her parents came from prosperous, well-established Catholic families. The family fortunes declined in her parents’ day as her father struggled with ill health, the consequence of lung surgery he’d undergone to treat TB as a young man. But there was a golden time in Sweetman’s childhood when the family lived in a big house by the sea in Dublin with ponies and parties – “our own little empire”. Those carefree years came to a heart-breaking end with the death of Cathy, a younger sister with a heart condition, when Sweetman was ten. This bereavement coincided with exile to boarding school, compounding the shock.
After a spell in London, where she gained basic but valuable work experience at the BBC, she returned to Dublin and got a job as a research assistant in 1967 in RTÉ, working on the current affairs programme Seven Days. From there she progressed to newspaper journalism. This is the period when she first connected with the circle of professional women and activists who were about to rock the system. It seems that the author was at first an accidental feminist, joining forces with other women like Máirín de Burca, Margaret Gaj, Mary Maher, Dr Moira Woods and Máirín Johnston, women who had a vision. Sweetman gives them the credit but she threw herself into the cause.
The enemies identified by the IWLM were gombeenism and the Catholic church. While the church “would rather die than let women into positions of power”, the gombeen men’s objective was to keep power and respectability to themselves. The group met in a tiny upstairs room in Gaj’s restaurant on Monday nights. By the second meeting Nell McCafferty, Mary Anderson, Marie McMahon and Sweetman were on board, soon followed by Mary Kenny, June Levine, Nuala Fennell, Mary Sheerin and more.
We barely lasted nine months, but through direct action, political activism, marching, talking, shouting, more marching, as well as through journalism, sheer brass necks, determination and chutzpah, we blasted away centuries of smug patriarchy, challenged the old order, and, crucially, made a space in which fledgling organisations for women could emerge.
This may be a little grandiose, but the IWLM played a hugely important role in parallel with other players, including the first Commission for the Status of Women established in 1970 after intense lobbying by an ad hoc committee of Irish women’s groups (responding to a United Nations directive).
The two most urgent tasks identified by the IWLM were to campaign for the legalisation of contraception and to put together a booklet outlining the dire state of women’s rights in Ireland at the time. Their manifesto, Chains or Change, was a damning indictment of Irish society. It pointed out, for example, that “[u]pon marriage a woman in Ireland enters into a state of civil death”. Chains or Change called for equal rights, equal pay and equal educational opportunities, justice for single mothers, the right to contraception and housing. Other issues, such as rape, domestic violence, sexual abuse, lesbian rights or abortion were too incendiary to mention.
Sweetman is open and regretful about the group’s lack of comprehension regarding “unmarried mothers”, and how they bought into the stigma, writing: “We need a central organisation which will help and rehabilitate the unmarried mother.”
After the famous “Contraceptive Train” to Belfast in May 1971, the group fell apart.
As Máirín Johnston said to me during the summer of 2019, ‘We weren’t a political party. We had different views on everything. So different women left to do what they were interested in. But we’d given all women the voice to protest.’
Sweetman is an impassioned critic of sexism in all its forms today. For her, second-wave feminism was about interrogating capitalism and its baked-in inequality, very much unfinished business. As a feminist, she looks at the world and thinks, “does it have to be like this? Is it always going to be like this? Or is the whole thing a massive patriarchal disaster?”
Yet she is honest about how her feminism waxed and waned throughout her life. At times she felt she had lost her credentials. Men, marriage and motherhood made her less available, less conscious and less connected with her “sisters”.
Feminism Backwards has made a feminist of me, my feminist antennae removed, repolished and replaced. No longer a feminist in name and distant history, I feel I’m a feminist again in blazing reality.
Clare O’Dea lives in Switzerland and is the author of Voting Day (Fairlight Books, 2022) and The Naked Irish: Portrait of a Nation Beyond the Clichés (Red Stag Books, 2019)