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5 March 1998 Edition

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New in print

Women and Ireland




Women and Irish Society
A Sociological Reader

Edited by Anne Byrne and Madeleine Leonard
Published by Beyond the Pale Publications
Price £16.99


This book is a fascinating journey through many aspects of women's lives in Ireland.

The 33 essays grouped under headings such as Women and Education, Work, The Welfare System, Violence, Power and Politics, and Hidden Lives bring together a vast wealth of knowledge and experience.

The book's introduction clearly states where it's coming from: ``Feminist social science research is research for the emancipation of women rather than merely research on women. The research within this volume is inspired by the women's movement and constructed from feminist perpectives. In exposing social, economic and political inequalities, it promotes the liberation and emancipation of women.''

What comes through in every essay is the basic tenet that what women define as political, the state will invarably ignore by saying that they are private and moral issues, whilst at the same time legislating to ensure that policies do affect women in the way in which a male dominated state wants them to.

In their essay Breda Grey and Louise Ryan explore woman as a symbol of a nation, the manner in which this has been done in Ireland and how it has had a negative impact on real women and their lives.

Gray and Ryan highlight how Cathleen Ni Houlihan represented a sexualised image of Irish womanhood while the Sean Bhan Bhocht was a ``more sanitised, de-sexualised representation of Irish women''. In the 1920s with the establishment of the Free State the government went out of its way to ensure that the image of the new state and the purity of Irishness was represented by the symbol of the purity of the Irish woman. In one fell swoop the church, state and media colluded to render real women invisible and irrelevant and created a system of discrimination which survives to this day.

Gray and Ryan also point out that in addition to the virgin/whore image there was a third symbol; the ``furies'' who challenged the status quo and were seen as a threat to the state. These furies were the women of the republician movement and the authors include a hilarous quote from a Rev Dr Dooley when he gave a confirmation sermon in 1925: ``If I had a little girl friend who took up politics I would give up praying for her. Women who go around taking despatches and arms from one place to another are furies. Who would respect them, or who would marry them? Never join a Cumann Na mBan or a Cumann na Saoirse or anything else. Do your work as your grandmother did before you''.

The essay ends on a rather depressing note. It shows how these same images of women as either a victim or a threat to the ``nation'' still permeate all walks of life today.

The group of essays covering women in education, employment and the welfare state show how despite changes in legislation women are still discriminated against in the education system, employment and in gaining access to the benefits to which they should be entitled. While the new trend now is to welcome work in `back offices' and home working for women, Wendy Richards in her essay ``Behind Closed Doors: Homeworkers in Ireland'' explores how this situation works in favour of employers and against women employees. Women in this sector are marginalised, low paid and an invisible work force who are often deprived of the normal entitlements for employees.

By Una Gillespie


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