Begoña Aretxaga explores the problems and promise of feminist change in Northern Ireland with the start of the “Troubles” in the wake of the 1969 civil rights movement there. She explores the relations of power and politics through the entwinements of gender, class, republican nationalism, and colonialism. The place of working-class women in the Irish republican struggle has been both silenced and misrecognized, not only in terms of their actual participation, but also in terms of how their experience structured the politics of the struggle both directly and indirectly. The political subjectivity of these working-class nationalist women was both incited/constituted, experienced, and changed through the—nevertheless, male-dominated—struggle they helped define. More than this, the book also explores “the effects that such subjectivity can produce on a political culture and on a gendered universe” (9).
The first chapter lays out the gendered social geography of Northern Ireland’s political violence. Aretxaga begins to layout the ambiguous position of women in the social landscape of war as both “non-threatening” homemakers and nurturers, while these positions and the many others they occupy also being potentially deep reservoirs of resistant political practices.
The concealment of resistance that the bodies of the women, with their occult weaponry [smuggled in their coats], materialize is made possible ironically by the open disclosure of their presence…. There is correspondence between community space and the bodies of women. This familiar local space, like the women’s bodies passing through it, is opaque to the soldiers; and like the women’s bodies, the space conceals resistance. (39)
Such spaces, however, are also produced through the particular forms of violence and social transgressions that the counterinsurgency aims particularly at women—namely, strip searches and home searches. Both are interpreted as violations of personal integrity and stand in as the epitome of English violence against the Irish nation (52). Indeed, Chapter Two traces how political violence as a “thoroughly gendered structure of power that reaches into the domains of intimate feelings and familiar spaces,” eliciting dense structures of feelings against state violence.
From the economic “blockades,” preventing women from buying even milk, to curfews and internment policies (i.e. mass arrests, particularly of youth), women mobilized in subtle and overt ways against the state violence. Sometimes their supposed “weakness” was tactically deployed as a way of shaming the state’s use of violence against them (58). In other cases, motherhood was mobilized as an unimpeachable ethic, providing some badly needed political breathing room for opposition. All these factors, as well as the increasing arrest of their male partners, drove them toward militant involvement. (Waiting is noted as a particularly gut-wrenching and painful experience (115).) In the process, this exposed women to greater economic hardship, further radicalizing them and creating solidarities among them, along with animosities against their husbands. Women were increasingly arrested, too.
Militant women increasingly sought political equivalence within the republican organizations, which they achieved to some degree. Imprisoned women organized within the jails along IRA lines.
But their subordinated role was exposed when the male leadership failed to consult them on a cease-fire agreement with the government. “If jail for the interned men was a school of militant nationalism, then for women internees it entailed a reflection on the politics of gender. They were militants and as such had—like men—risked their lives, been arrested, and were organized in the same military structure; but, when it came to decision making, their organization slipped into a hierarchical system of gender differences within which they were not peers but, simply, women. (76)
But Aretxaga does not aim to show how the experience of being a woman was combined with other subjectivities; her point rather is that “gender hierarchy us never a transparent system; it is always engendered as already marked by particular positions in a social universe”—and vice-versa, I would add (78). “The fact of being Catholic and working class in Northern Ireland are not elements that can be added to an essential woman; rather they fundamentally constitute what woman is, making the task of defining gender power relations immensely complex” (78).
The “motivating” factors of women’s political activity is complex and Aretxaga explains it within Raymond Williams’ notion of structures of feeling. Although linked with ideologies in complex ways, structures of feelings are more impulsive, built around affective relationships, and arise from the practical consciousness of living and interacting in a particular social formation (community, class, generation). “Not feeling” versus thought, but “thought as felt and feeling as thought” (Williams 1983: 132). In Belfast, “humiliation” and “dignity” become watchwords in this framework. Artexaga thus looks into “the embedment of emotion in social action” (105).
Aretxaga gives a detailed account of women’s struggles within prison, paralleling the men’s dirty and blanket protests documented by Allen Feldman. She notes how these protests in Armagh (the women’s prison) drew from the men’s, but also highlights their particular and autonomous dynamics. Most insightfully, she explores the symbolic and material importance of menstrual blood “as both a symbol of the protest and a signifier of a reality jettisoned from public discourse” (127). This menstrual suffering was beyond the bounds of recognized and accepted forms of suffering (the suffering mother, the naked Jesus-like male suffers) (141). Already amid this struggle, which their male comrades discouraged, women are willfully trying to redefine gender relations within republican politics.
Menstruation objectified a difference that women had carefully obliterated in other dimensions of their political life thus revealing the ambiguities of identity and shifting the meaning of the protest. That is, while their political identity as members of the IRA entailed a cultural desexualization and the dirty protest entailed a personal defeminization, at a deeper level the exposure of menstrual blood subverted this process by radically transforming the asexual bodies of girls into the sexualized bodies of women. (138-139)
Taking feminist struggles to the interior of republican organizations and in their relations with non-republican feminist groups was a whole other minefield. But Aretxaga ends the book on a hopeful note, highlighting a unionist feminist group standing up in solidarity against the sectarian discrimination by the city government against a republican feminist women’s center.
Respect for difference meant in this case a recognition that women in Northern Ireland are divided about the national status of Northern Ireland and occupy different positions in the social field by virtue of belonging to the nationalist or unionist communities. Yet… if this difference cannot be glossed over, neither can the common ground shared by working-class women be erased. (171)