No Country For Women is a new RTÉ One series looking at Irish women’s experience of colliding with 100 years of discriminatory laws. In the centenary of women’s suffrage, documentary maker Anne Roper remembers some early inspiration…

Watch No Country For Women here via RTÉ Player.

Thirty years ago I wrote a book called Woman to Woman, a health care guide for Irish women. Much of it was about sex, so somewhat shocking at the time. I’d arrived in Ireland from America almost a decade before. I was surprised contraception was then illegal and that sex information was largely censored. I threw myself into working with the early Rape Crisis and Well Woman Centres. I saw first-hand how a lack of sex education and fertility control was affecting young Irish women. Putting that experience to paper in simple question and answer form seemed a sensible thing to do. The book included a country-wide list of chemists who were selling condoms amid certain legal restrictions. When it was published in 1986, we feared it might be censored too.

Why in the early years of the new State were laws created to block women from promotion, work, jury service, sexual health information, divorce? Why were they denied full citizenship in areas like social welfare, housing, inheritance and pensions? And just who did those restrictions benefit?

Ireland’s first family planning clinic opened in 1969, sidestepping restrictive legislation by providing contraception in exchange for donation. Condoms had been available in Ireland prior to the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1935 which prohibited their sale and importation. But it would take another 60 years for contraception to become available for all.

Hanna-Sheehy-Skeffington-and-Suffragettes
Hanna Sheehy Skeffington and suffragettes

The first woman to challenge birth control law was Mary McGee. In the 1970’s she had suffered from life-threatening strokes while pregnant. A coil was fitted, but it required spermicide which was also illegal in Ireland. Mary ordered the items from the UK but Oifig an Phoist wouldn’t deliver. Mary won her legal case but many more years would pass before she could access the contraception she needed. Throughout that time her life was literally not in her own hands.

The history of Ireland’s treatment of women, their sexuality, bodies, fertility and autonomy is complex and too often taken out of women’s control. In the last weeks Ireland has voted to facilitate legislation on abortion, a scandal broke over cervical smear testing, historical adoption irregularities were confirmed and the State finally apologized to women confined for years in Magdalene Laundries--where they worked long hours for no pay.

What has been the societal legacy of so many injustices? I’ve just made an RTE TV documentary strand that tries to find out. No Country For Women looks at one hundred years of Irish women’s experience since they won the vote in 1918. It examines why the promises of equal citizenship enshrined in The Proclamation, women’s suffrage and 1922 Constitution were largely cast aside for economic and political expediency. How, from the founding of the Free State in 1922, successive governments and the Catholic Church legislated from a ring-side seat in ordinary Irish citizen’s bedrooms.

Catherine-Corless
Catherine Corless

The series follows six Irish women today as they investigate how the lives of their mothers, grandmothers and their own collided with discriminatory laws: Rebecca Roche learns about her the battle her step-mother, Eileen Flynn, took on after being fired for living with Rebecca’s dad and becoming pregnant; Micheline Sheehy Skeffington, follows a trail of workplace discrimination including when her grandmother, the suffragette Hannah, lost employment after fighting for the vote; Samantha Long, investigates women’s incarceration in psychiatric hospitals—the fate of her own grandmother. Catherine Corless reveals a previously un-broadcast recording by Julia Devaney, a woman who spent most of her life confined as an unpaid domestic in Tuam’s Mother and Baby Home. Phil Walsh had a senior position with Dublin County Libraries until she was forced to leave because of the marriage bar. Today she still receives a lower state pension. Mary Merritt and Margaret Bullen were sent as young women to Magdalene Laundries. It was a continuation of their industrial school detention, a decision they had no choice in and one from which Margaret never escaped.

No Country For Women looks at one hundred years of Irish women’s experience since they won the vote in 1918. It examines why the promises of equal citizenship enshrined in The Proclamation, women’s suffrage and 1922 Constitution were largely cast aside for economic and political expediency.

Women Trailblazers also feature in the series: former President, Mary Robinson, Trade Union Activist, Mags O’Brien, Women’s AID director, Margaret Martin. Mary McGee is there too, now in her 70’s. She’s proud she had the courage and family support to fight through the courts against what she saw as an injustice against women in particular. She’s satisfied that in the area of contraception access, she ‘got the ball rolling’.

But why in the early years of the new State were laws created to block women from promotion, work, jury service, sexual health information, divorce. Why were they denied full citizenship in areas like social welfare, housing, inheritance and pensions? And just who did those restrictions benefit? These are the questions raised in No Country For Women.

Rebecca-Roche
Rebecca Roche

The last few decades may have brought significant change to Ireland, but the documentaries also ask: are they enough? It’s true a young woman won’t be placed in a mother and baby home against her will today, but is trying to raise three young children in a hotel room or direct provision or on the side of the road any better? Women still form only 22% of Dail members. Women in Ireland are paid 14% less than men. Only 16% figure on company boards. No woman has held the top position in an Irish university and only 21% are professors. Women take work breaks to have children which can affect promotion and pension prospects. 22% of Irish women experience levels of domestic and sexual violence. Rape statistics increased last year by almost 30%. Sentencing in rape cases varies widely and almost half of perpetrators get their terms reduced on appeal. #METOO has exposed sexual harassment accusations against the powerful.

Too often history is told by those in power. The lives outside that circle are too often censored. Mary Robinson remembers: ‘In my inaugural speech as President, I said I want women who have been outside history to be written back in, to have a voice’. Hopefully, No Country For Women becomes part of that continuing process…

No Country For Women, RTÉ One, 9.35pm on June 19 & 20th.