The Limitations of ‘Maternal’ Activism in Troubles Narratives

By Miren Mohrenweiser

“Maternal activism” and “wee women’s work” are phrases typically applied to women’s activity during the Northern Ireland ‘Troubles’ regardless of political or religious affiliation.[1] What’s notable about these terms is that their implied opposites—i.e. “paternal activism” and “big men’s work”—are never referred to in this gendered sense. Men’s political activity doesn’t require extra descriptors; it’s assumed to be the norm. While men are able to separate their political activity from their family status, many women choose not to or rather are not granted this liberty. Both are significant when discussing women’s relationship with the ‘Troubles’ and dominant historical narratives.

‘Mothering’ itself is frequently viewed as a passive verb, often with a negative connotation. While the role of women, and mothers more specifically, during the ‘Troubles’ challenges this assumption, women’s activity at this time, in all its various forms, is relatively invisible. You can’t discuss the position of women and of mothers during the conflict without talking about men, but you can discuss the conflict without mentioning women, as many have. This does not imply that male-dominated histories are entirely historically accurate, but scholarly accounts of the ‘Troubles’ and, in turn, popular narratives will continue to be imbalanced as long as women are simply ‘assumed to be included.’

Though the term ‘maternal activism’ has necessarily focused attention on the position of mothers in periods of conflict, it risks implying that the only reason women became politically active was simply because they were mothers. By reframing this argument, we can better see how motherhood and a woman’s status as mother gave women the opportunity to become politically active in a way that wasn’t available to them previously. We can then reframe mothers not as passive subjects to which things happen but as active agents.

Where were mothers present during the ‘Troubles’? I’ve grouped maternal activism into four broad categories: mothers advocating for peace; mothers advocating for their children and their families; mothers engaging with indirect forms of resistance and non-conformity; mothers building support networks. These categories are not fixed; one is not more important than another and individual mothers could move fluidly between these categories. Instead, they broadly represent the different ways mothers reacted to and navigated their changing circumstances during a period of conflict.

Mothers advocating for peace and for their children and families represent two formal categories of maternal activism. The Women for Peace campaign—later known as the Peace People—was the most notable example of the former and the Relatives Action Committee (RAC) of the latter. Mothers took the leading role in both organizations when they were founded in the 1970s, as was the case for similar groups. While women laid the groundwork, many of these organizations were later co-opted by men and drawn into more formal political processes after early successes. This has led to the crucial roles of women within these organizations not being acknowledged adequately in ‘Troubles’ histories.

The last two categories, mothers engaging with indirect forms of resistance and non-conformity and mothers building support networks, are not as well documented as the others—if we can describe any of these examples as being well-documented—and often occurred in more informal ways. Sharon Pickering discusses the home as a site of resistance, specifically during raids by the security forces.[2] Home raids and women’s interactions with security forces were a specific kind of gendered violence in Northern Ireland, and mothers in particular had to learn to navigate these interactions. Female support networks became one method of resistance as they prevented women from becoming isolated during conflict. Both childcare and emotional support prior to the ‘Troubles’ largely came from immediate and extended family, but changes to living and family situations throughout the conflict forced women to find support elsewhere. These networks helped ease the day-to-day pressures women faced and allowed some women the freedom to participate in more formal women’s work and maternal activism, like the organizations mentioned previously.

This leads us to our next question: what challenges arise when discussing motherhood in relation to the ‘Troubles’ and periods of conflict? The impact of violence and conflict on mothers and on women more generally is not recorded in the same way as (male) violence. Statistics often do not focus on indirect forms of violence and psychological trauma which leads to this information being absent from archival material. This, unfortunately, aligns with how women are perceived and depicted in conflict zones; women are only ‘assumed to be included’ in many dominant narratives, and, consequently, the gendered impact of violence and conflict on women is ignored. Women’s historians rely more heavily on oral history methods to explore these informal networks of resistance, which comes with its own risks and challenges, i.e. building trust between interviewer and interviewee; the risk of retraumatizing participants; navigating the subjectivity of oral history; the (un)reliability of memory.

Theoretical challenges also arise. A focus on motherhood is not meant to exclude women who are not mothers or who have an uneasy relationship with motherhood, such as women without children or women who have lost children. Instead, it opens up a discussion on how women’s worth in Irish society has been culturally established. Gayle Letherby discusses how childless women are infantilized; a ‘girl’ does not become a ‘woman’ until she becomes a mother.[3] The little social mobility women had within conflict-era Northern Ireland could often only be accessed through motherhood. Though motherhood imposed its own limits on mobility and agency, mothers were able to access public space in a way they couldn’t while still seen as a ‘girl.’

One could also argue that a focus on motherhood perpetuates the gendered narratives of the ‘Troubles’. Traditional gender roles influence how conflict is both perceived and recorded; men are associated with war and violence whereas women are associated with peace and peacemaking. This makes conflict narratives inherently gendered, even if they appear to be ‘gender blind.’[4] Maternal activism and ‘wee women’s work,’ though imperfect terms to discuss the importance of women during the ‘Troubles,’ are an intentional way of addressing this imbalance.

Why is the discussion of motherhood during conflict still important in a post-conflict Northern Ireland? It’s crucial that mothers are not simply seen as victims, not simply seen as mourners. Maternal mourning, much like other forms of maternal activism and women’s activity, was frequently co-opted during conflict. Mourning and loss was made public and political for use as propaganda, which often compromised women within their communities. Motherhood was—and still is—both public and private, but women often lost control of their motherhood when it became public. Maternal activism then became, perhaps unintentionally, a way to challenge who had control over female narratives.

Though women are stereotypically aligned with peace, this only remains true in an informal sense. The Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition (NIWC) forced its way into the political settlement process in the 1990s which pressured other parties to consider women in the negotiations, but women were otherwise largely excluded from the proceedings. Similarly, issues that exclusively concerned women and mothers were often neglected as political concerns during the ‘Troubles.’ Therefore, the ‘success’ of women’s work cannot be measured in the same way as formal men’s work. We can talk about whether or not it is productive to measure the ‘success’ of peace processes and activism until the cows come home, but my aim is not to deem maternal activism more or less effective than other forms of activism during this period. We cannot adequately address the legacy of the ‘Troubles’ without addressing its unique impact on women and mothers, which in turn allows us to better understand and confront the gendered impacts of violence and conflict in Northern Ireland and other divided societies.

[1] For work on maternal activism, see Marie Hammond Callaghan, “Bombings, Burnings and Borders: Remembering Women’s Peace Groups under Internment,” The Canadian Journal of Irish Studies 32, no. 1 (Spring 2006): 32-45; Helen Callaway and Rosemary Ridd, Caught Up in Conflict: Women’s Responses to Political Strife (Women in Society) (Palgrave Macmillan, 1986). For more on wee women’s work, see Amanda E. Donahoe, Peacebuilding through Women’s Community Development: Wee Women’s Work in Northern Ireland (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017).

[2] See Sharon Pickering, “Engendering Resistance: Women and Policing in Northern Ireland,” Policing and Society 11 (2001): 337-358; Sharon Pickering, “Women, the Home and Resistance in Northern Ireland,” Women and Criminal Justice 11, no. 3 (2000): 49-82.

[3] Gayle Letherby, “Mother or Not, Mother or What? Problems of Definition and Identity,” Women’s Studies International Forum 17, no. 5 (1994): 525-532.

[4] See Fiona C. Clark and Caroline O.N. Moser, eds., Victims, Perpetrators or Actors?: Gender, Armed Conflict and Political Violence (London: Zed Books, 2001).

Miren Mohrenweiser is a Fulbright grantee, currently pursuing a History PhD with the School of History, Anthropology, Philosophy and Politics at Queen’s University Belfast. Her thesis focuses on women’s involvement in prison protest in Northern Ireland from 1975-1981. Her broader interests include public memory, prison politics, dressmaking, and talking to plants. You can follow her on Twitter @MMohrenweiser.

(Image: Wikimedia Commons)

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