Aoife O’Donoghue is a lecturer at Durham Law School. This post was originally published at Human Rights in Ireland and is reproduced here with permission and thanks.
In the years preceding independence, the vision of Ireland as a women in need of protection became a standard of nationalism. Genderised Ireland has roots in Róisín Dubh and the Earl of Tyrone’s attempts to stay off the Tudor expansion in Ireland. Directly linking the Earl’s resistance to his daughter’s woes, standing in for a forsaken Ireland, the image of a women as Ireland needing male intervention to fully substantiate both her rights as a sovereign power but also to fully embrace her Irishness, as opposed to any foreign interpretations of femininity, became an entrenched trope of nationalism. This was replicated by Yeats and Gregory in the play Cathleen Ní Houlihan. In this play, Maud Gonne, as elderly mother Ireland, is only revived as young and, importantly, beautiful, upon the sacrifice of young men to regain her freedom to be distinctly Irish. Thus, Ireland becomes a women who, while personifying the very character of Irishness, also requires others, always men, to protect, vindicate and guard her from outside influences and interference. Cullingford has described the depiction of Ireland as a women as neither natural nor archetypal but so common as to be ‘rhetorically invisible.’ Further, she argues that Ireland as women has been so effective that it is entrenched in the idea of women in stereotypical roles invariably linked to nature that is to be possessed and cultivated to its utmost by men, becoming a settled trope of Irish culture. This has created a state structure and culture in Ireland where men occupy the political role of fighting and vindicating rights on Ireland’s, and as such, women’s behalf.
Such characterisations of states possessing both sex and gender are not restricted to Ireland. A recent speech by Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, warned against the evils of feminism. Arguing that the ‘Motherland’ or Russia, as a state, would be threatened should women step outside their traditional role in the home and take the active political and social roles advocated by feminism. Motherland Russia requires women to be in the private sphere to survive. Bharat Mata or Mother India was used as a symbol of both Indian and women’s emancipation during the struggle for Indian independence, though the latter was largely forgotten upon independence, other than among the elites. Male personifications are also common, from John Bull and Uncle Sam to Dangun in Korea. Yet, in the incidences of male personifications it is as an active player in the public sphere who commands and directs citizens, offering protection rather than requiring it.
Hanafin and Collins point to the 1937′s Constitution’s use of myths and maidens in their critique of the use of gender in the Constitution. Particularly, they discuss the role of women as mothers in the present constitution and link this to nationalist trends towards myth-making which preceded the Constitution and post-colonial structures. The role of mother as forging a basis for re-birth is particularly important in their analysis. Arguably, in the present debates on abortion legislation, see here, here, here and here, is has become ever more prominent in the perceived vindication and protection of Irish women within Ireland’s constitutional structure. The personification of Ireland as a women in need of protection, where the Irish male vindicates their rights, certainly appears to be fully operational in the language used in the political debates. The language employed has been heavily patriarchal as women are invariably discussed in a manner that suggests they are not capable of making informed medical decisions or indeed have cognisance of their own mental welfare, particularly regarding suicide. Rather, women are in need of the protection offered by the State, and as such, the Constitution as was originally intended in 1937. Their role as mothers, apparently an anathema to any decision to terminate a pregnancy, is inherent to our understandings of Ireland itself and Irishness.
Such rhetoric, though not quite as bare-faced as Patriarch Kirill, is not so far removed either. Irish women fulfil a role within the constitutional structure and, as such, the state, as is clearly evident in Article 42.2 and the support for women’s place in the home. While most agree this particular article is archaic there has been no rush to remove it either. Arguably, article 42.2 merely is an open portrayal of how the 1937 Constitution regards the state and the particular role of women in ensuring the maintenance of its unique Irishness, as envisaged by the male power holders of its time, particularly as this article’s interpretation has permeated the use of other constitutional articles and wider societal debates. While Cathleen Ní Houlihan may appear to be a long forgotten relic of nationalism in the pre-state era, her presence is more clearly felt than perhaps it should. Irish women do no need the male citizenship to vindicate their rights, their own citizenship should enable them to do so in the same public sphere. The emergence of a beautiful maiden ready to take the role of mother no longer is representative of Ireland or Irish women, the Constitution, and its implementation should reflect this.