Iris Murdoch once said:
“I think being a woman is like being Irish…. Everyone says you’re important and nice, but you take second place all the time”
Here, Iris equals her experience as an Irish-born writer in 20th century Britain to being a ‘Woman’; both are like being a second-class citizen.
This highlights a specific challenge I face when I ask “What it means to be an Irish Woman”; both being ‘Irish’ and being a ‘Woman’ have unique meanings, which can outweigh and dominate one another in different settings. When you bring the two together, what happens then? What qualities does being ‘Irish’ bring to being a ‘Woman’ and how does being a ‘Woman’ influence the type of ‘Irish’ person I am?
This is an issue of Intersectionality.
The idea behind Intersectionality Theory is that people have multiple layers of identity (e.g. race, sex, social status, nationality etc.) which overlap, providing both advantages and disadvantages to our world experiences[i].
I am a ‘Woman’, yes, but its impact on me is not independent from the fact that I am ‘Irish’. We could then even go a few layers deeper and bring out how I am an ‘Irish’ ‘Woman’, raised ‘Protestant’, on a ‘Farm’ in ‘Wicklow’, a ‘Well-Educated’, ‘Professional’ working in ‘Academia’ and ‘Married’. Each of these factors has shaped me and also, I am sure, how people see me and the associations they ascribe to me. How many times I have met other Irish people abroad and have them ask me “Where in Ireland are you from?”. “Wicklow”, I say, and I can almost see them nod in satisfaction that they rightly placed my slightly neutral, if not a bit ‘posh’ Irish accent.
Who we are, what we are and the labels attached to us, rightly or wrongly, matter to people. They enable both us and the people we encounter to make sense of who we are and place us within a social relationship or structure. In other words, these multiple layers of our social identities impact how we experience the world and also how we are allowed to experience the world by those in power or by the society in which we live. Intersectionality, as a gender-based theory, is about power, dominion and injustice; about how the social categories we occupy can overlap to discriminate us on multiple levels. For example, being a ‘Woman’ has disadvantages but being a ‘Black woman’ in some societies brings greater disadvantages then being a ‘White Woman’.
What about being an ‘Irish Woman’ then? If you are to look at the literature on what it means to be ‘Irish’ then being an ‘Irish Woman’ must be extremely disadvantageous. Reflecting what Iris Murdoch felt, decades of research has found that being ‘Irish’ in Britain is to be racialised as inferior and Other[ii] or to be invisible[iii]. Then, being an ‘Irish Woman’ in Britain (as I am) must be an extremely disempowering double-bind of second-class or unnoticed race and second-class gender (if you want to see society as patriarchal).
However, this is not my personal experience or my personal perception of my own identity. When I say I am an ‘Irish Woman’ I feel strong. It galvanises me much more than simply saying I am a ‘Woman’. Maybe it’s the time I’m living in and the nature of the multicultural societies I’ve been lucky to experience, where everyone is ‘Other’ and different so we are all, at once, Equals because of our differences.
But I think there is more to it than that, it is my experience of other Irish Women, the key actors in my life or the Irish Women I’ve read about and identified with which have given me this self-perception. I have the knowledge, or at least self-created knowledge I come after Women who were capable, determined, extremely resourceful and occupied positions of status within their families and community. After all, Early Christian Ireland is renowned for the uniqueness of its Brehon Laws. Laws which, although did not make men and women equal, gave wives the right to be consulted on every matter by their husbands, gave women the right to choose who to marry, entitled them to initiate divorce in their own right and ensured they retained their own property. Such laws meant Early Irish Women were not confined to household duties but could pursue status in their own right through education and leadership. It is this past which I feel strongly connected to when I say I am ‘Irish’, and when I link this to my gender, then being an ‘Irish Woman’ is to be pretty strong and fierce indeed. This is the intersectionality of my identity:
“If I grew up in the simple-minded belief that women were as strong and intelligent as men, it was because I came from a society that once believed it”
(Quote from Shirley
Abbot, reflecting on her Scots-Irish heritage growing up in the American South).
[i] Robinson, Z. F. (2018). Intersectionality and Gender Theory. In B. J. Risman, C. M. Froyum, & W. J. Scarborough (Eds.), Handbook of the Sociology of Gender (pp. 69–80). https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-76333-0_5
[ii] Hickman, M. J., & Walter, B. (1995). Deconstructing Whiteness: Irish Women in Britain. Feminist Review, (50), 5–19. https://doi.org/10.2307/1395487
[iii] Barton, R. (2011). Screening the Irish in Britain: Introduction. Irish Studies Review, 19(1), 1–4. https://doi.org/10.1080/09670882.2011.541640