Ruth Taillon chaired a panel with Dawn Purvis, Martina Devlin and Bernadette McAliskey for a session entitled And where were the women when history was made? at the John Hewitt International Summer School in Armagh.
Bernadette opened the discussion by reframing the question: Where are women when what happens in the world is recorded and documented? Her answer: Virtually nowhere. What has been recorded – mostly by men – has been what was important in terms of high level power. History is the story of male power. Women have been cleaning up after martyrs for a long time. But the brutalisation of women and the affect of conflict of children are lost when you write women out of history, and instead create a far to narrow
Are fiction and arts a better way of connecting with history? Martina noted that all of can engage and empathise with the personal story or images, stories of sacrifice or heroism against incredible odds. She was saddened that there isn’t more culture spanning the border and bridging the gap between the developing “fortress Ulster” and “fortress Ireland”.
Dawn Purvis referred to a “hidden history” of women in the labour movement and the changes that they brought into industry. But the decade of centenaries has consigned women to auxiliary roles (eg, nurses and widows) – writing women into a men’s version of history – rather than looking at their role in suffrage and trade unionism. 2018 will be an opportunity to celebrate the vote being extended to women over the age of 30 in Ireland.
The discussion veered off in all kinds of directions. Bernadette McAliskey told a great anecdote to illustrate how women can disappear from the public narrative – even today – though that can give them space to make changes under the radar. She went on to highlight the more radical side of organisations like the Mothers Union and the Women’s Institute … bastions of respectability today!