Feminism versus Bernadette Smyth?

What does it mean to be a feminist? Not easy to define, by any means. How about a feminist in NI today? Even more complex.

The women’s movement in Northern Ireland has hit some pretty difficult stumbling blocks over the last four or five decades. The divergence on the treatment of female republican prisoners and their subsequent protests in Armagh Gaol was one such stumbling block in the 1970s / 1980s. The awarding of a Nobel Prize to two NI women in 1976 was, on the other hand, obviously a big moment.. The formation of the Women’s Coalition in 1998 was another, albeit one that was dogged with accusations of elitism and middle class privilege, and which ultimately ended with the dissolution of the party in 2006. In 2011 Northern Ireland was leading the way in having the biggest gender pay gap, with women, on average, being paid £13,793 than men. Women are not particularly well represented in local politics. The list goes on.

Clearly, then, there is some way to go in term of achieving equality and, judging by the kind of division that arose and split the women’s movement in NI in the past, it would seem prudent to learn from history and for modern local feminist organisations to be as inclusive as possible and work together to achieve greater political representation, shatter the glass ceiling, close the pay gap and protect vulnerable women.

I have been troubled by this of late on Facebook, where I once upon an idealistic time joined a group called Belfast Feminist Network. There are 1774 members, so clearly this group does not speak for all women, or indeed all feminists, in Belfast, let alone across Northern Ireland. They are a vocal group, though, and of late have been very much involved with issues surrounding abortion, and the proposed judicial review.

The group is certainly inclusive in the sense that it is open to new members, the posts in the group have, in the past at least, tended to encompass a wide variety of topics and men are welcome to join etc.

The tone over recent months has been resolutely and increasingly pro-choice, which is not a huge surprise. What has become increasingly problematic to me is the underlying assumption that all members of the group must be de facto pro-choice. There does not appear to have been much debate around this, at least online (the group do meet up in person as well and there may well have been discussions about this issue which have not been documented or in any way referenced in the online group) nor does there seem to be room for any opinion that is not resolutely and militantly in this camp. I want to underline that my own views on this matter are completely beside the point. But the tone of the recent posts around Bernadette Smyth have become personally critical to a degree that I find problematic.

Is Bernadette Smyth with her own vigilante tactics of harassing women outside the Marie Stopes clinic someone who is much deserving of sympathy and support? Possibly not. But doesn’t some of this verge into feminists condoning personal attacks against another woman, albeit one whose opinions and behaviour are pretty abhorrent to the group in question? Bernadette Smyth (being photobombed with a Pro Choice sign) is now, in fact, BFN’s Group Picture on Facebook. But, to be clear, BFN are far from being the only feminist group in NI to have adopted this extremely visible and vocal pro-choice position, so this post is not intended as a critique of this one particular group. It doesn’t seem too far fetched, however, to suggest that this increased visibility and volume around the pro-choice position as an issue may reflect a change in culture within the women’s movement locally.

So what I am asking is, is it now an accepted position that to be a feminist in Northern Ireland today, that you must be pro-choice?  I have done a lot of community work over the last eight years and I have found, anecdotally, in just talking to women right across Belfast of different ages, orientations, all faiths and none, a huge divergence of opinion on the issue. So does the stance taken by BFN, and several other local feminist organisations, actively rule out the inclusion of women whose religious or personal convictions prevent them from holding a pro-choice point of view? Or women who take a more nuanced view of the debate? Or women who actually do not have a strong opinion on the issue but would prefer to be discussing employment opportunities for women in STEM locally or the gender pay gap or something else like that?

I find that I honestly just don’t know. It tends to be an oft-repeated critique of the left, splinter groups and sub divisions and factions, to the point of complete inertia. But does this mean that women need to fall in line to manage to achieve some feminist aims?

Anyway, as ever, I throw it out for some discussion – how do you perceive feminism in NI today? Is feminism still relevant? Regardless of gender, would you count yourself as a feminist? Or discount yourself from a label like this, and, if so, why?


** Edit: this post previously contained a screenshot image to illustrate the extremely positive response of the Belfast Feminist Network to a post deriding Bernadette Smyth. Names were obscured to protect identities, although no sensitive information was being divulged. Several group members have expressed concern that this screenshot was used. To anyone offended or distressed by this I apologise. This post is intended to provoke discussion about what now constitutes feminist thinking, and the picture is not an integral part of that debate so to mindful of people’s concerns it is now gone. ***