A small group composed of women journalists and political activists held meetings in cafés and flats in Dublin during 1970 and a new movement took the Irish media and the Irish public by storm. The Irish Women's Liberation Movement was born while Dr Thekla Beere's Commission on the Status of Women was still in session and still preparing its report.
The second factor that influenced improvements in the legal status of women was the re-emergence of the feminist movement in the late sixties and early seventies. The peaceful revolution by black Americans that began after the Second World War and gained momentum in the fifties provided a model for American women, who began to agitate for equal rights for women in the sixties. The American women in turn provided a model for Irish women.
In 1970 the Irish Women's Liberation Movement was launched. The founders included a number of journalists who were to disseminate its message to the media. A manifesto, Chains or Change, was agreed and delivered to the people of Ireland on the 'Late Late Show' of 6 March 1971. It contained five demands: equal pay, equality before the law, equal education, contraception and justice for deserted wives, unmarried mothers and widows.
It sent shock waves through Irish society. Women's issues became news on radio and television. The Irish Press, the Irish Times and the Irish Independent, in response to the chord that the movement struck, all started feminist 'women's pages'.
Mary Maher, an Irish-American journalist from Chicago was an early member of the Irish Women's Liberation Movement. Through her columns in the women's page of the Irish Times she reported on American feminist theories and activities for Irish readers. Nell McCafferty from Derry contributed disturbing news items from the courts, illustrating how Irish law could affect women and children and how unreasonably it was enforced at times. Mary Kenny, women's editor of the Irish Press attracted publicity to the movement by her writings and, occasionally by her actions.
The Irish Women's Liberation Movement issued a publication Chains or change in 1971 demanding equal pay for women; equality before the law; equality in education; availability of contraception; justice for deserted wives, single mothers and widows and a house for every family.
The authors of Chains or change noted that:
In fact they made many of the points the Commission on the Status of Women would make when their report was issued later.
Several incidents attracted publicity to the movement in the early 1970s. Their appearance on Gay Byrne's Late Late Show generated such heated argument that Garret Fitzgerald (later Taoiseach) left his fireside and arrived in the studio to discuss the problems with the women but:
|A free-for-all screaming match followed between Garret Fitzgerald and various women in the audience.
June Levine, Sisters: the personal story of an Irish feminist, Dublin, 1982, p.166.
In their determination to secure legal contraception, members protested against Archbishop McQuaid's letter on the subject by walking out of Mass. They journeyed to Belfast and publicly displayed illegally imported contraceptives at Connolly Station in Dublin. They held large meetings and organised pickets, marches and demonstrations.
It is difficult to say what effect they had on legislation but they certainly succeeded in being reported widely in the media and in raising consciousness. They shocked Irish women into an awareness of their disadvantages and challenged them to demand change.
The movement spread and inevitably split over various issues but several offshoots developed and other women's organisations were founded independently. Some are still in existence raising awareness, lobbying for change or organising women's self-help groups.