In a poignant speech delivered at the National Women’s Council of Ireland AGM, Linda Kavangh of ARC looked back at the extraordinary campaign which led to repeal of the 8th Amendment of the constitution.
A campaign in which women’s stories and experiences were essential to the wave of change, and one that has empowered a new generation of female activists.
There are many reasons why this referendum passed and passed as triumphantly as it did. One of the truly remarkable things about this campaign was that it was women led in its entirety, much to the disbelief and often dismissal of commentators.
There is a very specific idea of what politics looks like in some people’s heads and we weren’t that, so we were assumed to be inept. Politicians and commentators alike were not prepared for a feminist campaign. A campaign which left ego firmly at the door with an absolute focus on our goal, to Repeal the 8th Amendment.
We had asked people to submit their stories through emailing the Abortion Rights Campaign. I was the person at the end of that email address.
Further to being a feminist campaign, ARC is non-hierarchical: an organisational structure that is neither common nor widely understood in Ireland. This allows for wide spread engagement with all our members and strong ownership of campaign decisions and strategy by our members.
Through the long hard conversations early on, we were able to embark on The Together for Yes campaign having heard all concerns and questions so that we could proceed with a fully informed acceptance of the challenges, and a commitment to work through them.
This approach carried so much of our work on the ground through difficult days, and all of our members could reflect and know that they were heard, and that they came on board wholeheartedly with eyes wide open.
There were a diversity of tactics that fed in to the strategies that both led to and won the referendum. This was something we looked to lead on in ARC – we have organised the biggest pro-choice demonstrations ever seen on the streets of Dublin, but we also submitted to and addressed the UN Committees who examined Ireland’s reproductive rights systems and found them failing.
By embracing those tactics we moved into arenas that were not always seen as spaces for grassroots activists and where we would not have the same experience as those working in the area. The all-voluntary nature of ARC really allowed us to focus on building up women’s experience and confidence in areas of work that they hadn’t carried out before.
We were supported in that work by other organisations and individuals, and of course are really grateful for their support and willingness to share knowledge. That same collaboration, support and cooperation was evident in all the groups we worked with.
Real people, telling real stories about the reality of their lives. In the future I would like us to be able to make change without the constant bearing of our souls and our wounds.
Women’s stories and experiences were essential to this movement. We centred those stories in our strategy. Our Citizens Assembly submission focused on our call for free, safe and legal abortion but was reinforced by the stories of 60 women who had been affected by the 8th Amendment.
We had asked people to submit their stories through emailing the Abortion Rights Campaign. I was the person at the end of that email address. I guarded those stories so fiercely because I knew how difficult it was for them to tell them. Some of these women had never written down their experiences. I regularly emailed them with updates and we held their stories core to the work that we do.
Real people, telling real stories about the reality of their lives, affected by laws they wished to change. In the future I would like us to be able to make change without the constant bearing of our souls and our wounds. I hope that our humanity and dignity can be the reason that change is affected. Not just because we are mothers, wives, daughters, sisters, friends or girlfriends. But because we are equal and we deserve a society that reflects that.
I spent so much time in this referendum thinking about how we could make men recognise our humanity.
I spent so much time in this referendum thinking about how we could make men recognise our humanity. Men want to give you their opinions on everything and yet, for once, when we really needed them we had to persuade and cajole a vote out of them. Or so we thought.
It turned out that we had heroes that even we overlooked the scale and power of. Three quarters of women voted to repeal the 8th amendment. Of course when I speak here I include our trans sisters, brothers and non binary people. This “quiet revolution” of black jumpers and handmade signs. We wore our hearts on our sleeves as we donned our t-shirts and jumpers. We even committed the gravest of sins: we turned up in the same place with the same Repeal rig-out. We should have known we had solidarity.
There are a lot of lessons to be learned from this referendum campaign. As we move forward we need to do better at including the most marginalised in our society and amplifying their voices. We need to repair the damage done by the stigmatising rhetoric of the no side throughout the campaign, the effects of which we haven’t even started to see full yet.
For all those who saw their own stories or similar picked apart in the media or in conversations around them, we have a responsibility to work with them, to support them and to fully dismantle the stigma and silence that our movement has finally started to deconstruct.
Generations of women held their head high on May 26th and knew that Ireland had changed forever.
Unless the poorest or most marginalized people can access abortion then ARC does not feel that our work is done. We must be united to ensure legislation achieves this. Current and future movements will collaborate actively with organisations working with women in poverty, Direct Provision and trans people to ensure nobody is left behind by intention or, more importantly, omission by us as leaders.
Young women across the country have learned how to effectively organise, they’ve been empowered to make change and now they’re hooked. Generations of women held their head high on May 26th and knew that Ireland had changed forever. Ireland voted to respect and support them. These women and the generations to come can now walk our streets knowing their power. They changed history and the way that young women view their place in the present and the future has also changed forever.
We were told not to expect too much, and we learned not to expect too much.
There are girls who only know affected-led, progressive change. They will have seen Marriage Equality, the Gender Recognition Bill, the Repeal of the 8th Amendment and the introduction of safe and legal abortion. We were told not to expect too much and we learned not to expect too much. This will be alien to them. They will know that they can demand change and they can achieve it.
Every year since we were founded in 2012, ARC has been led by two new women – no matter how strong or how successful past convenors may have been, a core part is the stepping back and opening up space for new women to step up, and more than that, pushing and supporting new people into leadership positions. Its an important part of the empowerment process and the collective horizontal leadership model we use.
Something that is important to hold core in our broader feminist movement – the principal of opening up space for younger and less experienced voices.
The organisation is never brought back to one person, its the weight of a movement with experience as widely distributed as possible. This is something that is important to hold core in our broader feminist movement, the principal of opening up space for younger and less experienced voices.
That is the legacy we want from the repeal movement. We as women in Ireland dared not hope that the country valued us as much as it turned out to. The old ways of doing politics are dying. There is a new way of doing politics. Grassroots, intersectional campaigning has changed the face of this country.
A new generation of feminist activists who know their own power has emerged and they’re not going away. Together we changed Ireland, together we’ve already achieved the impossible.
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