by Eve Currie
This essay is based on the author’s presentation at a meeting––“Where is the Women’s Struggle Today? From Liberation to Equality”––that took place at Birkbeck College in London on June 11, 2019.
I was active in, and wrote about, the recent campaign to “Repeal the 8th” amendment to the Irish constitution. I became passionate about this campaign not just because I am passionate about a women’s right to choose, but because I believe this campaign signalled the ongoing rise of a new generation of activists who are helping set the agenda on women’s rights.
In addressing the title of this meeting: ‘Where’s the Women’s Struggle Today’, I want to talk primarily about one thing; the self-development of ideas through the women’s movement and how this is crucial to women’s liberation.
I want to talk about this self-development of ideas because of what I have come to understand about the movement of history, about how society changes. I’m assuming I’m amongst friends who also want fundamental, even revolutionary, change in society, so the process by which we get there is of interest to us all. Anyway, what I have come to understand is that for such change to truly be towards human liberation, it requires the development of ideas from within the struggle of ordinary people about what liberation means, as well as how to get it.The history of abortion rights in Ireland, from the oppressive rule of the Catholic Church in the 1980s, when I came of age, to last year when the people of Ireland took a huge step in advancing women’s rights, is a history of the self-development of ideas about what women’s liberation means. And it is only by that self-development that we have been able to repeal the horrendous subjugation that equated a foetus’s right to life with that of a woman’s. And, with even greater consequence, it is only by that self-development that we can begin to imagine, and work towards, a future where women are truly liberated.
The term ‘self-development’ is fundamental to the philosophy of Marxist-Humanism. It describes the process by which ordinary people, through their ‘activity’ resisting oppression, bring forth new ideas about what it means to be free. In contrast to much of the thinking on the Left, Marxist-Humanist philosophy (founded by Raya Dunayevskaya) makes clear that freedom cannot be won for us by representatives or leaders, no matter the colour of their party. It must be our own act, in thought as well as deed. After all, if someone else grants us a freedom, in the form of new rights or access to equality practices, then they have the power to revoke that freedom. And that’s equally true for a political party, no matter how radical. If they tell us what the principle at stake is, or if they give us the slogans to shout, IF THEY DO ANYTHING LESS THAN ENGAGE US IN DEVELOPING OUR OWN IDEAS ABOUT WHAT FREEDOM MEANS FOR US, then we’re not fighting for our liberation, we’re fighting for their right to rule over us!
I think the Repeal campaign embodied exciting elements of the self-development of ideas that is so fundamental to our liberation. And it did this because it was a grassroots campaign led by ordinary women, using their own voices and telling their own stories. And these stories became the ground on which discussions were had. The referendum victory wasn’t just down to long time pro-choice campaigners finally getting their way. It only came about because their campaign truly engaged ordinary women in working through the reality of what abortion meant to them. First-hand stories of women, sisters, mothers who’d suffered horrendous experiences, through not having access to safe abortion, and worse, having narratives about their interests being subordinate to the interests of others (be it those of a foetus, the Catholic Church or Left-wing parties with different agendas)––these stories took centre stage and became the starting point for engaging with feminist ideas about bodily autonomy and human liberation. And through this two-way flow of ideas, between theory about women’s liberation and women’s lived experiences today, people were working out what kind of society they wanted and what that meant for Ireland’s abortion laws.
Through coming to realise that there are numerous situations in which abortion is a humane, compassionate and civilised thing to do, people began to doubt the wisdom of, and justifications for, judging what is a deeply personal choice. The sharing of people’s lived experiences shaped and changed their understanding of a subject like abortion.
The woman who is forced to carry a baby with a fatal foetal abnormality to full term, and endure repeated questions by strangers about the upcoming happy event, knows––without needing someone else’s permission––how she feels about the situation and what she thinks should happen. But collectively, the stories of thousands of women in hugely varying situations drew out the common experience of a woman knowing what is right or wrong for her, and the contradiction inherent in thinking that ‘you’ should have the right to choose but that someone else might not. That contradiction forced open discussions about whether you could judge another person’s choices. And that shift, although a subtle one, had a huge impact on the outcome of the referendum. People’s lived experiences were the medium through which ideas developed. But this development wasn’t just one sided; ideas about women’s liberation didn’t just spring forth for the first time. Pre-existing philosophies about liberation were a catalyst. As we know, the phrase ‘The Right to Choose’ wasn’t born in this campaign. It was worked out long before, in battles we had previously won but which, in certain parts of the world, we are having to fight all over again. In this way, we are standing on the shoulders of our foremothers, but we’re not just reflecting what they saw. We’re remaking that vision in the present, because only arguments that address our current situation are fit to challenge the status quo.
What I’m trying to say is that theory about women’s liberation doesn’t just come from philosophers and academics. It comes from those in the process of struggle, as they try to make sense of the world as it is. And the ‘activity’ of ordinary people resisting oppression, that I spoke of earlier, contains both thought and action; it is the activity of thinking and doing.
Of course, political philosophy does have a fundamental role to play in contributing to the mix of ideas, but political philosophy on its own just isn’t enough. We need both. Philosophic ideas about freedom and liberation need to come into a relationship with the theory coming from practice, so as to continually develop our understanding of what it means to be free. Time doesn’t stand still. The world changes and we are either moving forward (in thought and action) towards our own liberation, through the development of ideas about what liberation looks like and how to get there, or we are sliding back (as we see happening in the rise of far-right ideas across America and Europe, and in the accelerating war on women’s bodies in the US).
The ongoing pro-choice battle across the world is a bittersweet one. On the one hand I think we can see it is rich with ideas about what it means to be free, but in many places we’re fighting a rear-guard action to save rights that we thought we had won.
Take, for example, the criticism of the recent abortion bill in Alabama. It allows the state to prosecute a woman for crossing the border to have an abortion in a state where abortion is legal. When people realised this, there quickly followed criticism that the bill effectively makes a woman a property of the state of Alabama. The critique of a woman as property isn’t new; it’s one we’re now having to rework in a current context.
Or consider, for example, where it has come to fruition that the penalty for aborting after rape is more severe than the penalty for rape. People have described this development as a war on women. Andrea Dworkin may have coined this phrase thirty years ago, but it is only over the past 15 years that this phrase has become a common slogan. And when Trump was elected, there followed the biggest demonstration of public protest America has ever seen, and that was in the form of the Women’s March––because women recognised that his presidency represented a profound escalation in the War on Women.
Through the questions people are asking, and through the points they are making about the untenable contradictions in society, we are witness to the development of ideas about what a future society might look like. And this development comes, and can only come, from within grassroots struggles as these struggles come into a relationship with theories about liberation.