Exploring Irish Women's History in the Making
By Dr. Dawn Campbell
In September 2017 I was asked to teach a WGST study abroad course during Maymester 2018 through USC’s Opportunity Scholars Program. This would be the first study abroad course offered through OSP and the first ever WGST study abroad course! As faculty lead, I was told, the destination and course curriculum would be at my discretion. I was beyond excited about the opportunity and immediately began considering destination options. It needed to be a place that had lots of history – history particular to women’s struggles and resistance – and it needed to be affordable. After consideration and collaboration with OSP staff, I chose Ireland. I knew it was a hot destination for many college students traveling abroad (I had a former student who studied abroad there and loved it!) and I knew I would find great support through our WGST director, Dr. Ed Madden. Once the destination was chosen, everything fell into place.
I wanted the students to understand the significant impact religion has had in Ireland's history and how with the referendum, many people were pushing back and shifting cultural and religious norms.
After my initial meeting with Ed, it was clear there was much going on in Ireland surrounding women’s rights – particularly women’s reproductive rights. The abortion referendum (in response to the 8th amendment which essentially banned abortion) was taking place during the time we were to visit Ireland! What a terrific time for a WGST class to be in Ireland! Prior to our travels, our group of 16 students met for four class meetings. During the class meetings, the curriculum focused on the intersections of gender, religion, sexuality, (and often violence against girls/women). I wanted the students to understand the significant impact religion has had in Ireland’s history and how with the referendum, many people were pushing back and shifting cultural and religious norms. Students needed to understand how women’s lives in particular had been impacted by institutional norms. Classes consisted of lectures on Irish Women’s History and Religion in Irish Context. Students viewed an important film, The Magdalene Sisters which provided a great representation of the intersectionality discussed previously. All of this prepared us for our 10-day adventure in Ireland.
We arrived in Dublin on Wednesday, May 23, and the referendum was to take place on May 25. Traveling from the airport to our accommodations in Dublin, we began seeing large YES and NO signs posted everywhere. It was interesting to notice more NO signs were hung in suburban areas. Students began getting excited at knowing we were visiting during an historic time in Ireland’s history. Influential guest lecturers were lined up for our classes while in Dublin: Dr. Caroline Elbay, faculty member at Champlain College and James Joyce scholar whose research interest includes representations of gender, discussed Irish Women’s History; Bella Fitzpatrick, ShoutOut Director, lectured on “framing the 8th” and included her own story of traveling to England to obtain her abortion and the relief she felt afterwards; Elaine Dooley, Labour Party local area representative discussed women in politics; and Janet O’Sullivan discussed the YES vote (she lectured after the referendum decision). We also had the pleasure of touring the historic Abbey Theatre and visiting with women who work in the industry – costume designers, stage director, and marketing director. The panel of four women were beyond impressive. They discussed the #WakingTheFeminists movement, which is a campaign for equality for women in Irish Theatre. The panel members not only told their stories of discrimination and blatant sexism within the industry, but also asked the students about their lives/majors/experiences. Many students would later say this was one of their favorite parts of the trip.
As we traveled through Dublin, there was a presence of activism throughout the city. We noticed visual displays of activism -- of history -- surrounding us -- literally!
As we traveled through Dublin, there was a presence of activism throughout the city. We noticed visual displays of activism – of history – surrounding us – literally! The Temple Bar area was particularly noteworthy, as there was a display on the side of a building with hundreds of colorful post-it notes, with messages of encouragement for girls and women. A few women were walking around in hospital gowns with IV fluid bags and several people held signs in support of the YES vote. Also, in the Temple Bar area there was a store with thousands of YES buttons and sweatshirts that read “YES, we are with you!” On the evening of Friday, May 25, votes began to be counted, and late that evening the decision was read: YES! Thousands of people gathered in the city, chanting, crying, smiling, and embracing! It was truly an historic event!
This opportunity had been a dream, not only for me, but very much for TRIO director, Althea Counts. She was instrumental in making it happen. Althea traveled with us as our program coordinator and experienced many “firsts” along with us. Together, we led a group of 16 first-generation college students – many from rural areas of South Carolina – into a bustling historic city. Students’ excitement and awe made the trip even more memorable. We are proud of our students’ insights and growth. While in Ireland, students were required to journal daily in order to capture their experiences. Here are a few of their quotes:
"It was interesting to learn about the history of women in Irish culture, something
I had no knowledge about before I took this class. The dynamics between men and women
have long been very restrictive and misogynistic, however with the eighth amendment
being repealed, the tides are turning for women in Ireland. It is time they take their
autonomy back. This trip and class inspired me to feel proud to be a woman!"
- Cosette McCullough
“Studying abroad in Dublin was one of the best experiences in my life. I got the chance to visit a place I would have never been able to. The best part was the different guest speakers that came and talked to us about the history of Ireland. The guest speakers also spoke about the abortion referendum that was being voted on. It was so cool to see the joy on everyone faces when the results came in. I would definitely love to go back.” - Curtis Pernell
Student, Taylor Chewning, shared a quote from an influential Irish politician and trade union leader "The great appear great because we are on our knees. Let us rise!" - Jim Larkin, 1913