Seeing Red: Menstrual Protest and Abortion Politics
This week, founders Eleanor Careless, Alex Coupe and Edwin Coomasaru of the Gender, Sexuality and Violence Research Network discuss the history of abortion in the UK and Ireland.
The history of abortion in the UK and Ireland is also the history of war. For centuries in the militaristic imagination – whether nationalist or imperial – the struggle against the enemy has been rooted in the gendered distribution of labour. In this fantasy men were meant to be the ones who sacrificed themselves in combat, and women were responsible for birthing future soldiers (then encouraging them to enlist and mourning their noble martyrdom). This is how militarism, patriarchy and hetero-normativity have enmeshed interdependent logics. A threat to one ideology destabilises the others. For example: increasing access to abortion and women’s autonomy operates as an affront to the war effort, or to the idea of femininity defined as motherhood.
We recently set up the Gender, Sexuality & Violence Research Network (GSV) to explore how the relationship between these three ideologies – militarism, patriarchy, and hetero-normativity – shape and impact each other. Our second seminar in February 2017 at The Courtauld Institute of Art discussed menstrual politics and protest. This year, 2017, marks the fiftieth anniversary of the 1967 Abortion Act, which covers England, Scotland and Wales. The legislation was never extended to Northern Ireland, which still operates under the 1861 Offences against the Person Act. This means that abortion is still illegal in Northern Ireland unless there is a serious risk to the mother’s long-term physical or mental health. Abortion in the Republic of Ireland is also illegal unless performed to save the life of the mother.
As a result, Irish and Northern Irish women are forced to travel to Britain for abortions, which they have to pay for themselves (roughly between £350 and £2,000).1 Those who cannot afford the fee and induce a miscarriage face prosecution, as happened last April when one woman received a three-month suspended sentence.2 Political parties are still reluctant to change the law, despite 70% backing the move in Northern Ireland and 67% in the Republic of Ireland.3 Activist campaigns in both countries have been highly organised and visible in their demand for women’s autonomy.
In November 2015, women in the Republic of Ireland began tweeting the Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, details of their periods. While the link between menstruation and abortion might not necessarily be direct, perceptions of both have been historically shaped by patriarchal norms which have painted mensuration as so shameful it should be kept totally private (unseen and unheard). We can speculate as to why abortion and menstruation have been treated with such condemnation: they both (despite the monthly regularity of one) represent the failure of heterosexual reproduction. As part of a cluster of fears and anxieties, any failures to procreate have been conventionally considered a threat to the health and future of the nation.
These links were not lost on the activists who tweeted Enda Kenny. Gráinne Maguire got to the crux of the matter: ‘[s]ince we know how much the Irish state cares about our reproductive parts-I call my womb Ireland’s littlest embassy’, while Tara Flynn added: ‘[t]here’ll be shrieks of “undignified!” at tweeting @EndaKennyTD about periods. Know what’s undignified? Lack of bodily autonomy’. Others, like Saundra Stephen, played on the association between mensuration and female rage: ‘I’m bleeding! @EndaKennyTD Bleedin outraged that Irish women in the 21st Century don’t have the right to chose’.
Could de-stigmatising menstruation by increasing its visibility be both a way of challenging the norms that shape ideas of femininity and – by extension – support the case for women’s autonomy and abortion rights? Undermining the idealised pedestal of women as (domestic-bound) mothers might be one way to contest the prejudice that still surrounds forms of non-procreative sexuality. In fact, when it comes to LGBTQ politics – identities historically criminalised, subject to stigma and shame, and forced keep their sexualities private – visibility has been a big part of the campaign to change societal attitudes. Could greater visibility shift our menstrual taboo?
The question of visibility came up again and again during GSV’s seminar on menstrual politics and protest. French visual artist Ingrid Berthon Moine showed her work Red Is The Colour (2009), a photographic series of women wearing their own menstrual blood as lipstick as a tactic to undo the ‘concealing’ femininity of make-up. The mugshot-like photographs raised questions of identifying documents and differing cultural attitudes towards menstruation and concealment. In Iran, a one participant pointed out, during menstruation a person is not permitted to take part in certain religious rituals such a praying or fasting, so their menstruation is made publicly visible – even if the menstruator in question might prefer less visibility. Berthon-Moine also gave a short performance based around the concealments endemic to the commercial labelling of menstrual products (‘feminine’, ‘fresh’, ‘odour neutralising’, ‘ultra normal’ etc.), making the invisible visible.
At the seminar, Irish live artist Helena Walsh also challenged the containment and policing of menstrual blood in her performance In Pursuit of Pleasure (2012) during which she wore a ‘bullet belt’ of baby bottles filled with menstrual blood and milk around her waist. Symbolically defiling a pile of soil and laundry detergent with this mixture of blood and milk, Walsh transgressed heteronormative borders surrounding notions of purity. The seminar considered how such challenges to patriarchal structures might also challenge the gender binary, and the importance of splitting femaleness or womanhood from menstruation in order to queer menstrual activism. These artistic interventions begin the work of unravelling the menstrual taboo through the violation of preconceived rules and borders that construct gender and impinge upon identity.
As Kathryn Conrad has noted, Ireland’s conservatism on the issue of abortion was represented as a mechanism distinguish the Irish body politic from the rest of Europe.4 Recent conversation over the return of a “hard” border between Ireland and Northern Ireland must prompt us to look at the differing ways the borders of the four nations have been experienced. The soft border between the North and the Republic has existed primarily for the movement of capital (and capitalists). But for the women of Ireland, borders have always been felt as resistance. As was recently rendered in the musical The Train (2015), during the 1970s women were forced across the Irish border in order to acquire contraceptives available in the United Kingdom.5 And now, when women from both Ireland and Northern Ireland have to travel across the Irish sea to receive legal abortions, the border between Ireland and mainland Britain becomes a huge obstacle, especially when experiencing the emotional and physical pain of the medical procedure.
So with all this talk of hard and soft borders we must bear in mind the words of Sara Ahmed: ‘Yes equality is a bumpy ride. Smoothing things over often means: eliminating the signs of injury to create a fantasy of a whole. Smoothing things over often means: eliminating those who are reminders of an injury’.6 While every effort must be made to make the procurement of abortion in Ireland a smoother process, it is also important not to smooth over the multitude of different border experiences. Some bodies are made to feel more welcome, more like they belong, in the manner in which they are forced to undergo the crossing. Women have always had to contest the “purity” posited by nationalist ideas of the body politic precisely because of the difficult and uncomfortable positions they are forced into by such ideologies. Bumpiness and friction – particularly the bumpiness and friction felt by marginalised bodies traversing borders – are a part of the historical experience of living in the four nations.
1 Amelia Butterly, ‘This is what it costs a woman in Northern Ireland to get an abortion’, BBC Newsbeat (Published 4/11/2016, Accessed 5/11/2016, http://www.bbc.co.uk/newsbeat/article/37854308/this-is-what-it-costs-a-woman-in-northern-ireland-to-get-an-abortion).
2 Henry McDonald, ‘Northern Irish woman given suspended sentence over self-induced abortion’, The Guardian (Published 4/4/2016, Accessed 4/4/2016, https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2016/apr/04/northern-irish-woman-suspended-sentence-self-induced-abortion).
3 Catherine Smyth, ‘70% ‘support Northern Ireland abortion law change’’, BBC News (Published 18/10/2016, Accessed 18/10/2016); Pat Leahy, ‘Majority support repeal of Eighth Amendment, poll shows’, The Irish Times (Published 8/7/2016, Accessed 9/7/2016, http://www.irishtimes.com/news/politics/majority-support-repeal-of-eighth-amendment-poll-shows-1.2714191).
4 Kathryn Conrad,’ Fetal Ireland: National Bodies and Political Agency’, Eire-Ireland, 36: 3-4 (2001), pp. 153-73.
5 Lyn Gardner, ‘The Train review – ramshackle musical about Irish women’s battle for contraception’, The Guardian (Published 8/10/15, Accessed 26/2/17, https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2015/oct/08/train-arthur-riordan-bill-whelan-project-arts-centre-dublin-musical-review).
6 Sara Ahmed, ‘Feminism and Fragility’, Feminist Killjoys (Published 26/1/16, Accessed 26/2/17, https://feministkilljoys.com/2016/01/26/feminism-and-fragility).
Eleanor Careless (University of Sussex), Alex Coupe (Goldsmiths) and Edwin Coomasaru (The Courtauld Institute of Art) run the Gender, Sexuality and Violence Research Network (supported by the AHRC/CHASE).