A CENTURY OF WOMEN - 1970s
Across Britain, America, France and other parts of Europe, including the Republic of Ireland, the second wave of feminism was underway, but in the North, progress was much slower. However, given the combination of sharp political divisions, the depressed socio-economic conditions and the powerful conservative influence of the dominant churches, it is not surprising that women in Northern Ireland remained in a relative backwater of feminism. It was near the mid-70s before women started to organise as women and feminist ideas started to permeate. In 1975, International Women’s Year was declared by the United Nations and International Women’s Day was resurrected in Belfast. The Equal Pay Act came into force in 1975 and the Sex Discriminations Order (NI) in 1976, bringing women’s rights more into focus.
The lack of civil rights, along with the presence of the British army and loyalist and republican paramilitary organisations, made it difficult to work on women’s issues. In a situation where people were interned without trial, made homeless through intimidation and killed in shootings and bombings, fighting for women’s rights was an uphill struggle.
In Northern Ireland, and Ireland generally, anti-war protesters welcomed the ending of the war in Vietnam in 1975, but apartheid continued in South Africa and demonstrations were held in the North of Ireland when 700 black children in the Soweto Township were shot in 1976. In 1975, in Britain, Margaret Thatcher was elected the leader of the conservative party and, in 1979, she became the first ever female Prime Minister, causing feminists to re-define the term sisterhood.
It was in the 1970s that a number of women started to organise specifically to fight on the issues that affected them as women; a considerable number of these were already involved in the trade union and civil rights movement, as well as other politics. The continuing attempts to win people to campaign for a peaceful solution, while also addressing issues of injustice, gave rise to a complex and challenging situation. Women’s organisations had to highlight issues of sexism, sex discrimination and women’s rights, in addition to opposing the escalation of violence and sectarianism. However, women were not homogenous and adopted a wide range of political positions and attitudes to the ongoing conflict.
From the 1970s onwards, violence became more intense and the pacifism of the civil rights movement, which included many women, lost ground in the face of paramilitary activism and the introduction of repressive legislation, like internment without trial and the Emergency Provisions Act, by the state. Direct Rule from Westminster had been introduced in 1971, and following the brief interlude of a power-sharing Executive in 1974, was re-imposed that year leaving a political vacuum. The effect on women’s lives depended on their lived experience; with Republican areas of Belfast, Newry and Derry particularly targeted as ‘terrorist communities’ by the army and many working-class Protestant areas seeing the rise of loyalist paramilitaries. A case in point was the Falls Road Curfew in July 1970, when the British army sealed off the area for three days in the search for weapons. Four civilians were killed by the army; at least 78 civilians and eighteen soldiers were wounded and 337 people were arrested. The curfew was broken when an estimated 3,000 women from outside the area marched to the British army positions with food and other groceries to supply the women in the Lower Falls.
On the 9th of August 1971, 342 men (almost all Catholics) were interned without trial in the Crumlin Road Prison, Maidstone Prison ship and Long Kesh detention centre (later to be re-named the HMP Maze Prison). Women’s lives, initially in Nationalist/Republican areas, changed and they were pushed to the forefront of community action. These developments acted as a galvanising factor, driving women into political action to protect their families, communities and in defence of their male relatives. A number of Republican women were interned in 1973, whilst women from Loyalist areas also came out in protest when their male relatives were interned in 1974.
For some women, this was the first time that they had to act as head of households and claim benefits on behalf of their families (married women living with their husbands were not allowed to claim by law). Women formed street committees, sold political papers, spoke on public platforms, sat down in front of Saracen armoured cars and blocked streets. They went on demonstrations and gained both confidence and a sense of agency. It was a process which politicised them. Women took the lead in the Rent and Rates Strike introduced in opposition to internment without trial and it is estimated that 30,000 households were on strike at the height of the campaign. It was women who bore the brunt of the impact of the Payment for Debt Act 1971 which was enacted to counter the strike. This legislation allowed for deductions to be taken from wages and state benefits for non-payment of household bills.
The violence escalated following events such as Bloody Sunday in Derry, when 28 innocent men were shot by British Paratroopers, of which 13 were killed instantly and one died later. Peaceful protest increasingly lost any sense of effectiveness for many living in communities that were bearing the brunt of both army and paramilitary violence and the membership of the Civil Rights Movement dwindled. For some, including women, paramilitarism became the way forward. Over the next thirty years, some 3,600 people were killed, 322 of them women, and 15,000 people were imprisoned. The impact – both direct and indirect – that this had on women was immense. Additionally, many families were intimidated out of their homes, forcing them to squat in either vacated or partially built dwellings in ‘single-identity’ areas. Thousands of people left Northern Ireland altogether to seek a more peaceful life elsewhere for themselves and their families.
As in most situations of violent conflict, the majority of those killed and imprisoned were men, leaving many women to cope with the loss of their husbands and other male relatives. Death and injury came in many forms – people were killed and maimed by British army actions, and both Republican and Loyalist paramilitaries planted bombs and carried out attacks. No warning bombs became a feature of everyday life, causing fear and creating a new streetscape when concrete blocks were set outside public buildings and public houses to protect them from car bombs.
Throughout the 1970s, Belfast city was fortified by multiple security checkpoints creating a prison-like atmosphere, which saw the city centre virtually empty after 7 pm at night. Some housing estates became war zones, shootings were commonplace and few felt safe. The nightly news reports of funerals, injuries, intimidation, imprisonments and evictions reflected the shattering of social, political and economic life, while traffic hold-ups, security searches, army patrols and house raids were all too common disruptions to daily life. Mothers worried about their teenage children, fearing that they would become caught up in paramilitarism or criminality as stealing cars and so-called ‘joy riding’ became rife. Buses were burnt in riots, resulting in the introduction of the ‘people’s’ taxis that operated on a shared basis and were often linked to political/paramilitary organisations; retired London black cabs were substituted as buses (later leading to the formation of the two black taxi associations serving Nationalist and Unionist areas operating throughout North and West Belfast). Young girls walked their boyfriends home because boys were less likely to be “lifted” by the army if they were with a girl.
Women whose husbands were involved in paramilitary organisations coped with all the pressures that this entailed, often having to deal with the uncertainty as well as the pressures of men being ‘on the run’ or in prison. In Derry, at least two nationalist women were tarred and feathered because they courted British soldiers, and women whose husbands were imprisoned were expected to be faithful to their husbands or face criticism, or even physical abuse, within the community. In Belfast in 1973, one woman was beaten to death by ten other women; viewed as a political crime, it was, in fact, a marital dispute (Edgerton 1985: p71). As militarism replaced standard politics over this decade, women became increasingly active at community level.
Women living in rural areas faced isolation and some lived in fear of assassination attacks. As a number of border roads were closed off, people who worked across the border had to travel extensive distances to get to their work. The roads that were not closed were policed by British Army checkpoints, where the occupants of cars were questioned before being allowed to proceed on their journey. This often involved long delays due to the tailback of traffic and people being stopped, questioned and searched. While many northern people “escaped the Troubles” by travelling to Donegal, Sligo and other southern counties for weekend breaks and holidays, life in border areas was often tense with Unionist allegations of ‘ethnic cleansing’ due to IRA attacks on members of the RUC and UDR, and ongoing conflict between loyalist and republican paramilitaries as well as the British Army. South Armagh was referred to as ‘Bandit Country’ in reference to the number of attacks made on the British Army by the IRA.
The imposition of Direct Rule did little to subdue the violence or ease the pressures of the economy where Northern Ireland experienced spiralling unemployment, a higher cost of living, a shortage of social housing and higher levels of poverty compared to Britain. Some women had already organised in response to the inequality and poverty of the early 70s, by holding protests against transport, rent and rate increases. From May to August 1971, “Belfast Mothers” took part in a campaign in opposition to the removal of free school milk by the then Education Minister Margaret Thatcher, securing the support of the Ulster Farmers Union who provided two cows for a protest march to Belfast City Hall. They also marched to Stormont and lobbied the politicians there. They organised a petition collecting head teachers’ signatures in favour of the campaign. However, these kinds of peaceful protests occurred less often in the face of civil unrest.
Although numerous women took part in the civil rights movement this did not extend to women’s rights or gay rights. Some of the leading women in the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA) included, finance officer Ann Hope, Secretary Edwina Stewart, Rebecca McGlade, Mrs Margo Rice, Betty Sinclair, from Belfast, and in Derry, Brigid Bond, Cathy Harkin and Inez MCCormack in addition to the thousands of other women who were members and joined in the organised activities. Assistant organiser, Madge Davison, worked in the NICRA office in Marquis Street, Belfast, but kept a low profile given that she came from a very Loyalist area where her family still lived. Madge documented cases of abuse and organised civil rights demonstrations, including the one on 27th January 1972 that resulted in Bloody Sunday. She helped to organise the making and the unveiling of the Bloody Sunday monument in Derry in 1974 to remember those that had been killed.
In 1973, one of the major demands of the civil rights movement was achieved when adult universal suffrage was introduced in local elections. This replaced the previous situation where the franchise in local government elections was based on a ratepayer suffrage and a property-related vote which meant that, with some exceptions, only those who were owners or tenants of a dwelling (or their spouses) were entitled to vote and gave property owners multiple votes in local government elections. Thus many adults who were lodgers or still living at their parent’s home were disenfranchised. (See CAIN for more details).
The following year, 1974, was marked by the short-lived ‘Sunningdale’ power-sharing executive in Stormont that was brought down by a failure to confront the Ulster Workers Council strike held in May 1974. Supported by Loyalist paramilitaries, the country was brought to a virtual standstill when fifteen days of intimidation, bombings and shootings resulted in many workers staying at home. May Blood was not one of them, she went to her work in the Blackstaff Mill and joined other trade unionists who opposed the ‘strike’ in the “back to work march”. By the end of the first day, the port of Larne was sealed off, with significant Ulster Defence Association and Ulster Volunteer Force presence helping to ensure that no ships were allowed to enter or leave the harbour.
On the seventh day of the strike, a march, led by Len Murray, General Secretary of the Trade Union Congress (TUC) in Britain, took place. They faced hostile Loyalist crowds and local trade unionists participating in the march believed that if Murray had not been present more violence would have taken place. Many loyalist women helped to enforce the strike. Roads were blocked, households suffered electricity blackout and petrol stations, dairies and bakeries were closed down. Churches, voluntary groups and relief organisations, that many women volunteered with, took over from the paralysed social services. The Sunningdale Agreement collapsed and Direct Rule from Westminster returned.
From the early 70s onward, women became involved with initiatives to end the violence; Women Together, a cross-community organisation, was formed in 1970. In 1973 The Peace Women was formed by Betty Williams and Mairead Corrigan when Mairead’s sister, Anne McGuire, lost her three children who were killed by a car occupied by IRA volunteers after it went out of control when they were shot dead by the British soldiers. This incident caught the minds of many women who responded to the call of The Peace Women and attended massive meeting and demonstrations. The Peace Women, subsequently renamed The Peace People, mobilised for a period of time, but, for various reasons, the organisation lost the impetus that it initially had. ‘Peace’ was a word that was open to contradictory interpretations in the contested circumstances of Northern Ireland, however, there were a number of attempts made by women to seek peaceful alternatives to the continuing violence that, at times, seemed endless.
1974 saw the emergence of action on issues that had previously been sidelined; these included the demand for improved childcare provision; the right to choose whether or not to continue a pregnancy; the right to live free from domestic and sexual violence, rape, and sexism; and an end to discrimination in employment, education and training. The struggle for a recognition of the rights of gay women was muted and mostly an issue within the gay community itself.
During the 70s, a Secretary of State for Northern Ireland referred homosexual reform to the Standing Advisory Committee on Human Rights for Northern Ireland. In 1976, the Committee recommended extending the 1967 reforms to Northern Ireland. In 1978, the British Government published a draft Order in Council to decriminalise homosexual conduct in Northern Ireland between men over 21 years of age, in line with the 1967 reforms in England and Wales. However, without the support of any of the 12 Northern Ireland M.P.s in the Westminster Parliament the legislation was not passed, with open opposition being expressed by the Democratic Unionist Party representatives. This proposed legislation applied to men because female homosexuality had never been declared illegal due to Queen Victoria refusing to accept that it existed.
Apart from the lack of legal reform, attitudes towards gay women and men were largely hostile resulting in many living in fear or choosing to emigrate. Nevertheless, meetings of groups took place in the 70s and Cara Friend was established in Belfast, running a helpline called Lesbian Line in 1978. Lesbian Line proved to be more than a helpline; as an organisation, it helped to organise events, conferences and meetings. Despite the hidden nature of the lifestyle, there were places that lesbian women could meet, like the Chariot Rooms in North Street which had a bar and a disco. Margaret (A) tells of how she survived in “living in a rural town, in Co Londonderry in the seventies…in the community where I lived as in many other tight-knit neighbourhoods, everyone knew everything about one another and difference was not easily tolerated. At our local university a small group of students, gay and otherwise, started a local branch of Cara Friend.” Margaret tells how she became active in Cara Friend at university and how discos and support meetings were organised. Her view of things was that “Derry/L’derry folk are great craic and the gay scene had real community spirit”. This excerpt from Threads, stories of a lesbian life and the development of the lesbian community and society in Northern Ireland, offers an insight into the gay community of the 1970s and 1980s.
In Northern Ireland, domestic violence, as in other societies, was prevalent but was often particularly violent given the accessibility of both legally and illegally held guns. This prompted Cathy Harkin, one of the founders of Derry Women’s Aid, to describe the situation as “living in an armed patriarchy”. Women, especially in nationalist areas, found it almost impossible to ask the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) for help for fear of being seen as a collaborator or informer by paramilitaries within their community. Equally, the RUC were reluctant to respond to requests for help by victims of domestic violence for fear of ambush or attack in both Loyalist and Republican areas. In her research, Hidden Violence (1982), Eileen Evason exposed the quandaries, but policy-making did little to address the situation until Monica McWilliams and Joan McKiernan published Bringing it Out into the Open (1993) a decade later. Subsequent meetings with a range of statutory agencies. including the RUC, resulted in the development of policies to respond to the needs of women who experienced domestic violence.
Incest and child abuse were also issues that tended to be hidden. In this period of political instability, children who were abused, whether in their own homes or in care homes, were rarely heard. It is now known that a number of abusers were people in positions of power, whether derived from the establishment, in high social standing, or paramilitary connections. The exposure of the Kincora Boys’ Home scandal shone a light on the gravity of this abuse, but only after a considerable length of time and a culture of denial. One case that was highlighted in the late 1970s was that of Noreen Winchester, who received a seven-year prison sentence for killing her father after years of being a victim of incest. The women’s movement rallied around Noreen Winchester’s cause and built a campaign that succeeded in securing her release from prison on the basis of a Royal Pardon.
From the mid-seventies onwards, both the demand for women’s rights and discussion of feminist ideas became more widespread and a number of women’s organisations were established. Women’s Aid was set up in 1974, opening their first refuge in 1975. That same year, the Northern Ireland Women’s Rights Movement was formed. At one of its early meetings in Transport House, Belfast (AT&GWU headquarters), a ten-point Women’s Charter, incorporating education, employment rights, childcare and extension of the 1967 Abortion Act was endorsed. It went on to organise campaigns and research as well as promoting International Women’s Day. The Socialist Women’s Group was also formed in 1975; its manifesto was launched on International Women’s Day 1976, linking the struggle for socialism with that of feminism and calling for equal pay, state provision of childcare, a woman’s right to choose regarding abortion and a number of other demands that remain relevant today.
Employment continued to be segregated along male/female lines; the main areas of work for women were cleaning, the service industry, shop and office work, the textile industry, Gallaher’s tobacco factory, the civil service, and the nursing and teaching professions. A smaller number of women worked in light engineering in factories such as Shorts and Sirocco works. Those women who worked alongside their husbands on farms were rarely paid; this work was seen as an extension of their domestic (unpaid) work.
Women were involved in the trade union movement but few were in leadership positions. Inez McCormack was a notable exception, becoming the first female full-time official of the National Union of Public Employees (NUPE, later re-named UNISON) in 1976. The Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) Women’s Committee helped to coordinate women in trade unions, taking action on a wide range of issues. This was one of the few women’s organisations that enabled women to get together to examine challenges and opportunities on an all-Ireland basis.
Commenting on the legal profession, Hart argues, “One of the most significant changes to take place in the 1970’s was the influx of women to the Bar; six women were called to the Bar” (p 271; 2013). This was an increase on previous years when Sheelagh Murnaghan was the only woman in practice at the Northern Ireland Bar. Women in work faced discrimination, experiencing lower pay, segregated employment and training. Unlike their counterparts in the rest of the United Kingdom, they were not employed as bus conductors or traffic wardens until 1973, or as post workers until after the Sex Discrimination Order (NI) was introduced in 1976. Whilst civil rights activists noted the small number of Catholics employed in Harland and Wolff shipyard, Shorts and other engineering firms, the absence of women from these jobs was the accepted norm. The Equal Opportunity Commission (N.I) (EOC NI) was established under the Sex Discrimination Order (NI) 1976, after a twelve-month campaign. When the British SDO ACT 1975 was not automatically introduced into Northern Ireland, the Women’s Law and Research Group and the Northern Ireland Women’s Rights Movement (NIWRM) lobbied trade unions, politicians and other decision-makers to extend the legislation into Northern Ireland. This legislation outlawed certain aspects of gender discrimination and provided for positive action to help redress the imbalance that existed. While the laws were limited in their ability to transform the cultural and sexist views that existed, they did help to achieve change. The early days of the EOC (NI) were not without difficulty. Inez McCormack, who represented the NI Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) as an EOC commissioner, resigned in protest over disputes of irregularities. Over time, however, equality legislation, monitoring and strategic litigation promoted by the EOC (NI) began to have an impact in counterbalancing the discrimination and inequality. This work continues.
On the cultural scene, Irish traditional music was making a comeback through the able contribution of musical families like the McPeake’s and Sands. Many young people found the music scene limited as prominent Irish and British artists were reluctant to tour Northern Ireland; Ian Dury and the Blockheads being an exception. The sectarian killings of the Irish-based Miami Showband had done little to inspire confidence.
However, towards the end of the 1970s, some young people began to break down the sectarian barriers with punk music. The Harp Bar in Belfast was one such venue. Punk music groups flourished, but the scene was very male-dominated. Two television programmes,” ‘Bout You” (UTV), and “Something Else in Belfast” (BBC), were broadcast in the late 70s, highlighting some of the problems experienced by local teenagers. The closing scene of ‘Something Else’ shows a young woman and two young men getting into a small boat - when asked what they are doing the youth replies. “We are going to Britain, I’m gay, he wants a divorce, and she wants an abortion – they are all illegal over here.
The first of Jennifer Johnston’s many novels, The Captains and the Kings, is published in 1972, and wins the Author’s Club First Novel Award; a further four novels are published in this decade, with Shadows on Our Skin (1974) shortlisted for the Booker Prize and The Old Jest (1979), winning the Whitbread Award. Maghera-born Eve Bunting, who emigrated to America in 1958, published her first children’s book The Two Giants in 1971. Winning the Golden Kite Award in 1976, Bunting is listed as one of the Educational Paperback Association’s Top 100 Authors. Much of her work is based on her Northern Irish upbringing.
The concepts of sisterhood and feminism were challenged by the election of Margaret Thatcher, as the leader of the Conservative party in 1975, and as Prime Minister four years later. Her election was supported by thousands of women across Great Britain, a fact that subsequently became the subject of critical feminist analysis. The representation of women, while essential, did not deliver progressive policies through either Thatcherism or as personified by other leading female heads of state in Asia. Gender identity has to be analysed in the context of class interests and other identities held.
The growth of the women’s movement in Northern Ireland occurred during a period of political polarisation; women experienced the divisions that existed between communities and within communities, holding political positions and aspirations that reflected both their communal identity and political allegiance. A number of women activists were, however, able to come together to celebrate International Women’s Day which was marked annually from 1975 onwards. In 1979, the first women’s centre was opened in central Belfast by the Northern Ireland Women’s Right Movement. Locally-based women’s groups also began to flourish, sowing the seeds of a burgeoning women’s movement across the North.
- Equal Pay Act (NI) passes at Westminster
- Women Together, a cross-community peace organisation, is founded by a Protestant, Ruth Agnew; and a Catholic woman, Monica Patterson. Their aim is to give a voice to women from all communities and end to violence.
- Falls Road Curfew 3rd to 5th of July - 3,000 women, mainly from the Andersonstown area of West Belfast, break the British Army curfew.
- Derry singer Dana wins the Eurovision Song Contest for Ireland with All Kinds of Everything.
- Edith Tagart (Unionist) is elected to the Northern Ireland Parliament. (1970 to 1972)
- Claire Palley becomes the first female law professor in a UK university when she is a professor of law at Queen’s University Belfast.
- The Ulster Pregnancy Information Service is established, later to become Ulster Pregnancy Advisory Association (UPAA).
- Women from the Ormeau Road, Markets and Newtownards Road area of Belfast organise a campaign against the cuts to school milk made by the then Education Minister Margaret Thatcher. (May to July)
- June: Lynda Edgerton (Walker) addresses the Belfast Council asking the council to provide milk to school children out of the education budget. The council unanimously condemn the cuts but do not support the proposal.
- August 9th: (Operation Demetrius) Internment without trial is introduced by the British Government; initially, 342 men are interned. Protests about the treatment of male relatives spur many women into political action.
- Ulster Defence Association (UDA) Women’s Unit is formed on the Shankill Road by Wendy Millar. Jean Moore subsequently heads the UDA women’s department.
- Bernadette Devlin visits prominent civil rights and communist activist Angela Davis in prison in California.
- November 4th Emma Groves, aged 51, the mother of eleven children is shot and blinded by a rubber bullet as she stands in her own home in west Belfast.
- The “Contraceptive Train”, the Women’s Liberation Movement (formed in Dublin in 1971) travel to Belfast to buy contraceptives and flout the laws by taking them back to Dublin (the use of contraceptives was illegal in the Republic of Ireland at that time). Derry woman, journalist, women’s rights and civil rights activist Nell McCafferty is one of the women involved in this action.
- Bloody Sunday, 30th January: 28 unarmed civilians are shot (14 killed) by British soldiers in Derry during NICRA protest against internment.
- Edwina Stewart is forced to leave her job as a teacher in Ashfield Girls School, East Belfast because of her involvement with NICRA and the Bloody Sunday platform.
- The Derry Peace Women (DPW) is founded in 1972 by a small group of Catholic working-class women in response to the killing of a young soldier by the Official Irish Republican Party (OIRA). Callaghan (2002)
- Phyllis Bateson is called to the Northern Ireland Bar in the Michaelmas term.
- Jean McConville, a widowed mother of 10, disappears in December 1972. She is one of eighteen people, all Catholics except for Jean (a convert). With the exception of Jean McConville and Lisa Dorian (2005), all were male; all except Lisa Dorian are said to have been abducted and killed by Republicans.
- Mary Peters wins an Olympic gold medal in the women’s pentathlon, competing for Great Britain and Northern Ireland in the Summer Olympics in Munich.
- In local elections in May, universal adult suffrage is used for the first time in Northern Ireland.
- Ann McGuire’s children are killed and the Peace Women are formed by Mairead Corrigan and Betty Williams.
- Judith Eve is called to the Northern Ireland Bar in the Michaelmas term.
- Belfast born Fionnuala O’Connor begins work as a journalist for the Irish Times. (1973 to 1986). Among other stories, she wrote about the formation of the NIWRM in 1975
- Mary Peters is awarded the Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE), and later, is awarded Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1990.
- The NI Assembly is set up by the British Government in May, to restore devolved government. Four women (5.1% of the total membership) are elected to the Assembly, Anne Dickson (Independent Unionist, South Antrim), Eileen Paisley (DUP, East Belfast), Jean Coulter (WBLC, West Belfast) and Shena Conn (UUP, Londonderry).
- Nationalist/Catholic women are interned.
- Sisters Dolores and Marion Price are sentenced to life imprisonment in Britain for their part in the bombing of the Old Bailey. During their Campaign to be moved to a prison in Northern Ireland they go on hunger strike and are force-fed by the authorities
- The Lower Ormeau Women’s Group is established.
- Queen’s Women’s Liberation group is established.
- Women’s Aid is founded in Belfast; Cathy Harkin and Avila Kilmurray are instrumental in setting up Women’s Aid in Derry in 1978 and Coleraine follows suit.
- Sappho (1974-1976) A Belfast Lesbian Group is established.
- The Ulster Workers Council ‘strike’; it has a huge impact on everyday life.
- May Blood joins the “Back to Work March” against the strike.
- Four women are called to the Northern Ireland Bar in Michaelmas term. They were: Patricia Kennedy, Eilis McDermott, Mary Lenaghan and Mayo Proctor. Mary Lenaghan (from Ardoyne in North Belfast) becomes the first female member of the Bar Council a few months later.
- Ann Ogilby from the Ardoyne in North Belfast is killed in what was named the ‘Romper Room’ Murder. Ten UDA women and one man are arrested and all but one, a minor, are imprisoned.
- Bronagh Hinds becomes the first woman president at Queen’s Student Union.
- UN: International Women’s Year (as proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly in 1972).
- The first Women’s Aid refuge opens in Belfast.
- February: headlines in the Belfast Newsletter link International Women’s Year with the election of Margaret Thatcher to the leadership of the Conservative Party. “The Pankhurst’s would have been pleased” and “A Dream Come True”.
- Northern Ireland Women’s Rights Movement (NIWRM) is formed at a film festival at Queen’s University. It seeks class unity of women with affiliations from trade unions.
- Ruth Patterson is the first woman cleric to be ordained.
- Mary McAleese nee Lenaghan is appointed Reid Professor of Criminal Law at Trinity College Dublin.
- Socialist Women’s Group (1975-1977) is formed in October by women from the Queen’s University Women’s Liberation Group and groups on the Trotskyist left – People’s Democracy, Revolutionary Marxist Group and the Irish Workers’ Group – as a means of fusing socialism with feminism.
- Price sisters are moved to a prison in Northern Ireland.
- The Equal Pay Act (1970) is enforced. It makes discrimination in relation to contractual pay and benefits unlawful.
- Lillian Murphy brings an Equal Pay case against Shorts. She wins the case but subsequently loses her job. She goes on to win a case of victimisation against Shorts.
- Cara Friend is established.
- Eileen Paisley is elected to the NI Constitutional Convention.
- Women are very active in the “Save the Shankill” protest against the redevelopment of the Shankill Road shops. Flats were built on the Shankill, ‘the Weetabix Flats’ as the residents called them, whole communities were on the move and the sense of community that had prevailed for two centuries was being destroyed.” (Jackie Redpath community activist)
- Coleraine: Eileen Evason and Mary-Clark Glass establish the Women’s Law and Research Group (WLRG) to bring legislation up to date regarding women’s rights in Northern Ireland.
- The NIWRM marks International Women’s Day on the issue of child care. Inez McCormack (NUPE), Francis McGuire (Tailor and Garment Workers Union) and Lynda (Edgerton) Walker speak at a rally in Cornmarket, Belfast.
- The Sex Discrimination Order (NI) 1976 makes it unlawful to discriminate against anyone on the grounds of his or her sex in employment, training and related matters, education, provision of goods, facilities or services and the disposal and management of premises.
- The Equal Opportunities Commission (NI) (1976-1998) (now the Equality Commission) is established to oversee the Sex Discrimination Order (NI) (1976) and Equal Pay Act (1970).
- March 8th: the Manifesto of the Socialist Women’s Group is produced linking the struggle for socialism with that of feminism.
- June: the first issue of Women’s Action is produced by the Socialist Women’s Group and sold door to door in working-class areas, outside the remaining linen mills on the Falls Road and in Belfast city centre.
- Relatives Action Committee (RAC) is formed when the British Government removes “special status” from Republican prisoners. This committee is mostly made up of women who are relatives and friends of the “political prisoners”.
- 28th October: Máire Drumm, the vice president of Sinn Féin and member of Cuman na mBan, is killed in a joint Loyalist paramilitary attack by the UVF and UDA.
- NIWRM is affiliated to the Women’s International Democratic Federation, and subsequently receives guests from Iran, Vietnam, Germany, Australia, America, Angola and South Africa. They also attend conferences in Copenhagen, Soviet Union, Hungary, Germany, Finland and other places.
- 21-year-old woman, Noreen Winchester, receives a seven-year prison sentence when she is convicted of murdering her father who had sexually abused her.
- Craigavon Women’s Group is formed by Brid Ruddy, Fran Hazleton and Patricia Morgan.
- March 1977: the first International Women’s Day Social is organised by the SWG and held in Andersonstown, on the theme of ‘solidarity with the struggle of women in Spain’.
- May Day banner of Socialist Women’s Group is forcibly removed by police, following a request from officials in ICTU.
- Lesbians in Belfast group is established. It helps to organise the all Ireland Women’s Conference in at Queen’s Extra Mural Department, Belfast.
- Socialist Women’s Group dissolves.
- Belfast Women’s Collective (1977-1980) is formed in September following the dissolution of Socialist Women’s Group, with the intention of working on a broader range of issues related to women.
- The Noreen Winchester Campaign is formed; Audrey Middleton and Sarah Nelson help to found the campaign which received support from Women’s Aid, Padraigeen Drinan and Lord Melchett, a Junior Minister in the Northern Ireland Office and a number of women’s organisations. This campaign unites women groups and is a significant catalyst in the growth of the women’s movement.
- Eileen Weir from the Shankill becomes a shop steward and subsequently a convenor for the Amalgamated Transport and General Workers Union at Gallaher’s Tobacco factory in Belfast and later in Ballymena. Eileen becomes a key activist in the women’s and community sector in later years.
- The reduced rate of National Insurance contributions for women (which began in 1948) is abolished in 1977, but women have to opt out of paying the lower rate. If they fail to do so it affects pensions and disbars women from jobseekers’ allowance and sickness benefits.
- Married women are permitted to sign on for unemployment benefit in their own right after a change in law.
- February 1978: First Tribunal hearing under the Sex Discrimination Act is taken by a female art teacher from St Column’s College, Derry, who loses her case.
- Important pioneering work begins with feminists like Margaret McCurtain publishing her book Women in Irish Society (1978)
- The Northern Ireland Women’s Aid Federation (NIWAF) is formed from local women’s aid groups.
- Noreen Winchester receives a Royal Pardon after the united campaign to have her released was organised.
- Cara Friend runs a helpline that is to later become the Lesbian Line
- Women Against Imperialism (WAI) is formed (1978-1981) by women previously involved in Belfast Women’s Collective: their meetings take place in premises in West Belfast. WAI publishes a journal called Saor Bhean: (Free Woman), their aim is to issues relating to women in the anti-imperialist struggle. WAI picket a male-only republican social club and also campaign on the general issue of violence against women.
- Hester Dunn begins to work for the Ulster Defence Association.
- The Matrimonial Causes (NI) Order 1978 is introduced; this provides for only one ground for divorce, namely “irretrievable breakdown of marriage” (as introduced in Britain the in early 1970’s).
- Strip Search Campaign: Women start to campaign against the use of strip searching of Republican/Nationalist women prisoners.
- Women Against Imperialism (WAI) help to organise the first picket on International Women’s Day at Armagh prison which becomes a focal point for an end to strip searching. Feminists attend from Britain and other countries to support Republican women prisoners. Eleven women are arrested at the demonstration, eight of whom were members of WAI. Subsequently, two of them go to prison rather than pay fines, where they join the "No Wash" protest. However, Sinn Fein have women prisoners in Armagh and Sinn Fein become active on this issue, organising the campaign and running buses to Armagh.
- Belfast Women’s Collective organise a two-day conference on childbirth, contraception and abortion, attended by 120 women from many areas in the north. It provides the inspiration for the formation of the NI Abortion campaign.
- Monthly ‘Unity’ meetings between different women’s groups begin, using various locations in an effort to establish common ground between different women’s groups.
- All-Ireland Women’s Liberation Conference, October, is held in Belfast, organised by Belfast Lesbian group.
- NIWRM hold a conference to mark International Year of the Child in Maysfield Leisure Centre. The conference examines the problems facing women regarding childbirth and poverty and is addressed by leading gynaecologist Professor Pinkerton from Queen’s University.
- Margaret Thatcher is elected the first woman Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, prompting women to critically examine the term “sisterhood” even more.
- International Women’s Day is marked by NIWRM in the UCAT (Construction Workers Union, May Street) office, with a showing of the film Rosie the Riveter; the guest speaker is Anne Speed. A political meeting is held in the Labour Club, with guest speakers from Vietnam.
- Belfast’s first women’s centre is opened by NIWRM in Donegall Street. Known initially as Belfast Women’s Centre, the name changes in the 1980s to Downtown Women’s Centre, in recognition of other newly opened women’s centres. The centre is a conduit for the growing feminist and women’s organisations; Belfast Rape Crisis Centre, “Unity” meetings, the Belfast Women’s Collective, the Northern Ireland Abortion Campaign and the Women’s Education Project are among those groups who meet or are first based in the centre.
- Avila Kilmurray at the Community Action Research Project, Magee College Derry, works with other community activists to plan a number of radio programmes about women for the BBC for broadcast in the 1980s.
- In January 1979; Ms Eileen Evason brought a sex discrimination case against McGlades public bar. Ms Evason went along with others to the bar but she was refused service by the staff; they were told that women were not allowed in the bar. McGlades argued that their public bar was for men only and it was a long-established practice and that to admit women might cause embarrassment. The judge was to find in favour of Ms Evason and award her £25 damages and an undertaking by McGlades to end the discrimination of refusing to allow women in the public bar. (EOC annual report)
- July: Charlotte Hutton dies as a result of a backstreet abortion.
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