All entries for Tuesday 12 June 2007

June 12, 2007

Kathryn Kirkpatrick’s Introduction to Border Crossings

Kirkpatrick begins her introduction by discussing the difficulty involved in telling ‘the story of women’s writing in Ireland’ (1). Like Irish writers themselves, the critic must avoid the mythologies that have been constructed around Irish women: ‘the virginal Hibernia, the Shan Van Vocht, Cathleen Ni Houlihan, the Dark Rosaleen, Mother Ireland’ (1). In creating this kind of criticism, the nation state can be extremely problematic, because ‘joining Irish nationalists meant walking back into the house, putting on the apron of servitude, locking the door, and throwing away the key’ (1).

Kirkpatrick reminds us of Sheehy-Skeffington who co-founded the Irish Women’s Franchise League in 1908 and who was one of the first to suggest that the oppression of women in Ireland could not be solely blamed on Anglicisation. Other feminists disagreed of course, such as Countess Markievicz who, writing in 1909, argued for the necessity of a nation even fro women. Kirkpatrick wonders whether these seemingly different views may in fact represent ‘a difference of emphasis’ (2).

If Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington put feminism first in the feminist-nationalist equation, she also suggested that with free Irish women an emancipated Ireland would follow: sexual equality was the only solid foundation to build a nation. And if Markievicz seemed to put her nationalism before her feminism, it was only a hair’s breadth: in working for a free Ireland women were working with their own vision of the egalitarian state. (2).

What Kirkpatrick admires about both of these women is the way in which they promoted debate about feminism and the nation-state.

Modern feminists have complicated the debate further as critics like Edna Longley suggest that there can be nothing in common between nationalism, unionism and feminism because of the ‘absolutist and essentialist forms of self-definition’ that cannot be accepted by feminism (3). Longley prefers the ‘fluid boundaries of region’ that promote diversity rather than ‘the hard lines of national borders’ that homogenise all subjects within them (3). However, other feminists can see potential in the nation state. Kirkpatrick points us to the historian, Carol Coulter, because Coulter makes the point that national debates have given women a public stage. For Coulter, communal culture can be useful in creating an alternative nation state ‘without rigid hierarchies’ (4). As in the case of Sheehy-Skeffington and Markievicz, Kirkpatrick wonders whether these two modern feminists have found the same solution although by different routes and using different terminology.

Kirkpatrick suggests that this confusion might have emerged from uncertainty over signposting. Quoting from Yuval-Davis’ and Anthias’ book, Woman-Nation-State, Kirkpatrick notes that terms like state, civil society, nation, nationality and national identity do not necessarily mean or refer to similar things. Yuval-Davis and Anthias differentiate between the nation-state and civil society, and they express the view that ‘the state [is] a specific and concrete practice informed by and informing the nation as a more general and amorphous social and cultural process’ (5). In the nation, there is the possibility of border crossings and while the state may exclude women, there is a strong possibility of changing a national culture. The purpose of the book is to consider such possibilities.

Kirkpatrick makes the point that while Irish women’s history has been explored by academics, their literary history has not been covered. This has left poets like Eavan Boland without women mentors according to Kirkpatrick. The Irish woman writer with ‘experiences as outsiders in both colonial and postcolonial contexts, can provide valuable alternative visions of community, identity, and nation’ (6).

Border Crossings: Irish Women Writers and National Identity. Ed. Kathryn Kirkpatrick. Tuscaloosa and London: University of Alabama Press, 2000. 1 – 12.


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