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Book Review ‘Seeking to transform our lives for a better world’

LYNNE WALSH recommends a book of inspiration to gladden the heart of campaigners young and old, naive and experienced

Phenomenal Women: A Decade of Action
edited by Lynda Walker, Anne McVicker, Helen Crickard and Danielle Roberts
Reclaim the Agenda £15 plus P&P

 

THERE are some books that should be read in groups, rather than alone.

And I don’t mean as recommended reading for a book club. I’d like to sit with this one, on comfy sofas with women friends, and many cups of tea, just browsing, marvelling at what female power can achieve.

At nearly 200 pages, it covers a decade of activism and campaigning from women’s rights collective, Belfast-based Reclaim The Agenda (RTA).

Co-editor Lynda Walker says: “We’re not leaving it to chance for Reclaim The Agenda’s Herstory to be left invisible and untold, and so this book represents just some of the many hours that we have spent working together, learning about each other, our differences, and appreciating the way that others think and live, while seeking to transform our lives to a better world.”

It’d be easy to dismiss the publication as a kind of scrapbook-cum-photo album. It’s crammed with memorabilia, from snaps to posters and banners, with a few agendae and notes from meetings thrown in.

But there is inspiration here, to gladden the heart of campaigners young and old, naive and experienced. Sheer persistence, coupled with a ton of creative ideas, shines from every page.

A snap showing some of the women on an open-top bus in winter sunshine belies the slog that went into the project, their HERitage Bus Tours. Anyone involved with preparing funding applications will know the hard work that chore demands.

The Heritage Lottery Fund awarded enough for them to start in 2011, and the tours were still running before Covid restrictions kicked in. The project celebrates the lives, work and politics of the women of Belfast.

The RTA feminist collective got going when they felt that International Women’s Day (IWD) should be particularly focused on working women. The group say: “The majority of women in the world are workers — working by hand or brain. Thousands are on low pay and millions are in unpaid work in the home.”

Acknowledging their pre-2010 history, they include a poster promoting IWD protests from 1979 at Armagh prison, demanding an end to strip-searching of Republican prisoners. There’s a reflection here, that some organisations eschewed these events, “because it was seen as support for nationalist or republican military actions.”  

Skip to 2013, and the women are making sashes and rosettes, marking 100 years since Suffragettes held open air meetings in Ormeau Park.

The book tells us: “Working with single identity groups who loved sashes of a different kind ... and using a practical approach of sewing and chatting enabled us to engage with groups who would not normally sign up for a workshop on suffrage.”  

Another tangible sign of the collective’s inclusive approach is the creation of a mural, “Banquet,” a colourful collaboration between RTA and Shankill Women’s Centre. Artist Rita Duffy depicted local women, representing struggle over two centuries. The group termed it, “the first anti-sectarian, non-military mural for a long while [to] go up on the Shankill Road.” (It’s now on the Peace Wall in the city’s Cupar Way.)

Duffy created a broad pastiche of da Vinci’s Last Supper, with figures from suffragettes to a worker in hi-vis jacket, and there’s Walker, in her trademark cap festooned with badges.

Some of the problems the RTA women have tackled are perennial: reproductive rights, decent childcare, equality in marriage and civil partnerships, the inclusion of women’s voices in policy-making.

In 2014, their work had a typically internationalist theme; worldwide, they asked why women were not involved in peace talks, notably in the Ukraine, the Middle East and Venezuela.

At home, they demanded the release from prison of 79-year-old feminist Margaretta D’Arcy, who’d been given a three-month sentence in Limerick jail for scaling the fence at Shannon airport, protesting against US military stopovers there.

A few years later, RTA  and Women’s Aid called for an end to the “Rape Clause,” after the government decided to limit child tax credit to families with two children — unless a further child was the result of rape.

There are visits from luminaries of the movement over the years, with Angela Davis and Aleida Guevara among them. But these pages are packed with leading lights, persisting, demanding change.

Contributor Amanda Ferguson from the Women in Media initiative, sums it up: “There is no let up, no done deal. There will be attempts to roll back and reverse what has been achieved so we will always have to amplify, demand, edge, fight, push, protest and raise our voices to deliver.

“There is so much work to be done because none of us are free until we are all free. There is nothing else for it but to keep moving forward ... just passing the baton to each other in a powerful, dynamic, glorious relay. ”

Available through Reclaim the Agenda by contacting, [email protected] or contact Shanway Press, 15 Crumlin Road, Belfast BT14 6AA, www.shanway.com

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