Despite the machismo that has beset the Left, solidarity and organising, from the Miners’ Strike to the Troubles, has often centred on the home.
A cook making a cake in her kitchen, 1933 (Topical Press Agency / Getty Images)
Over the festive period the government launched its ‘30 second’ media campaign in response to the cost of living crisis, which shows how many energy saving actions you can perform in the duration of a short advert. Footage shows people closing curtains, switching lights off, changing bulbs and turning down the flow temperature on their boilers. These cost-cutting tips have, of course, been coming from various outlets in a steady stream over the past year; I can’t remember a time that the minutiae of our homes was given such attention in media and political discourse, with pundits and ‘money saving experts’ talking to us about the length of time we keep an oven on or the spaces between degrees on a thermostat dial. The home here is a site of personal responsibility; our government of millionaires might throw us the odd, scant bit of financial help and some money saving advice, but ultimately it is up to us, as individual home-dwellers, to heat our houses and feed ourselves amidst this crisis.
I’ve spent the last six years thinking intensely about the politics of the home and examining ways that domestic space can become something more than this atomised realm of individualised labour. In 2017 I moved to the North of Ireland to begin my PhD on women’s experiences of the home during the Troubles and when I talked to people there about my research, they would often tell me their own stories of what they or women they know did in everyday life during the conflict. Among these accounts were explicit acts of political resistance and solidarity—providing food and shelter for activists, breaking through British Army lines to bring food to neighbourhoods under curfew, rent strikes and organising support for prisoners. This is home as a site of activism and political possibility and the concept of ‘radical domesticity’ became central to my thinking on the subject.
But there were also the more ‘unremarkable’ stories of women continuing to do what they had always done: feeding and caring for family members, friends, colleagues and neighbours. This might have happened while there was a riot raging or an army raid taking place, or it might have happened at a time of relative calm. Bernadette Devlin McAliskey in the 1991 documentary Mother Ireland summed up the gendered nature of this care when she pronounced, with more than a touch of indignation, that during the Battle of the Bogside ‘women were still providing three square meals a day and men were still eating them.’ Feminists have always understood that what happens in the home is political, that how we feed and care for ourselves is a question that must be addressed almost before any other. This not just a question of material means—wages, benefits, access to housing and other resources, all areas that the mainstream left is very comfortable discussing; it is a question of who does the feeding and care, how it is organised, in whose interests and how everyone feels about all this, areas which the mainstream left, historically, has been pretty terrible at addressing.
I recently rewatched the film Pride, which, through its story of inspiring intersectional solidarity, demonstrates how political struggle can transform the home into something radical and collective, as social clubs, community centres and the houses of friends, family and neighbours become central to everybody’s lives. It draws attention to the essential and expansive nature of care, which is provided through the collection of food parcels for miners and community fundraising for the heating of strikers’ homes. It also shows NUM members opening up their houses to LGSM activists and vice versa, conversations being had and unlikely connections made, as people debate, laugh, dance and kiss; here the home is a space of emotional possibility and joy, which is in turn also a vital strand of political discovery and sustenance. These scenes reminded me of the stories I’d come across while doing my research—in the accounts of the women I interviewed, in the literature I read and in feminist histories of the conflict—and in the everyday conversations I’ve had with friends and colleagues who lived through the conflict. Home extends into neighbourhoods, streets and onto picket lines and stretches across geographical barriers; it is where discoveries and transformations take place and relationships are changed and deepened.
During the Battle of the Bogside in 1969 when this nationalist Derry neighbourhood fought back against the attacks of the RUC and B Specials, local resident Eileen Doherty set up her home as the meeting place for the Citizens Defence Committee. This defence comprised not only physical resistance to the invasions, but also the creation of a community canteen in Doherty’s home to feed and sustain activists, it being much easier to find the strength to fight if you have had one of those ‘square meals’ McAliskey refers to. Further back, arguably the first civil rights demonstration in Northern Ireland—since overshadowed in popular memory by subsequent male-led demonstrations—was organised by a group of women in Dungannon, County Tyrone in 1963. Angela McCrystal, Susie Dinsmore and Anne Dunlop were driven by the poor quality and overcrowding of their homes to take action to highlight and protest their plight, forming the Homeless Citizens’ League. The women started by informally surveying those living in their area about housing needs and by organising several demonstrations at the Dungannon council offices, explicitly foregrounding their roles as mothers as they all wheeled their prams along with them. These women eventually organised a squat of prefabricated houses due for demolition, and these actions lead to the formation of the Campaign for Social Justice, a key organisation in the early days of the civil rights campaign.
Radical domesticity is also there during the Falls Road curfew in July 1970, which was imposed on the nationalist area by the British Army after resistance to their raids of residents’ homes. Hearing that their neighbours were unable to leave their homes to get food and provisions, the women of nearby Andersonstown organised a march to break through army lines and bring with them supplies such as bread and milk. This is a powerful example of how something associated with the domestic sphere—feeding, caring, providing—can be brought out into the open and deployed in explicitly political ways and there are examples of this occurring throughout the Troubles and, of course, in many other situations of political resistance.
These campaigns are sometimes seized on by political movements as propaganda tools, to prove the righteousness of their causes—women activists, in these circumstances, can easily become instrumentalised in the service of what are still essentially patriarchal political movements not interested in properly addressing domestic labour and gender inequality in the home. Wives and mothers are paid sentimental tribute to in the speeches of politicians but still expected to work for free, unrecognised most of the time. But there is agency in domesticity; it can be withdrawn or deployed in particular ways and can also be used, as in the cases above, to create mutually caring and supportive spaces and enact the kind of changes people want to see in the wider world. It is imperative that we think properly about what drove women to take this action. The home is not just a backdrop to the ‘real’ politics happening outside, it is a political space in itself, and deserves to be treated as such.
There were subtle political processes and transformations occurring in homes. The discussions and disagreements around kitchen tables and in living rooms, in which decisions were made and political subjectivities developed. The ways in which people reorganised their homes and routines in response to the violence outside it to keep their families safe. The women whose husbands were in prison who created alternative domesticities in their absence and discovered more freeing and satisfying ways of organising their households. For people who didn’t fit easily into the nationalist/unionist Irish/British binaries, the home was often a battleground. Queer communities had to defend their existence amidst a violently patriarchal and heteronormative society and create spaces of safety and mutual support. Feminists organised extremely risky cross-community support for women who had experienced domestic violence. (The feminist trade unionist and Derry Women’s Aid founder Cathy Harkin coined the term ‘armed patriarchy’ to describe how the militarised nature of daily life in Northern Ireland worsened violence in the home.)
Radical domesticity, then, is also about the attention we pay to these spaces; how it shifts our sites of knowledge away from singular iconic events and individuals, towards people’s everyday lives and expands our way of understanding of political struggle. The feminist anti-capitalist Wages for Housework campaign, which marked its fiftieth anniversary last year, was hugely significant in this area, with activists including Selma James, Maria Dalla Costa and Silvia Federici making the demand to denaturalise the plane of housework and make visible how politically indispensable it is. In the area of the north of Ireland and the Troubles I have found myself among an exciting and dynamic community of activists, critics and writers who are doing important work to politicise our discussions of daily life and intimacy. The writer and academic Caroline Magennis has written powerfully about what such a reorientation could look like, when she demands
‘a criticism that would be as attentive to the experiences of my late grandmother, who raised six girls and a boy in Portadown during the Troubles, as it would be to the experiences of a combatant; that would consider teenage girls deciding the risk was worth it to go to a nightclub in Mid-Ulster in the 1990s a kind of political act.’
These arguments, stories and campaigns offer us a chance to reframe our politics and our activism, building on the efforts that were started in community mutual aid groups during lockdown and ensuring that we see our homes as sites of radical political action. Communities are already organising collectively around these domestic functions, with community kitchens, the rise of ‘warm banks’ in community centres, libraries and other public spaces, and fundraising and food donations for striking workers. Such a reframing need not mean we take our eye off the bigger picture; of course we must fight for structural change, point out the inequity of our economic systems and push for those in power to do better with whatever means we have at our disposal. But at the same time as this we can offer practical solidarity to each other; we can organise together in our homes and neighbourhoods, discuss the most effective ways of taking action with our friends, neighbours and family and, crucially, ensure those the most vulnerable and exposed are supported and cared for. Starting with the home and working outwards, this will in turn help us reimagine fairer ways of organising our lives.Original post