An American Feminist in Ireland: What I Learned on Voting Day to Repeal the 8th
By Gigi Engle
I assumed when my older brother/favorite straight white man invited me on a trip to Ireland to show me where he went to school and meet his friends, we’d just get kind of, you know, get shitfaced a lot.
I never imagined what I’d find on my trip to Dublin. I knew the rally to repeal the eighth was happening around the same time, but I figured we’d just drink ourselves into oblivion and dance on a few tables. I mean, obviously a lot of that did end up happening (I’m not here to lie), but it was so much more than drunken debauchery and shifting (Irish slang for making out).
Before leaving for Ireland, I wasn’t sure how this referendum would play out. My favorite news sources projected that the repeal would pass, but everywhere I looked I saw videos of angry protesters on the “No” side. I couldn’t easily find information on the campaign to repeal, only the occasional annoyed campaigner discussing how they weren’t able to put signs up right away. *sketchy.*
As an outsider with literally no fucking idea what was going on, it felt like the organizers didn’t have their shit together. I was worried it wouldn’t go the way pro-choice activists hoped.
A few months before my trip, I reached out to Together For Yes, the leading organization running the campaign to repeal. I figured as a women’s rights activist, it would be a good opportunity to show support for my international sisters in their own fight. I wasn’t there to overshadow the women of Ireland, I simply wanted to be there to show that they weren’t in this alone.
I even had a joke planned about being the American representative who wasn’t shifting a bunch of shadow money into the anti-abortion campaign. (*Hint hint, wink wink* but seriously, pretty sure we all know it’s a lot of American dollars that fund this kind of shit).
When it came to speaking at a rally, I wasn’t able to get a straight answer on what the pro-side were planning and how I could be involved. This only furthered compounded my worry.
If you’re wondering what this whole referendum is about in the first place, you can read about it here, here and here in detail. For those of us in the US, it can be difficult to keep up with the what’s what of international politics when our own country feels like a giant shitshow of epic proportions 99.7% of the time.
As The Guardian simply puts it, the aim of the referendum was to remove the language in the constitution says that, “It recognises an equal right to life for both mother and unborn child, effectively prohibiting abortion in almost all cases.” This means Irish women who want to obtain an abortion must either fly to the UK or have an illegal abortion procedure.
Something important to note is that this is one small slice of a much larger issue surrounding the legalization of abortion in Ireland. While it would remove the language in the constitution that equates the life of a fetus and mother, it does not make abortion legal. It opens the door for legislation to be formed by lawmakers, but has not changed the law itself.
I never did speak in front of any crowds during my time in Dublin. As it were, the rallies were organized in the weeks before my trip, so there wasn’t much for me to do on the day of referendum. Here I was, in Dublin, with a story assigned, and no stage to speak on. I felt a little like Cinderella without a date to the ball, only a little more pro-choice and a little less glass slipper.
I decided on a different approach: I’d go the fuck out there and see what the hell was going on. Sure, I can stand on a stage and talk about international human rights until I’m blue in the face. Yes, I can take to a microphone and spout off dangerous illegal abortion statistics and orate non-stop about how our bodies are constantly marginalized.
But, not to put a damper on the importance of publicly speaking out against injustice, but isn’t that kind of fucking boring?
Instead, I decided to take the partying portion of my Irish adventure to talk to the men and women who were there to vote, the ones who would make the change happen, or watch it fail. I wanted to understand the feelings from those on the ground, the ones who would take to the ballot boxes on Friday and choose (or not choose) to make a difference.
What I witnessed was one of the most deeply profound, youth-lead grassroots feminist movements to ever exist in my lifetime, if I do say so myself. The millennials of Ireland took to the streets, to social media, to every corner of the country. Girls and boys in “YES!” tank tops held signs on nearly every intersection of Dublin, handing out “I VOTED YES” stickers to giddy passerby who had just come from the voting boxes. “Do you want a sticker!?” a tall, skinny boy said to a woman pushing a stroller. “Yes! I just voted!” He placed the sticker on her finger and she excitedly placed it on her sweater.
The vote was all anyone wanted to talk about. The passion was so fiery it intoxicated everyone and everything, leaving electricity in the air. To be honest, the Irish youth are a lot cooler than us, guys. This was some magical shit.
Everyone we were visiting had their days planned around voting. Not a single person I asked had abstained.
Later that evening, I went to a party at our friend Adam’s apartment. He lives in a typical post-college boy duplex that kind of feels like it’ll give you a rash.
Now, despite Adam’s disgusting bathroom, he is a gem of a human. One of the things that stuck out about this experience was the passion felt by the young men of Ireland, the deeply felt solidarity they seemed to hold close in the injustices being lain upon their female counterparts. Adam was asked to speak on a prominent Irish news channel about the referendum. He sent the producer an email saying that, while he felt passionate about the vote and was happy to speak on it, he knew many women who were far more qualified than he to offer their voices. He didn’t want to bog a woman down by speaking on their behalf. Pretty badass.
We drank prosecco and cheap beer while we waited for the numbers to come in. I spent much of my time that evening listening to the stories of Dublin women, their many experiences with healthcare, and their hopes for the future.
The referendum was passed by 66.6% percent. That is a huge margin! We’re not just talking about Dublin here. There was a landslide victory in the rural parts of Ireland as well. Rebecca Noonan, 24, an activist and regular protester, notes that she knows people well into their 70s and 80s who voted “Yes.” She pointed to county Kerry, known for its rural roots and deeply religious background - still voting in the high fiftieth percentile to pass the referendum.
According to The Independent, “The turnout was 53 per cent, amounting to around 1.2 million people. Only five constituencies returned No votes, including four in Dublin.” Think about it this way: the American 2016 presidential election was decided by a vote of 57% in the Electoral College. We’re talking about a country 140 times bigger than Ireland and 66.6% voted YES.
This is honestly mind blowing. As the votes came in, women and men alike rejoiced at the party. Rebecca broke down into tears of joy. “It felt really incredible to be there,” she says of the experience. “It was really empowering. It was a heavy victory, I suppose you could say. So many women, all women on the island of Ireland have done so much work for this.” She says it was sad as well because even though after 35 years of battling that they had this victory, there was still so much pain, anguish, and death that had to come before. Rebecca says that this win felt like the culmination of every age group, gender, and person of Ireland coming together. “But to be there, in the middle of it. I’ll never forget it.”
The amazing lady-gang around me took turns holding each other up to twerk against doors. Toasts were made. Women hugged each other proclaiming each other “QUEENS” and listing their many, many amazing qualities. It was a tunnel of love on a small island in the Atlantic. Change was everywhere and we could feel it in our bones.
To see a country that has come so far was incredibly emotional for me personally. Ireland only signed legal divorce into law in 1996. And now, here we are in 2018, watching the next generation of Irish youth rejecting the toxic Catholic roots of a notoriously religious country to take on new beginnings.
“This was very much on the shoulders of women, on the women who protest, on the women who fight,” Rebecca says. “This wasn't for me. This was for the women who couldn’t, for the women you can’t for whatever reason.”
This was a beautiful, poignant look at the power of the youth. We’re not to be reckoned with, and when we decide there will be change, we make the change happen. You can tell a millennial they spend too much money on avocado toast, but don’t you dare tell us we don’t care.