Disability rights activist Rosaleen McDonagh shares the importance of considering intersectionality in upcoming care referendum

Rosaleen McDonagh shares a reflection on the importance of considering intersectionality when voting in the upcoming care referendum.

This article is about the care referendum. In the photo, activist Rosaleen McDonagh smiling at the camera.
Image: Hazel Coonagh

Activist Rosaleen McDonagh reflects on the importance of solidarity and considering intersectionality when deciding how to vote in the upcoming care referendum on March 8.

As a Traveller feminist, very often the conflicts between culture, tradition and contemporary Traveller female identity are hard to pin down. It’s messy and slips in too many areas of female struggle.  Being a disabled feminist is complex. Feminism has a habit of compromising disabled women. Access to women’s services for deaf and disabled women is problematic. Reproductive rights issues are challenging for most women, particularly those with disability. During the 8th amendment campaign, many disabled women supported the yes vote. This was done with honour, pride and grace, prioritising the well-being of other women.

The 8th Amendment, marriage equality, and the care referendum are significant for disabled feminism. The repeal of the 8th Amendment marked a crucial step towards acknowledging the autonomy of all women, including those with disabilities. Marriage equality, in turn, extended its impact beyond the mere legal framework of same-sex unions, fostering a broader ethos of acceptance and inclusivity, crucial for disabled women navigating lesbian and queer relationships. The care referendum, highlighting the importance of compassionate policies, particularly resonates with disabled women who often face unique challenges in accessing adequate support. Words become powerful tools in this discourse, shaping narratives that amplify the voices and experiences of disabled women within the broader spectrum of disability feminism. These moments in legal and societal evolution highlight the ongoing efforts to dismantle discriminatory barriers, ensuring the diversity and dignity of all women, including disabled women.

The feminist philosopher Judith Butler explores “Gender Trouble,” discussing how we understand and perform gender. In their investigation, they bring up the idea that we learn gender roles not just because of who we are but also because of how society cares about us. Butler also talks about how disabilities and impairments play a role in shaping our ideas about gender. They say, “Let’s not forget that everyone is unique, and our differences shouldn’t limit our opportunities.” So, disability and gender are like characters in the same story, and Butler wants us to question why we see them the way we do.

Examining “Disability Trouble” unveils the intricate interplay between identity and societal norms. In this analogous journey, the concepts of care and ableism take centre stage, mirroring the challenges faced by individuals who navigate the complex terrain of gender expectations. Both Gender Trouble and Disability Trouble thus become chapters in a broader narrative of societal interdependence, urging us to rewrite the script with an inclusive vocabulary and a commitment to dismantling oppressive structures. Just as feminism challenges traditional gender roles, disability discourse demands a re-evaluation of ableist structures. Delving into queer history further enriches this comparison, revealing the interconnectedness of struggles against normative frameworks.

Feminism and disability attempt to grasp the intricate connections between societal interpretations of human differences and the validation of discriminatory behaviours, influencing the experiences of both women with disabilities and those without disabilities. Gender Trouble is about shaking up the way we think about gender, caring for each other, considering disabilities, and breaking free from traditional gender roles. 

The context of wording in the Constitutional referendum on the “care amendment” (new Article 42B) happening this week is different. The Women’s movement seems to have allowed the State to minimise who is seen as a rights holder. The recommendation of the Citizens’ Assembly around this legislation recognises both those providing and receiving care and the State’s involvement in supporting both cohorts of people, so it’s disappointing that it was not the basis for the proposed wording of the referendum on March 8.

The women’s organisations in this debate appear to have momentum in this vote and are presented as holding the high moral ground. Their rhetoric is carefully crafted: it has apparent respectability, rationality and reasonableness. Feminism and disability rights politics are understood as women living dichotomous lives. As a Traveller woman with a disability, my politics continuously evolve, collide and overlap. 

There is unanimity on the imperative to dismantle the current feminisation of care, which extends its tendrils into childcare, care of older people and support for disabled people. There is agreement on the urgent need to change the current wording of the Constitution.

The division that has emerged around the referendum concerns the proposed wording for the “care amendment”, and it reflects a chasm between the feminist movement and disabled women. This time, we expected a more critical response from feminists toward the government’s flawed wording for the “care amendment”.

Disabled women find themselves entangled in a predicament as a result, one that is further exacerbated by the government’s unwillingness to implement the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) and ratify the optional protocol. The UNCRPD Optional Protocol establishes a mechanism for individual complaints. It is a side agreement, and this incomplete implementation of the Convention leaves disabled individuals without a legal guarantee for or provision of necessary support or pathways to address and secure the requirements for independent living.

Any feminist discourse revolves around a woman’s lived reality. The universality of sexism and misogyny highlights the necessity of solidarity within the women’s movement. Defending the intricacies of feminist struggles and aligning with those in power does not condemn feminism and its principles but rather reveals the pervasive influence of patriarchal ideologies. Even the most well-intentioned movements are affected by this phenomenon.

It is my belief that there is a systemic gender bias embedded within disability organisations, and this perpetuates a context that undermines the rights of women with disabilities. The leadership and hierarchies, including the decision-making processes and overall organisational culture, often mirror broader societal inequalities, side-lining the voices and concerns of women. The consequences are far-reaching, impacting not only the representation of disabled and deaf women but also exerting influence on social policy that does not address our interests.

Solidarity means recognising diversity and taking an intersectional perspective. Intersectionality is defined as “the complex, cumulative way in which the effects of multiple forms of discrimination (such as racism, sexism , homophobia and classism) combine, overlap, or intersect especially in the experiences of marginalised individuals or groups”. Solidarity with this approach highlights the crucial need for feminism to evolve beyond a one-size-fits-all approach.

Black feminist Kimberlé Crenshaw emphasises intersectionality is not about a hierarchy of oppression but the intersection of multiple forms of discrimination. Diversity is often met with scepticism or, worse, hostility. Embracing diverse identities is essential for innovation, understanding, influence and progress. The loss of respect for disabled and deaf women inhibits the collective growth of feminist politics.

The wording of the “care amendment” (42B) proposed by the government and espoused by the mainstream women’s movement unwittingly reinforces patriarchal norms, thus perpetuating systemic inequalities. The phrase “to strive”, used in the proposed “care amendment”, carries with it a weight of insult and infantilisation for women and girls with disabilities. It signals a potential continuation of the status quo, wherein disabled individuals remain passive recipients of “care”.

This situation shows a stark denial of choices, rights, bodily integrity, freedom and independence. These are the very tenets that form the guiding principles of feminism. We wanted and expected more from Irish feminism. To embrace more empowering and respectful language that appreciates and articulates the strength, resilience and agency of women with disabilities.

In the words of disability rights advocate Judy Heumann, “Inclusion occurs when diversity is embraced when every woman can participate and reach her full potential”. The existing barriers limit the participation of deaf and disabled women in feminist spaces. The current positioning of the mainstream women’s movement about the care referendum negates any potential for this inclusion. Adequately responding to these challenges requires a concerted effort to make women’s struggles truly inclusive, be conscious of and accommodate the diverse needs of disabled and deaf women. This should start with the referendum on a new Article 42B for the Constitution.

To be compromised and left to one side by a mainstream women’s movement feels shameful. Deaf and disabled women have paid the price of being abused, disrespected, ignored and considered a nuisance. Feminism and disability politics need to find a way of coexisting. The contribution of disabled feminists needs to be acknowledged. The oppression of disabled women is linked to the cultural oppression and shaming of women’s bodies. Disabled women’s experiences reflect the bigger picture of being a woman.

In the intricate fabric of human connections, the principles of care and support are vital. This fabric is often tainted by the pervasive stains of sexism and ableism perpetuated by the structures of patriarchy, which is both damaging to men as it is to women. The historical tapestry of queer history serves as a crucial guide. It is a critical element, as the dynamics of power and privilege are woven into the narratives of care, support and empowerment. 



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