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The Politics of Personal Narrative: Race, Class and Feminism Since the Irish ‘Second Wave’

Abstract: The articulation of experiences and lives formerly unspoken of or silenced has been a central motif in writing by women in Ireland over recent decades. ‘The personal is political’ was more than a second-wave slogan; the truth of the feminist maxim is attested to by the transformative effects that women’s personal narratives have had in Irish culture and society over the last half century. While autobiographical writing by well-known women in the literary and political fields has helped to erode what seemed an unassailable dominant Irish male perspective, marginalised women’s lives can also be erased or appropriated within the complex politics of the (self) representation of women. In this talk I will focus on the silencing effects for some women in Ireland of dominant feminist self-narratives by both women writers and feminist activists. Access to self-representation is in part articulated through generic and disciplinary classifications that are inextricable from the ‘interlocking systems of oppression’ in which they are constituted, making explicit the co-implication of form, knowledge, and power. As Gayatri Spivak observes, as distinct from autobiography, ‘testimony is the genre of the subaltern giving witness to oppression to a less oppressed other.’ How women get to tell their stories, for what purpose, in what context, within what shaping perimeters, and with what degree of authorial and editorial control is often determined by women’s differential positions in terms of class, race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, citizenship, and institutional power. Through an analysis of selected literary autobiography, feminist memoir, feminist ethnographies, and women’s personal testimony this talk aims to explore some of these issues and how they might inform contemporary emancipatory feminisms in Ireland.

Bio: Anne Mulhall is a lecturer in the School of English, Drama & Film at UCD, and co-director with Ursula Barry of the UCD Centre for Gender, Feminisms & Sexualities. She has published extensively in feminist, gender and queer theory, 20th-century and contemporary Irish writing and cultural production, and the politics of representation with particular focus on issues of race, citizenship, class, sexuality and gender.