Bringing a Lifetime of Campaign Experience to the Campaign for Repeal

Aoife Hardesty meets with Senator Alice-Mary Higgins to discuss her work in campaigning for women’s rights.

Senator Alice-Mary Higgins was elected to the Seanad in 2016, the first woman elected to the NUI panel in the Seanad in 36 years. She was previously policy coordinator at the National Women’s Council of Ireland and holds a BA degree in English and Philosophy from UCD. In February, Higgins returned to UCD for the Women in Leadership conference where she joined an all-female panel of “Policy Influencers,” afterwards she spoke to the University Observer about the work she has done in campaigning for women’s rights.

Higgins’ beginnings in campaigning took place as a teenager “when I first marched for repeal… another campaign was divorce which was a very crucial issue for everyone in society but especially for women.” Today, she sees the “huge, key, massive area is we need to address making sure that  women are treated equally in our constitution and we need to make sure that women have the same rights to bodily autonomy and to proper healthcare and to decision-making within healthcare as men.”

Higgins was a child when the 8th amendment was introduced to the constitution, and she believes that it is important to note that there were “people who didn’t agree with the 8th amendment when it first happened in 1983.” Those are the people who campaigned against it at the time and “some of them are still campaigning. We owe a huge debt to those who have carried that voice of opposition and challenged through.”

“We owe a huge debt to those who have carried that voice of opposition and challenged through.”

Discussions about the 8th amendment are often protrayed as being divisive, but Higgins believes that that is not how the discussion needs to be. She thinks the process so far, between the Citizens’ Assembly and the Oireachtas Committee has been “very positive in terms of putting real evidence and real experiences of women into the public domain. We’ve talked about the hard decisions that women and medical professionals are having to make everyday, and we’ve talked about the need for not making those decisions anymore in a climate of secrecy, but making sure whatever choices women make that they are supported.” Coming from those discussions, Higgins thinks the debate ahead of the referendum “can be a positive one,” but she admits that, “there are those who’d like to frame it into a very divisive way.”

Remembering marching in favour of repeal back in 1992, Higgins recalls a photograph taken of the parade in Galway. The photograph “appeared in a local paper of me and my friend and she got quite a hard time for it,” the repeal movement was less accepted then than it is today, and Higgins describes the parade as “very small,” which is definitely not how you could describe marches for repeal today.

The treatment of pregnant women in Ireland is what all this campaigning boils down to, Higgins believes. The Magdalene laundries were discussed at the conference, and Higgins brings that issue up as another example of how poorly “women have been treated in terms of pregnancy in Ireland… It’s really unfortunate that women from the Magdalene laundries are still having to battle to get proper recognition.” Higgins praises those such as Catherine Corless who are continuing to raise issues such as the mother and baby homes. “These issues are still here, and they are all linked. I feel we [have] an amazing opportunity as a state to move forward, but we also need to acknowledge that we have a past and ensure it’s not something we forget.”

“We also need to acknowledge that we have a past and ensure it’s not something we forget.”

Women’s rights have come a long way in the hundred years since women (over the age of 30, and who owned, or whose husbands owned property worth more or equal to £5) were granted the right to vote. Aside from reproductive rights, Higgins believes we are still in need of improvement in other areas of women’s rights in Ireland. “So many of our systems are in fact diseased… in many cases there are structures that really damage inequality and really damage outcomes and experiences for women.”

While working with the National Women’s Council, Higgins recalls supporting “colleges about making sure they’re really accessing their proper rights around maternity leave, care and making sure the policies of individual companies actually reflect that equality,” and Higgins firmly believes we need to support mothers more. Currently, Higgins is campaigning for greater “rights for lone parents, so that whatever choice a woman makes she is supported in that case.”

Higgins believes feminism is experiencing a backlash and she thinks this is because feminism is challenging “a lot of the old hierarchies and the old assumptions… I think what’s really interesting is that almost because in some ways certain establishments, former authorities, are losing the argument; instead we’re seeing quite an almost authoritarian form in the backlash. They’re not even trying to persuade in some cases but they are trying to enforce. So I think when we see really draconian laws that target women’s bodies, or access to healthcare, that’s a kind of authoritarian backlash because they know they’re losing the argument.”

From a young age, Higgins has been involved in campaigning. Whilst she refuses to discuss her father, President Michael D. Higgins in interviews, when he is brought up what she does say is: “I have been a campaigner since I was young and I think that’s something that’s been very important to me and I’m grateful [for] all those experiences.”

Regarding campaigning Higgins sees that “there are lots of different ways to campaign. There’s lot of different ways to change, and I think it really is up to all of us to find a way that we can all contribute constructively to the change.”