Centre for the Study of Conflict
School of History, Philosophy and Politics,
Faculty of Humanities, University of Ulster
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The Company We Keep, Women, Community and Organisations
by Valerie Morgan and Grace Fraser
Out of Print
The Company We Keep
by Valerie Morgan and Grace Fraser
Centre for the Study of Conflict
The Centre for the Study of Conflict is a research centre based in the University of Ulster. Its main work is the promotion and encouragement of research on the community conflict and to this end it concentrates on practical issues to do with institutional and community structures and change. It publishes papers and books arising out of this work including: a series of research papers particularly designed to make available research data and reports; a series of Majority-Minority reports; and a series of occasional papers by distinguished academics in the field of conflict. It has recently published a Register of Research on Northern Ireland which has been widely praised, and a termly newsletter on current research called Research Briefing.
This new series of six research reports and papers on aspects of the Northern Ireland conflict represents the results of recent work as well as a reprint of an earlier work still much in demand.
It includes the extensive evaluation work of Colin Knox and his colleagues on the Community Relations and Local Government initiative, a major experiment in the promotion and encouragement of inter-community activity through the medium of district councils; a ground-breaking report by Valerie Morgan and Grace Fraser (carried out in association with the Centre for Research on Women) called The Company We Keep: Women, Community and Organisations, on the role and influence and cross-community activities of women in small towns and rural communities; the first in a new series of reports on the concept and experience of alienation, called Protestant Alienation in Northern Ireland; the most recent Majority-Minority report (joining earlier reports on education and on employment/unemployment) this one by Martin Melaugh on Housing and Religion in Northern Ireland; a paper by Ed Cairns on Psychology and the Northern Ireland Conflict, one in the series of occasional papers written by distinguished scholars. Finally, a reprint of the much discussed report by Duncan Morrow and his colleagues on The Churches and Intercommunity Relationships first published in 1991.
Whilst the troubles in Northern Ireland over the last 25 years have generated a very considerable volume of literature (Whyte, 1990) there has been a relatively limited amount of investigation which has focused on the experiences of women (Ridd, 1984). The impact of the violence on the lives of women, their responses to the conflict and their attitudes to the issues dividing the community have attracted little attention. Writing about the conflict has itself frequently defined the issues in male terms and women have been seen as of marginal relevance. The existence of political conflict and violence has also had the effect of reducing interest in other economic and social issues including many of the areas which have the greatest impact on women's lives, such as gender discrimination in the labour market, welfare provision and child care (Kremer, 1993; Montgomery, 1991; Evason, 1980). More recently there has begun to be some consideration of the implications for women of the distinctive circumstances of life in Northern Ireland. A range of aspects of women's lives have been examined in a number of research studies which have looked at areas as diverse as the educational experiences of girls and women, their position in the labour market and domestic violence. The issue of women's involvement in politics and their contribution to the future development of Northern Irish society has only just begun to be addressed, with a number of recent studies of women's attitudes to community relations (Morgan, 1992), the involvement of women in community politics (Rooney, 1993) and political attitudes of women (Wilford, 1993).
It was lack of basic information about the ways in which women are involved in the community and the contribution which they currently make and could potentially make to community relations which prompted this investigation.
The objectives as set out in the original research proposal were: to examine relevant background literature to provide a typology of the organisations in which women are significantly involved to carry out detailed case studies of women's involvement in organisations and their contribution to cross community contact and improved community relations in two contrasting areas, one in a small urban setting and the other in a rural area to provide some tentative recommendations for developments and policies which might facilitate cross community contact between women
The remainder of this report will provide evidence of how far it has been possible to fulfil these objectives. But it must be acknowledged at the outset that the process of doing the research has led to some modification of the original intentions and certainly to shifts in emphasis. For example, at the design stage little significance was attached to the variations in the relative influence of the different types of organisations. However, during the research the great importance, both direct and indirect, of church linked organisations, particularly in rural areas, became clear and so considerable time had to be devoted to examining the ways in which church connections and religious ideologies directly affect many women's lives and influence, sometimes unconsciously, the values and perceptions of an even wider circle of women.
2. Women’s Political and Social Involvement:
|Geographical||Local; Northern Ireland; International|
|Focus of interest||All women’s issues; mainly women's s issues; other issues|
|Gender of Membership||All members women; majority of members women; mixed sex membership|
|Social Class Composition||Single social class ; predominantly one social class; mixed social class|
|Community Composition||structurally intra-community; de facto intra-community; inter- or cross-community|
Obviously from the perspective of the research, an important additional variable was the precise extent to which women were involved in the organisations and this ranged from situations where women appeared to play a part as ‘rank and file’ but were less involved in the management of the organisation, through to those where women appeared to play a prominent role at all levels and finally to those which were explicitly or exclusively women’s organisations, i.e. overtly separatist.
List of organisations actually consulted
(i.e. interviews carried out with members)
|1.||Catholic women (no formal title of organisation)||A|
|2.||Ladies Fellowship - Free Presbyterian Church||A|
|3.||Methodist Women’s Association||A|
|5.||Presbyterian Women’s Association||A|
|6.||British Red Cross||B|
|11.||Royal National Lifeboat Institution||B|
|12.||Save the Children||B|
|13.||Spina Bifida Association||B|
|15.||War on Want||B|
|21.||Community Development Association||E|
|22.||Standing Conference of Women’s Organisations||E|
In all, members of 22 different organisations were interviewed. Whilst the classification of organisations along these dimensions was helpful in planning and carrying out the research and does clarify some aspects of women’s community involvement, two major limitations of such a classification must be borne in mind.
1. A number of organisations which have been placed in a particular category because of their main emphasis or overt function also served a number of subsidiary purposes either for the community or for individual members. Thus the boundaries of classification are frequently blurred.
2. A considerable number of women are members of more than one organisation and this again tends to lead to a blurring of boundaries.
Both of these factors will be considered at more length in the following sections of the report.
A number of individuals out with the chosen organisations were also interviewed in the two case study areas. These were people, women and men, who had prominent positions in the community and were felt likely to be able to provide information which would help us to understand the general pattern of community relations in the two areas. These interviews included: clergy of the following churches, Catholic, Anglican, Presbyterian, Free Presbyterian, Methodist; community relations officers, press and media representatives.
In strictly technical terms, people are not born into organisations; they join them. However, once inside the organisation they frequently become identified with its aims, aspirations and public image. More importantly perhaps, they become part of a group with all that this implies in terms of exclusivity. In Northern Ireland the population is already split into two main ‘groups’ - those who are Protestant and those who are Catholic. If the sole difference between groups was in terms of religion, then perhaps it could be accommodated. But religion is the tip of the iceberg of difference, the part that shows itself to the world outside - below the waterline lies the political part which is less easy to circumnavigate. As researchers, we wanted to find out how far into society this basic division reached, in particular we wanted to know if the groups women join here would reflect this fundamental difference. It became imperative therefore to discover first of all how and why women join certain organisations.
Reasons for Joining
Individual interviewees usually cited one, or at the most, two main reasons for having become a member of an organisation. These were almost always specific and bore a close relationship to the purpose of the organisation, but at a more general level a number of themes which could be considered over-lapping or common to more than one kind of organisation emerged. Four such general categories were identified. These related to religious faith, perceived benefits of membership (including social benefits), the use of time and helping others.
Keeping the Faith and Like-Minded People
Women who belonged to church-related organisations appeared to have joined because of their religious identity. So a Presbyterian would become a member of her congregation’s PWA branch and a Church of Ireland member would join her church’s Mothers’ Union and so on. This is hardly surprising. But what was the nature of this commitment? What had it to do with being Presbyterian or Anglican? We know that all the women who are members of these churches and thus part of the potential pool of recruits do not actually join. Committee members frequently complained that only a small percentage of the female members of their denomination made this commitment. What did the woman mean who said that she had joined "to be with those of the same faith"? There is a sense in which this constitutes more than a simple affirmation of faith. It demonstrates a natural human desire to be ‘comfortable’ in the company of one’s own kind, but at the same time it can indicate genuine commitment to one’s church.
A rather similar interest in being with people who had the same interests was expressed by those women who were members of professional organisations like Soroptomist International. They had joined in the main because they were professional people who wished to enhance their professional development through being with others of similar background, while at the same time utilising their professional skills and contacts to improve the quality of life of women in general. A senior member of one such professional or ‘category’ club described the membership as a ‘body of like-minded people’.
Only the Lonely
The desire for friendship was one of the most frequently expressed reasons for joining an organisation. Mound three quarters of the women interviewed were not in full-time employment outside the home. Some worked part-time or on an irregular basis, quite a number were farmers’ wives who contributed to the farming enterprise in various ways and some were retired persons. This meant that for the majority their day was spent largely in the home environment with perhaps limited social contact with others outside their family. In such a context the weekly or fortnightly or monthly evening meeting with friends from their church or an afternoon spent working in a charity shop had often come to represent more than just a commitment of time. One woman put it in this rather graphic way:
Women need social intercourse. We are gregarious. Like crows, we need to caw together.
The Gift of Time
The availability of time was also an extremely important factor in motivating many women to joining organisations. This was especially true of women who did voluntary work. Many of these interviewees were retired or not in paid employment or were living on their own; consequently they sometimes had considerable time on their hands. It is interesting to note that Charity Trends published by the Charities Aid Foundation (Brophy and McQuillan, 1991) refers to volunteering as ‘giving’ and because a major aspect of this is the time involved they speak of the ‘gift of time’. It would be wrong to assume that women feel a particular guilt about having ‘nothing to do’ - we have no clear evidence of this - but what our interviews did suggest was the immense frustration of many women with the view of their own four walls. The following examples clearly express this feeling as well as confirming the need for company:-
I had to get out of the house or I would have ended up in a mental hospital - widow who had left employment to look after an elderly mother who had since died
It [charity shop] provided a refuge for me when I needed it -same interviewee as above
I wanted something to do - widow with grown-up family.
The male director of one charity related how on one occasion he had chanced to be in the vicinity of one of the charity’s shops in central Belfast and had been surprised to find that the shop was still open, although this was early evening. The woman volunteer who ran the shop explained that this was when she did most trade by catching the cinema goers and that in any case she was more than happy to do this because it ‘shortened the evenings for her’. The charity director was emphatic that this volunteer’s attitude was typical and that charities were able to harness all this ‘redundant energy’. In this sense, he argued, charity work could be a two way process, benefiting both volunteer and charity. He concluded:
the country is full of women looking out of the window, twiddling their thumbs and looking for something to do.
Helping other People
But it is not just a case of ‘anything to do’. The women who volunteered their time wanted that time to be put to good use. Philanthropy was therefore an important motive for joining an organisation. While this was true of the charity volunteers, as one would expect, many other organisations whose members we interviewed also did ‘good works’ and members frequently cited this as a significant reason for joining. The concept of the voluntary ethos and that of the ‘professional’ volunteer will be dealt with later in the report.
These constituted the main reasons which interviewees offered for joining their organisations. Those relating to two types of organisations could be described as ‘exclusive’, that is by their nature they define a group which is restricted and cannot cross certain religious and social boundaries. Thus the reasons offered for joining church related groups and the professional organisations reflect religious and social division - Presbyterians join the PWA, not the Mothers’ Union, Catholics join neither. One would not expect it to be otherwise. Such members believe that meeting with other Presbyterians or other Methodists helps them to bond together in the extension of their faith. Professional women join professional clubs to meet other professionals. This too is a kind of bonding. But in terms of the members’ aspirations to reach across the religious and community divide, what can we conclude? Quite simply this is not why women join these church related and professional groups. Of the other types of reasons for joining organisations - social, time-filling and philanthropy - none could be classed as across-community aspiration. Women were not joining the non-church groups or the charity organisations primarily in order to reach across the community divide. No one we interviewed had joined any organisation in order to help solve the Troubles. This was not what they perceived their organisation to be about. This is very important, particularly with regard to the church based groups and will be discussed in more detail later. In any other society, it would constitute a normal response and would count for little, but in a society deeply affected by sectarian violence it is significant precisely because it could be argued that non-involvement is at the very least unproductive. In the light of these findings, was there any possibility of using these organisations as vehicles for reconciliation or was such an idea unrealistic? One approach to answering this question is to examine how people join organisations. This meant looking at the process of recruitment to organisations especially non-church groups as well as at the focus of activities in order to discover whether cross-community considerations featured there.
Given the desire to join an organisation, what actually triggers commitment? There was some indication from our findings of a reluctance on the part of interviewees to ‘go on one's s own to something new. Most had been ‘encouraged’ in some way to join. This is why it was essential to look in detail at methods of recruitment. If we had some idea about why women had become members, we also had to know ‘how’ this was done. What were the formal and informal mechanisms for joining and were these obstacles or aids to cross-community membership?
Becoming a member of the sort of organisations which were included in our study cannot be compared to applying for a job. None went in for a formal process of recruitment by advertising and interview. Only the charities recruited volunteers to work in their shops or assist in street collections by fairly informal advertisements placed in churches and/or other charity establishments like charity shops. As in the previous section on motivation, the churches and the professional organisations have a different approach from that of the other groups in the survey. This is because their membership must necessarily be subject to some measure of qualification. That is to say a woman who wishes to become a member of a Protestant church-related women’s organisation like the PWA or the Methodist Women’s Association or the Mothers’ Union or a member of a Catholic church organisation like the Altar Society or SVP is more than likely to be not only of that faith but also in the case of the Protestant groups, a member of that particular religious grouping. There are instances of cross-community attendance at meetings -notably on ‘visitors’ evenings’ - but apparently very little with regard to actual membership. Within the Protestant church organisations, there are many instances of women attending one organisation who have previously been members of another. This does not mean that these are interchangeable, it usually happens if the woman has switched from one Protestant denomination to another through marriage or a move to a different area or a change in religious views. In practical terms, those women who do join church related groups, join only those belonging to their own church, which is no more or less than one would expect them to do.
In the case of the professional organisations, not all women in the first place are eligible to join, only those with certain qualifications, for example whose professional background falls within one of a number of categories. Someone joining Soroptomist International would come from one of five listed occupational categories and the organisation has a policy of trying to balance local branch membership by drawing as evenly as possible on all of these at any given time. This is why such organisations are sometimes called ‘category’ clubs. Church related and professional organisations then do operate in ways which ipso facto can be exclusive. The other organisations in our survey did not appear to have formal qualifications for membership. The purposes of these are different. They are not tied to the more specific aims of religion or professionalism which enjoin qualification, but to more general aims like education and charity which do not. Church and business organisations know the kind of member they want if they are to continue their work, other organisations can afford to be less specific. This would be particularly true of the charities for they are almost wholly dependent on voluntary labour.
Given the above constraints, how are women actually recruited to their organisations? Of all the members interviewed, only one gave the impression of having been recruited in any way which could be described as formal. The mechanisms for recruitment were largely informal, but none the less powerful for that, with existing members approaching potential members and asking/suggesting that they might like to join. The mechanisms were identified as being mediated through gender, friendship, family and religion.
Women bring more Women
The way in which the gender factor operated was quite straightforward. Obviously only women were going to be recruited to those organisations which were single sex - these included many of the church-related groups and the social/educational ones like the WI or Women’s Centres. Where organisations recruited from both sexes e.g. as in the case of the charities, was there evidence of gender bias?
Clearly women tended to approach other women whom they considered as potential members. As one woman volunteer commented "perhaps women bring more women". A number of factors made this likely. Firstly, in a strongly traditional society like Northern Ireland, much of whose population is rural rather than urban based, the conservative benchmarks set by the old values and mores still have wide application. This was underlined by a male interviewee who had been a founder member of the Northern Ireland branch of a UK charity: "It is not easy socially for a woman to invite a man to join her in something". In fact, it has been argued that, in a conflict situation the forces of conservatism become stronger, reinforcing the old boundaries between the activities traditionally associated with men and women (Ridd, 1986). Secondly, the pool of voluntary labour draws to a huge extent on the section of the population who are in part-time employment, unemployed or not in paid employment and the majority of these are women. They are, therefore more likely to be available for voluntary work than men, especially when an organisation’s main activities take place in daytime hours. It is interesting to note that when church organisations require assistance from members to execute tasks at these times, for example for the preparation of rooms, church halls et c. for an evening meeting, then the only members on whom they can rely will be those who are not in employment. This is probably becoming an increasingly harder task for members to fulfil, together with other responsibilities like catering which we will deal with later in the report. Thirdly much ink has been spilt by feminists, social anthropologists and others about the existence of an invisible ‘network’ of women in society, never structured or institutionalised, based on gender alone, not the maintenance of a power base, a sisterhood in kind, flung together and making the best of a bad situation. Radical feminists tended to be thin on the ground amongst the women interviewed. At the same time such an interpretation cannot be entirely disregarded simply because most women here would fail to recognise themselves as part of it. If such a network is in place, even at a sub-conscious level, then it would be more than likely to encourage gender-based recruiting.
Like asks Like
If recruiting was on the whole done by means of members approaching other women, then friendship was bound to play a significant role. The basis of a friendship is often shared interest so when members thought of potential recruits, inevitably they thought of their friends. Along with relatives, these were the people with whom they had already had a relationship sufficiently well established for them to be able to dispense with the preliminary stages of the recruiting process. Although the professional organisations demand particular qualifications, the actual recruiting here too is "usually by personal invitation". One may have to wait until one is asked to join, since there is no open recruitment, but in the end this means that members approach people whom they know or whom their friends know. This makes their recruitment processes little different from those of the other groups. But who are one’s friends? There has been no large-scale study in Northern Ireland of how friendships are formed and the extent of cross-community friendships, but the evidence from the people we interviewed suggests that when members asked other friends to join their organisation then those friends were usually from the same community. Almost all those interviewed had little difficulty dealing with the questions which elicited this kind of information, which indicates that on the whole they considered this to be a perfectly normal situation, even one which they would endorse as ‘natural’. The two examples below are a good illustration of these attitudes.
Probably the majority of members are Protestant. Friends tend to recruit friends - charity volunteer
Like asks like, this is natural selection - WI member
What this achieves is a kind of circular method of recruitment, where Catholics ask other Catholics to join something and Protestants ask other Protestants etc. The effect on an organisation can be imagined. This is not to say that every organisation researched was ‘solidly’ one or the other, this was far from the case. The membership of many organisations is also an accurate reflection of the religious demography of an area. Witness the Catholic woman who wanted to join the WI to help her to make friends in a new and predominantly Protestant area, "I had never thought of it as a Protestant organisation. But I did not know anyone who was a member." In this instance which stands out from the pattern described above she pressed on regardless, "So, I went by myself." How many women would find that possible, even in a situation where their co-religionists were predominant?
How an organisation or a branch of an organisation began in a community therefore becomes crucial. Who belonged to the original group? Did the founders come from both sides of the community or as was the case in a number of the charity groups which were looked at, did they tend to be a group of like-minded friends from only one side? Would this still tend to be the case a few years on because "friends tend to recruit friends?" If it does then it becomes largely self-selecting and self-perpetuating. Although we believe that much of this is not deliberate or premeditated, there was some indication that in an area where community relations were poor, it was undoubtedly self-willed and had become part of a mentality of community ‘bonding’ with both sides digging themselves ever deeper in. Even where this did not appear to be the case, recruitment could still be a useful monitor of the real state of community relations. Unconscious or not, recruiting along these lines in a conflicted society automatically makes one side or the other uncomfortable so that each continues to do the same. There is no end and no beginning, only a problem continuing to reproduce itself.
The Classless Society?
What part was played by social class in the recruitment process? Again this could fall under the earlier heading ‘like asks like’. If friends ask other friends and acquaintances to join them in being members of an organisation, then they will draw on a circle, probably from within one community, but perhaps even from within one social class in that community. In any given area, the membership of an organisation will to some extent reflect the economic well-being of that area, so that a branch of an organisation in one place may have members who are very different from those in another branch of the same organisation in another place. Take for example two branches of the same health related charity, one in a wealthy area south of Belfast and one in a rural area to the south west. According to the Northern Ireland director of the charity, the first branch was "loaded and well-heeled with plenty of leisure time", whereas in the second, where half the women members were employed outside the home as well as working for the charity, the members were "the salt of the earth". The motive behind these comments was not disparagement, what he was saying was that his charity drew on a wide social range for its volunteers and that everyone had a contribution to make. In practice, the class factor operates both ways. It can include or exclude by simply being there and it can stop or encourage would be joiners who perceive the possibility of becoming part of a social minority/majority within that group. Comments from our interviewees more often revealed class as a barrier which they recognised but regretted they could do little about. The following quotations show a mix of realism and regret on the issue:-
I tried very hard to talk to her, but it was obvious that we had nothing in common - church organisation, local branch leader on visit to potential member
I was put off by their accent and attitude - ex-member of church organisation
In any case, would a shop girl be interested in our activities? - professional organisation, local branch leader
Becoming involved in an organisation through the influence of one’s family would not be unusual. There were several sides to this. The more obvious one was where someone had joined because a relative was already a member of that organisation and they had ‘insider’ knowledge of its aims and work. For example, some of the charities had proud traditions of "bringing people along" in this way, and these were where several generations of the same family could be found. One special instance was where a family which had begun a branch of a children’s charity had continued to play an executive role in the same organisation over three decades by virtue of the chair being handed down through the women of the family. While expressing no resentment at having inherited this task, the present incumbent shed an interesting sidelight on the charity scene when she commented that she regarded it as a natural extension of the paternalism of the family firm "who have always been good employers". The idea of a ‘caring’ background came through again in an even more personalised way from the small but significant number of women who had felt impelled to do voluntary work because of their own experience of caring for relatives. The health-related charities were usually the beneficiaries of their experience. Often they were prepared to share what must have been for them particularly painful and poignant memories. Family influences were also strong in recruiting members into church-related organisations, but occasionally there was a difference in the way this worked. Some members joined something like the PWA, not because their mother was/had been a member, though this might be an important contributing factor, but because involvement in church activities was regarded as a normal extension of their faith for all members of the family. Such families can be found in every church, with different generations represented at every level in every organisations and indeed there must be few churches which could manage or even survive without their energetic and dedicated input. At the same time this can create an ambience which is off-putting to other members and potential members, especially new members who might be dissuaded from more active involvement by what they perceive as the ‘elitism’ of families who are ‘in everything’.
Religion is the thread which runs through all the above. It is the common factor. In Northern Ireland, your family, your friends and your acquaintances are all likely to come from the same community. Although there are exceptions, this is the norm. To illustrate this we include four comments on religion, the first two from Protestants and the second two from Catholics.
Meeting others depends very much on the organisations and churches you belong to here - WI member
Social life here revolves around the churches so that you meet only those of your own religion ... it’s not that I don’t like the others - charity volunteer
Religion quite definitely colours people’s judgement -community worker
Religion always matters - charity volunteer
What about the members themselves? What could be learned about the women who had actually joined the organisations in our survey? Three factors emerged as important - these were age, social class and, once again, religion.
1. Age: The Golden Girls
For the most part, the women who belonged to the organisations fell within the age range 40s to 60s, with the younger women in groups like Women’s Centres, Community Development Associations, the mid-age band in the church groups and this band and above being found in the charities. This does not mean that women who are younger or older than this do not join such organisations - only that the figures suggested are meant to represent the average impression gained in the course of the research.
The relevance of this may not at first be obvious. However, a preponderance of members from one age band or another must give any organisation pause for thought. In the first place, it affects the public image of the organisation. By tradition, gender, age and attitudes have in some way become wrapped together to produce a collective image of the middle-aged woman, amongst a group of other middle-aged women, which has attracted both humour and disparagement. Margaret Thatcher’s stint at the Department of Education has been described as a time of ‘extraordinary toughness’ combined with ‘Mother’s Union attitudes’ (Phillips, 1980). Similar comments are to be detected even among the ranks of the feminists, this time combining class and gender; vide this description of the marches of the Peace People in Northern Ireland and England in the mid 1970s:
The marchers were mostly middle-aged working-class women. Many of them lacked much political awareness and merely considered the festive, friendly, songfest atmosphere of the buses as a pleasant holiday from household tension and drudgery (Buckley and Lonergan, 1984)
Most organisations mentioned the problem of recruiting younger members, of finding and keeping ‘fresh blood’. It represented a specific problem for the professional organisations who were anxious to attract to their ranks the ‘young, active successful women’ but very often this type of person was far too busy establishing a career to attend meetings on the regular basis required by the rules of membership. One interviewee recalled her surprise and dismay when on attending her first meeting, she found herself the youngest member at 43.
The ‘middle-age’ factor was a particular feature of the church organisations. Some of the Protestant churches have younger women’s organisations which, in theory at least, are separate from those catering for the older, middle-aged group. The research officer was told of one congregation where the Young Women were the oldest ‘young women’ ever, simply because no one wanted to admit to middle age by moving up to the older group. Opinion on the value of having separate organisations was divided. Some women felt that it was difficult to attract and keep a wide range of members when the programme was perceived to be aimed at one age range. On the other hand, organisation leaders all admitted that finding a programme which would interest all their members was virtually impossible. There was strong evidence to suggest that younger women were increasingly interested in seeing items of topical, social concern on the programme and less about what was described as "flower-arranging and mud-hut talks from missionaries". At the other end of the spectrum, in an attempt to capture the interests of older women, one Mothers’ Union branch had put on a special ‘golden girls’ evening but as the member responsible for enrolling new recruits commented, "You could not do this all the time." There was some indication that quite a lot of interviewees felt that having separate groups was not good either for the parish/congregation or for its women. The opportunity to share and pass on experience from one generation to the next would be lost and the women would be divided. At a practical level, in rural areas, where the congregation was not large, as in the case of many Church of Ireland parishes, there were scarcely enough women to make up one, far less two, groups. Interestingly, the only church which did not admit to having an ‘age problem’ was the Free Presbyterian Church. This has no hard and fast rule about women’s organisations. Some of its churches have a Ladies Fellowship, some do not, although women are deeply involved in other ways especially as leaders in youth activities. Many of the women do come together in an annual convention. This is attended by women of all ages, from early twenties to seventies and upwards, both married and unmarried, though with the majority being in the mid-age band.
It is important to recognise the effect rather than the fact of all these age patterns. Interviewees made specific reference to older members being more prejudiced and less knowledgeable about topical issues and commented on how this created difficulties for committees hoping to tackle such issues in their programmes. The traditional raison d’etre for such organisations has much to do with this. When Mary Sumner, the wife of a Hampshire rector, founded the Mothers’ Union in 1876, to "strengthen and preserve marriage and Christian family life", the concept of the working wife did not exist, at least for the middle and upper classes. Two world wars, free education and contraception have altered almost all the original premises. Women are better educated, better informed and have different expectations. An evening spent at the Mothers’ Union or the PWA or the WI can no longer be viewed as an extension of a woman’s housekeeping role (Caplan, 1978). Many of the members - more than half in the branches of these organisations looked at - were in paid employment outside the home. When they attend a meeting, they have usually had to make extra time for this and want to hear something that relates to their lifestyle. Committee meetings will be viewed in the same light, to be conducted for the purpose of business, not to while away a winter’s night. Younger women who have both jobs and families are precisely the women who will not make the time to come to meetings unless they see a very good reason for doing so. This is a dilemma which most organisations, not only the church-based, have to face. Not all have to cope with the ‘age factor’ - there are local branches of organisations which seem to contain a fair number of younger women - but these appear to be the exception to the rule. A comment overheard by a WI interviewee at an area meeting under-lines this: "It was nice to see a young head among the grey ones on the platform." The issues are not simple and clear-cut since the charities in particular could not cope were it not for the large number of elderly women whose services they so much rely on. But recruiting volunteers for running a charity shop is different from recruiting to and running an organisation which operates mainly through a programme of meetings which have to be designed to appeal to a wide age range. If the women’s organisations, especially the church-based ones, fail to meet this challenge, then quite simply they will die out, not quickly perhaps but slowly over a long period of time. The leisure centres and sports clubs and the TV set will be the gainers and the wider issues like community relations will never get on the agenda.
2. Social Class: The Status Quo
Given the time scale of this project, it was not possible to look at every branch of every women’s organisation in Northern Ireland. Nor was it considered necessary to do so. To reiterate, what we did was to select as many organisations as possible within two case-study areas which we hoped would be representative of the different types of organisation in which women were involved. Therefore, the impressions gained about social class relate only to the data we were able to collect. From the outset, it was clear that there appeared to be a strong middle class influence in almost all the groups, with the exception of those which were community-based or focused on ‘women's issues’. The phrase ‘appeared to be’ reflects the difficulty involved in obtaining this kind of information. Interviewees were frequently reluctant to discuss the nature of the social mix within their organisation and were inclined to seize upon any suggestion that ‘yes, there is a good social mix’: perhaps they felt that any other response would reflect badly on their organisation. At the leadership level, however, e.g. branch presidents and secretaries, interviewees tended to be more frank about social class, at the same time often going a stage further and suggesting that lack of a ‘mix’ was not something of a problem.
Middle class predominance in the organisations could be identified in terms of overall numbers and leadership in almost all of the groups looked at, with the exception of women’s centres and community development associations. This emphasises the very different role which these two groups have, in particular, the ‘self-help’ process of identification and targeting of specific community problems by people who are indigenous to their community. The professional organisations draw exclusively on the middle classes through their deliberate policy of category membership, and it is difficult to equate this style of recruiting by invitation with the second of their five ‘objects’, viz. "to strive for human rights for all people and, in particular, to advance the status of women." In practical terms also, some women will be excluded from groups like this because of the cost of annual membership, and other expenses accruing from social functions, attendance at conferences, etc.
A predominance of middle class women was quite definitely to be found in the leadership in most organisations, both at local and regional level. As branch presidents, secretaries, treasurers, etc. their influence was unmistakable. These are roles which demand certain organisational skills, so it is scarcely surprising to find women who are usually better-educated and more articulate filling them. With regard to the Protestant church organisations, there is a strong tradition of leadership being provided by clergy wives who almost always have a middle class background especially in terms of education. This aspect of leadership is very important and will be dealt with more fully in a later section of the report.
Nowhere was a middle class factor found more strongly than amongst those women who worked as volunteers for charity organisations. Many examples could be cited of women from this background who could almost be described as ‘professional volunteers’. In the 12th edition of Charity Trends, the Charities Aid Foundation commented:
Recent surveys of volunteering in the USA, in Canada and in Denmark, reinforce the findings from British surveys that volunteering remains closely linked to socio-economic class, material well-being and educational achievement. (Brophy and McQuillan, 1991).
Three years later a survey carried out by the Volunteer Centre UK confirms the class link: "Most of the 23 million adults who volunteer in this country each year are likely to come from higher socio-economic groups" (The Independent, 1992).
But the notion of the ‘better-off woman devoting her time to this kind of activity is not new. In an article on women and charitable organisations in nineteenth-century Ireland, the author noted:
The range of charity work in which women involved themselves was extensive. For the period 1800 to 1900 there were at least two hundred societies all over Ireland which were either founded by women or in which women placed a significant role. ... For many of them, such activity was a socially acceptable way to engage in purposeful work. ... The majority of women who engaged in philanthropic work were well-to-do, either with private incomes or married to wealthy or professional men. ... In remembering the work of these women we can see the value of their contribution to Irish society in the development of caring and humane institutions where the poor, the ill and the outcast found relief The myth of the idle middle-upper class woman can finally be laid to rest. (Luddy, 1988)
This myth might be dead but others still persist and these are worth examining in greater detail. Luddy contends that well-off Irish women founded charitable societies like the Magdalen Asylum, or the Shelter for Females Discharged from Prison, or the Belfast Ladies Clothing Society out of a sense of ‘moral superiority’ to assist their ‘fallen sisters’. Charity organisations of this ilk would appear to have fallen by the wayside or are operating under a different guise. Better social provision through the auspices of the Welfare State may have made them largely supeffluous so that volunteers today work for charities which have a very different kind of remit. One can be fairly sure that women who spend two or three mornings or afternoons a week working for Save the Children or Action Cancer or Oxfam are not doing it out of any sense of moral superiority. They are doing it because they want to do it and because they feel they should.
It is much harder to dismiss the idea that volunteering can be motivated by the consideration that it is a ‘socially acceptable way to engage in purposeful work’. Rightly or wrongly this perception was given some credence, even by volunteers and charity officials themselves. Describing the charity she had worked for over twenty years, an Oxfam volunteer actually used the phrase ‘socially acceptable’. There are two facets to this interpretation. One is that women feel comfortable doing voluntary work not only because of a desire to ‘do good works’ but because it is unpaid. The lack of financial gain is a positive feature, their dividend is personal satisfaction. A Red Cross volunteer of many years’ standing related how when on duty at a public event some young girls had approached her ambulance team. They were clearly fascinated by what they saw and seemed eager to join. After the volunteer described the training and the hours of duty, they inquired, "And how much will we be paid?" When she explained that the work was voluntary, they expressed surprise, immediately lost interest and left. Her reaction adds an interesting postscript to the story, "If we were to be paid, I would leave." This abhorrence of the suggestion that one should be ‘paid’ for one’s services was typical of older women who had served for a lengthy period with a charity, being especially true of those whose service paradoxically included a sustained element of quasi-professional training.
The second way in which the phrase ‘socially acceptable’ can be interpreted has more problematic overtones. The line of argument runs that women who volunteer for charity work do so because they wish to be seen to be doing ‘good works’ and derive social status from their actions. These kind of volunteers are in charities for the wrong reasons because they are ‘pseuds who want to publicise themselves, not the charity’. The interviewee who produced this damning indictment had felt compelled to leave a professional organisation for this very reason. In her chapter on Madrassi women and their organisations, Patricia Caplan wrote that some of these women use their organisations as "a means of maintaining or gaining status", that "voluntary social work is the most acceptable occupation outside the home for middle and upper class women" and that women who were the wives of businessmen were "especially active because this gives them a status which they could not normally aspire to" (Caplan, 1978). The ‘husband’ connection was also evident from our data. It is important because of the value of the social and business connections involved. The secretary of the local branch of a children’s charity made no apology for the necessity for these links, "Our members have fingers in lots of pies". There is a further dimension to this. As the regional director of one charity said, there are charities and charities. The clear message was that undoubtedly some charities rate more highly in social terms than others and even some branches of charities rate more highly than other branches. To illustrate her point about the "snob value of charity connection", she described how people would drive miles to join the Belfast branch of one of the big charities rather than attend the local branch of the same charity.
The comments on charities here, it should be remembered, came from a variety of sources, the first from a dissatisfied ex-volunteer, the second from a branch secretary, and the last from the regional director (paid) of a large charity. Motivation apart, none disputed the necessity of voluntary work. From the charities’ point of view, the products of ‘voluntarism’ are more important than what prompts it. At the same time, UK charities have reported a downturn in numbers of volunteers, beginning in the mid-eighties, which, it has been suggested, could be halted if they were to consider ways of "widening the base of recruitment of volunteers to make volunteering more accessible and more attractive to a broader section of society" (Brophy and McQuillan 1989).
What is the significance of these findings? Like the ageing profile, should the predominance of one class or another within its ranks give an organisation pause for thought? If people join organisations to be with others of similar views, disposition or faith, then a certain amount of clustering is inevitable which will appear exclusive to those left outside. If one social class appears predominant, then other classes, particularly those below, may be resentful and critical of their efforts. If within any community, there is little social mixing in voluntary and social organisations, it does not usually give much cause for comment; but within the two communities here, it does add an extra layer of division in an already fragmented society. If women within one community find problems relating to each other, how can they hope to relate to women outside that community? Archbishop Eames’ comment to the Opsahl Commission that "they are not fighting each other on the Malone Road" (Pollak, 1993) may well be true and there may indeed be some social level where class assumes more importance as a bonding factor than religion. Hence the frequently noted tendency of interviewees to ‘blame’ the Troubles on the ‘lower classes’.
The town is not polarised .. only some elements are.
and to a less obvious but equally damning degree:
There are people in the council estates who are kind and who would go anywhere.
But, in the organisations in our survey where the middle class were predominant, awareness of religious difference was rarely absent, often enmeshed in the carefully chosen words, in the undue emphasis on the sterling qualities of the member from the ‘other side’, in the ‘fearful civility’ of conversation (Pollak, 1993).
3. Religion: Whatever You Say, Say Nothing
But was there any evidence that perhaps women were already relating to the ‘other side within their organisations? Was there a cross-community mix to be found? If information-gathering on social class was difficult, finding out about the religion of organisation members presented other, different problems. This does not of course apply to the church-based groups where affiliation was obviously not in contention. In spite of the media image of Northern Ireland as a clearly divided society, people are not usually ‘publicly upfront’ about religion. At the same time there is little doubt that in many social contexts finding out about the other person’s religion is regarded as vital. For many people possession of this knowledge is the key to how to conduct a conversation or establish a relationship. People know what to say and what not to say, so that in the end "whatever you say, say nothing" (Heaney, 1974). But this process of inquiry often requires a verbal dance routine with moves of considerable complexity. As a result, asking a member about other members’ religion was a delicate issue which was not always viable. It clearly raised questions in the mind of the interviewee - why does the interviewer have to know this? What will they do with this information? Will it reflect badly or otherwise on my organisation? The decision about whether to seek out this information often has to be made during the interview. On the occasions (most) when it was judged appropriate to do so, there were three standard types of response:
1. I don’t know.
2. Yes, there is a good mix from both sides of the community (when pressed further).
3. There are x Catholics and x Protestants.
On the first answer - this was the response of about one quarter to one third of those asked. Almost all of these went on to provide either answer 2 or answer 3 when pressed. About half would actually offer figures. In other words, most of those asked did provide some information about members’ religion, with a substantial number providing concrete detail. Looking at the types of answer above in more detail:
Apart from those who started off by saying they ‘did not know’, but followed it up with 2 or 3, a very small number - around four people - stuck firmly to this as their only answer. It is worth quoting the response of two of these in full:
I do not really know - branch chairman of a charity
I would not dream of asking - treasurer of a charity
Neither of these respondents was native to Northern Ireland. It was the impression of the research officer that these represented rare examples of people who genuinely did not know and probably did not care either. The second answer perhaps reflected a desire to represent the organisation as being ‘mixed’ and not wanting to investigate the sort of detail which might prove otherwise. What is significant about this is not the lack of accurate information but the suggestion that it might be better for an organisation to appear to be ‘mixed’. Of those who offered the third answer, i.e. provided actual numbers, two interviewees again deserve a closer look because of the total lack of hesitation with which they gave their replies. One was the Honorary Secretary of the local branch of a large UK charity and the other the chairman of the local branch of an international charity. In these roles they would of course be more likely to have definite access to information about membership. In both cases, the figures offered concerned committee not general membership. In the first charity, there was no religious mix at this level - all the committee members were Protestant. In the second, there was a mix with just under one half being Catholic, and here the interviewee had no difficulty in recalling actual names. Both women were asked how they ‘knew’ about the religious mix. They replied as follows:
Here you just know - honorary secretary
You know from being in a small community, but politics and religion are not raised. The great thing is that it doesn’t matter - chairman of branch
Both of these women had no problem with relaying this information. Despite her dismissal of its importance, the second agreed with the first that religion was "essential knowledge".
Though incomplete, the actual information gained was able to give us a reasonable picture of the cross-community scene within the organisations under survey. Again it must be emphasised that the church-based groups were obviously not included. A full treatment of their role vis-a-vis community relations will follow in a later section of this report. It is important to set the information gained about the composition of organisational membership against the data in the Census reports. This means that the two types of information can be compared to see if the first, i.e. interview data, presents a similar or different image from the Census figures.
|POP - total population||RC - Roman Catholic|
|P - Presbyterian||C of I - Church of Ireland|
|M - Methodist||NS - Not stated|
Census Data on the Two Case Study Areas (1991)
|POP||RC||P||C of I||M||Other||None||NS|
The figures above give a fairly clear indication as to what one might expect organisational membership to reflect if there were no complicating factors at work. Leaving out the categories Other, None, and NS, Area One has a Catholic population which is 22 per cent of the whole and a Protestant population, made up of Presbyterians, Church of Ireland and Methodists, which is 57.5 per cent of the whole. The corresponding figures for Area Two are a Catholic population which is 59 per cent of the whole and a Protestant population which is 27.5 per cent of the whole, i.e.
Corresponding figures for female population of the two areas are shown below:
|Total female pop of Area 0ne||
|22.7% of female population|
|32.0% of female population|
|C of I||
|25.0% of female population|
|1.7% of female population|
|Area One total female population||
|Total female Pop Area Two||
|59.0% of female population|
|15.3% of female population|
|C of I||
|12.0% of female population|
|0.5% of female population|
|Area Two total female population||
Overall then the female population of the two areas is divided between the two main communities:
Since there is little gender imbalance in their area, these figures correspond almost exactly to the proportions in the total population which are:
In the light of these statistics, there might be a reasonable expectation that organisational membership would reflect the majority/minority situation in the two areas. But before looking at the actual situation, we must once again emphasise that all we could hope to gain was a reasonably’ accurate impression of the religious composition of organisations. The methodology used was qualitative which does not have the statistical accuracy of quantitative methods, although with the latter the informant is no more obliged to answer questions which he/she may regard as of a sensitive nature than in a face-to-face interview. Therefore, what we have gained and what must be measured against the Census figures will be incomplete but will be as accurate as the circumstances permitted.
Organisational membership did indeed appear to correspond in general terms to the patterns of the Census figures. Where there was a Protestant majority, then organisations tended to have a majority Protestant membership; where there was a Catholic majority, then the opposite usually prevailed. However, the comparison was not quite so simple. What seemed to emerge from our interview data was a strong sense that organisational membership often more than reflected the community divide, so that in several localities many organisations were either almost totally Catholic or almost totally Protestant. Though it also seemed that Protestants were more likely to join organisations, regardless of area. At one level of interpretation, this may reflect the composition of population pockets or sub-areas and be little more than a demographic feature, but it may also have graver implications for the whole field of community relations, since it suggests that even within geographical areas which have a mixed population many non-denominational organisations actually evolve in ways which result in their having a membership almost exclusively from one community or the other. It would appear that this is not a conscious or deliberate process but one which grows out of the family and friendship patterns inherent in a divided society. The initial basis on which a particular organisation or branch of an organisation becomes either ‘Catholic’ or ‘Protestant’ frequently appears to be almost random, reflecting who generated the initial interest, where a venue for meetings was found or what image the organisation has in a particular locality. But for the time being, this must remain as a possible theory. Its validity in practice would have to be tested in some other way.
Membership in terms of age, social class and religion, from our data, has provided a fascinating picture. The women who are the 'joiners' of women’s organisations or organisations which have a majority female membership, for the most part, appear to be middle-aged and middle-class. But are they also ‘middle-of-the-road’ where religion is concerned? The clustering according to the first two elements is understandable, but is the last only credible in Northern Ireland terms? To gain a better understanding of this, it is necessary to look more closely at what these organisations actually do, in particular, at how their members cope with living both in their own communities and also within a divided society.
When examining what these organisations do, the term ‘organisation’ deserves closer scrutiny. If people ‘organise’ themselves into a group, it is usually for a purpose and the activities which occupy that group are determined by that purpose. The organisations in our survey fell into various categories of interest: church-related, charity-related, professional, social/leisure, ‘community/feminist, so that each group had a recognisable raison d’etre which defined its programme of activities.
Activities in Church Groups
For church groups, it was seeking to strengthen faith through the preservation of traditional values - marriage, home and family life. The words of the official aim of the Mothers’ Union read as follows:-
The Mothers’ Union is a world-wide society whose Aim is the advancement of the Christian religion in the sphere of marriage and family life.
For the PWA, the Presbyterian Women’s Association, it is:-
To unite the women of the Church in the dedication of their lives to Jesus Christ and His Service, in the home, the community, and the Church.
Such organisations operate through the regular meeting of members throughout much of the year, usually with a summer break. The content of meetings is worked out in an annual programme, sometimes thematically, e.g. the Mothers’ Union is currently in the second year of a two-year programme on ‘Caring and Sharing’. Meetings have a fairly standard format, opening and closing with prayers and a reading from scripture, with the main part of the evening being devoted to a speaker. A short business session may precede or follow the speaker. The ‘social’ aspect is important. Meeting like this on a regular basis helps bond the women of the church together, as well as reminding them of their responsibilities as members of their families and their church, through their faith. Traditionally, some form of catering also plays a part in meeting. There were definite rebellious mutterings from a number of interviewees (usually the members who were working) about the amount of time ‘wasted’, the decision-making about what to provide and the actual preparation of food, some feeling that there were better ways of spending the money involved, but for most of those interviewed, the "tea and buns" were regarded as an indispensable part of the evening. We did form the impression, however, that as membership increasingly moves towards the stage where most members are in some form of daytime employment, that it will become harder to justify spending precious free time making sandwiches. Visitor’s evenings were seen as rather different because providing hospitality, which will in turn be reciprocated is considered both necessary and a traditional sign of good manners where branches may travel long distances to other churches. One exception to the general rule was noted and it is worth mentioning for this reason. The Free Presbyterian women who were interviewed were quite definite in stressing their lack of emphasis on catering. Although there were specific occasions for which they catered on a grand scale, for example the opening of an extension to one of their churches or the annual Ladies’ Convention - events which attracted visitors from Free Presbyterian churches around Northern Ireland - ‘tea and buns’ apparently did not form a part of their normal meetings. The following quotations demonstrate the close link between their thinking on this issue and the supportive role accorded them by their church’s fundamental emphasis on adherence to scripture:
If we emphasised catering, the men would be critical of us.
Spiritual food is more important. Catering is only done when there is a need to show hospitality. If one wee woman brings half a pound of tea, then her contribution is just as good as anyone else’s. We are there to do God’s work.
Church organisations also have a strong commitment to supporting missionary work abroad. In 199 1-2 for example, the PWA in Ireland supported missionaries in India, Brazil, Nepal, China, Jamaica and Malawi as well as one appropriately named Miss Christian among Gujeratis in Birmingham. Support to church workers overseas is usually financial and branches run various fund-raising functions for this purpose. Members are informed about how this money is spent by returning missionaries whose talks and slide presentations often form part of an organisation’ s annual programme.
The church groups which were looked at, then, were fairly traditional in the focus of their programmes. As mentioned earlier, there was some indication that members, usually the younger women, were keen to see matters of general concern, for example drugs, divorce, bereavement, being raised. Seldom did this manifest itself in any desire to talk about the ‘Troubles’ or community relations. When branches talked of linking up with ‘the women of other Churches in Ireland, etc.’ they might have recognised the wider spiritual significance of this but in practice it meant meeting and visiting the women of another branch of the same church organisation in another part of Northern Ireland. This circular form of contact - moving round and round within the boundaries of one’s own community -seems at first sight a rather narrow interpretation by the churches of the Christian concept of neighbourliness. In Freedom from Fear: Churches Together in Northern Ireland, the report of a conference organised by the Churches’ Central Committee for Community Work, a discussion group stressed the dangers for the churches of "an isolation or apartheid, e.g. Church Bowling Club, Church Men’s Groups, Church Women’s Groups, instead of encouraging integration into the community" (Lee, 1990). But there has been little attempt, beyond citing ‘neutral venues’, to identify the obstacles which might lie in the way of church groups trying to establish cross-community links. Even one of the most recent research reports, Breaking Down Divisions, is able to devote only four pages out of a publication of 85 pages to ‘examples of Good Practice’ (Radford, 1993). This suggests a number of things. First, that not much is being done, as Duncan Morrow of the Centre for the Study of Conflict has already pointed out (Morrow, 1991). Second, that the churches could try a bit harder, and third, that none of it will be easy. Realistically, Breaking Down Divisions has as its sub-title, ‘The possibilities of a local church contribution to improving community relations’. The underlining is our own. It would be unfair to end this section without mentioning the Methodist Church whose avowed commitment to reconciliation was observed in practice, particularly in one of the case study areas. As far back as 1905, when the Reverend R M Ker became superintendent of the Belfast Central Mission, their message has been unmistakable:
What has a soup kitchen to do with religion? There are those who split life up into compartments and label one social, another, spiritual. Grosvenor Hall and its workers countenance no such partition. (Gallagher, 1989)
One factor which allows the Methodists some leeway in their cross-community work is almost certainly the fact that being numerically small by comparison with the other churches, they are not seen as constituting any real rival threat. The other three main churches lack the same advantage and this is something which has to be taken into consideration when looking at their efforts towards reconciliation. It seems appropriate to end this section of the report with this telling extract from a submission to the Opsahl Commission:
Apartheid is nowhere more manifested than in our denominational Churches. it appears that no more than lip-service has ever been paid, by the leadership within the Churches, to a genuine meeting of minds in this community. There has been, and is, an abundance of window-dressing, but no substance ... If the Churches are to be relevant to the real needs of the community, a major commitment to breaking down this wall of separation must be the urgent priority. At present, fear, suspicion and mistrust are the norm. (Pollak, 1993)
What of the non-church organisations? How traditional are these in their focus? Do their activities encourage or preclude cross-community efforts? A secular organisation for women which does favour the preservation of traditional values is the WI, the Women’s Institute. Their motto is:
To unite in promoting any work which makes for the betterment of our homes and the development and improvement of conditions of rural life, by providing a centre for educational activities and social intercourse.
This means that their annual programme of activities focuses on issues which are designed to maintain, uphold and perpetuate these essentially domestic values. The monthly meetings follow a fairly standard format of a talk, usually by an invited speaker, a competition for members and sometimes some form of entertainment, for example singing or a game. Themes chosen by guest speakers reflect the highly traditional rural origins of the WI and we include a few examples chosen from a Spring issue of Ulster Countrywoman, which is the WI journal in Northern Ireland: Spring and indoor plants, antiques, dairy produce. As well as homemaking topics, branches had health-related talks, for example armchair aerobics, aroma therapy and herbal medicines. Talks by representatives from charities were also popular and there was some indication of the ‘greening’ of the organisation from the inclusion of environmental speakers. Themes were helpful, though rarely provocative or controversial. It would be entirely wrong to discount the enjoyment members derive from these evenings but the casual reader of Ulster Countrywoman might well be struck by the enormous variation in concerns from gravity to apparent trivia, at times almost bordering on the banal, which some of the branch programmes reflect. For example, one branch included a slide/talk presentation on Rumanian orphans but also a competition for a ‘frill box’; the members of another branch listened to a talk by a cancer charity representative followed by a competition for ‘the prettiest nightie’. At the same time, organisations do have to cater for a wide variety of interests and though combinations like those described seem odd, they do demonstrate the efforts put into doing this by programme committees. Yet what could not be gleaned from such programmes was any indication that the Northern Ireland Troubles existed. From interviews conducted with members it was clear that to some small extent this was deliberate and that they welcomed this break from ‘reality’. Also it is perhaps less difficult to be ‘Trouble-free’ when membership is almost exclusively from one community or the other. All indications are that this is indeed the case in the branches investigated. It should be stressed that our findings reflect only two particular geographical areas, therefore they cannot be generalised. However, bearing in mind that the population in terms of declared religious affiliation was mixed in both areas, one would have expected to see this reflected in this organisation. The picture which emerged was of branches which were heavily Protestant, even in area two which had a strong Catholic majority. In one branch in area one, Catholic members constituted only 3 per cent of the total membership.
Interviews were held with Catholic members from different branches - one with a membership of over eight years, another a member for over 15 years. Each obviously enjoyed her membership and neither indicated any problem over ‘difference’ in religion. The member with the longer membership said that she knew she would be in the minority when she joined but that she did not let this put her off: "It is not sectarian. Relations are good ... it has been a good thing for me. I would not miss it. I do not feel any difference. Everybody’s brilliant." When asked why she thought so few Catholics were members, she said that she did not know and that she had in fact tried to encourage friends to join but the plain fact was that "Catholic people do not come forward to join it". Both women stressed the importance of family values, especially that religion was a "private and personal matter. People’s behaviour is what counts ... everyone is just trying to get on and bring up their family." In tandem with this was their emphasis on the absence of politics and religion from the organisation’ s meetings:
The Troubles are not mentioned. You would think that they did not exist . Members talk about the things that interest them - crochet, baking, needlework etc. The Troubles are up here [pointing to her head]. They are in people’s heads.
lnterviews with two Protestant members who had held executive positions at branch level provide a useful backdrop to this scenario. In area one, the interviewee was markedly reluctant to comment on the religious ‘mix' of her branch but when pressed said that yes, there were a few Catholic members, then added, "and very good members they are too". Members were recruited usually by friends and these were usually Protestant. What was possibly a problem, she added, was the venue - a Presbyterian church hall which might be off-putting. She regretted that there was an imbalance but could not see any way around it. In area two, the interviewee gave exact figures for religious mix in membership, even recalling how many Catholics there were when she joined over twenty years before. This figure of nine had now dwindled to only two - one was elderly and received home visits from members; the other was "a poor attender, except when it comes to outings". This interviewee also displayed concern about religious imbalance and considered that because the WI executive "tended traditionally to be drawn from the establishment" that this could also be a negative factor.
What conclusions can be drawn from this about the focus of this organisation? Its origins are important. It is an import from ‘across the water’, reared in the rural English shires to provide education and entertainment for countrywomen. If it ever set out to bring women together, then it has done so here, but apparently only from one community. But was it designed to do anything different and should it now be looking at its role in a new light? If religion and politics are avoided, why do more Catholic women not join it? Is it because most perceive it as part of the establishment? Why is something which presents an uncontroversial programme not more attractive to women across the divide? The concerns of home, family and charity cannot surely be the prerogative of one side or the other.
The focus of the ‘professional charities’ is different because they fund-raise in a variety of ways to further specific causes so that their focus is not manifested in a programme of meetings but in how they raise money and how the money they make is used. To paraphrase, not entirely flippantly, in the churches and in some leisure/social organisations, the ‘medium is the message’ while in the charities the medium is simply a vehicle towards an end. Their activities are many and varied, from running second-hand clothes shops to selling raffle tickets, organising coffee mornings and fashion shows - the list is endless. Women volunteered mainly for reasons of philanthropy but the desire for company and useful activity were also important factors. Community reconciliation was not. However, our research identified some definite, though small, mixing in some branches of charities. This often depended on who had started up the branch and whether this group continued to be self-perpetuating in their recruiting practices. By the same token as above, members frequently insisted that the Troubles were never mentioned, that "politics and religion do not arise ... there are no rules about this but members take it as read" and from another charity volunteer, "Religion is never discussed. It is probably not even thought about. Volunteers go to do a job of work. I have never thought of this charity in terms of religion." On one occasion when an interview was being carried out in situ, i.e. in a charity shop, the interviewee unexpectedly turned round to seek clarification about the religious mix of the membership from a passing co-worker. The following affronted response was received, "I am only interested in work". But what was the focus of this work? In many cases, it was directed outside Northern Ireland. Few charities, even those with some home concern, appeared to tackle issues like sectarianism, the community divide. But should organisations like Oxfam or the British Red Cross or Talking News or Action Cancer or the RNLI, concern themselves with the Troubles? After all, this has nothing to do with why any of these were set up. They are doing the work they were founded to do, whether it is trying to push back the famine in Africa or sending containers of baby goods and medicines to Rumanian orphanages or funding research into disease or saving souls at sea. And in all these areas Northern Ireland has an outstanding record of charity-giving. But Northern Ireland itself has huge indigenous social problems which may be particularly difficult to tackle because of the political and religious divisions but which nonetheless would benefit from more interest and also aid. Also if one major thing that organisations do is to bring people of similar interests together, it could be argued that a valuable opportunity is being lost if this is not carried across the community divide. Focusing on issues outside Northern Ireland was common to many charities. Is this because it is easier to manage and easier also to justify than trying to deal with problems closer to home? Not that women were unaware of this. What could be amore bleak admission of reality than this comment?
It seems easier to help a starving child in Ethiopia than to grab the hand of a Catholic down the road.
Two other comments provide a useful counterbalance to such a cri de coeur. The first came from an interview with a charity volunteer brought up in South Africa and the second is a quotation from Sadie Patterson of Women Together:
It was perhaps easier for people to do good that was directed outside the province.., at the same time, they were doing good for themselves and it was not costing them anything.
A people that have suffered together recognise the suffering of others, they are more likely to give than those who have had an easy time. (Bleakley, 1980)
In the professional organisations, the purpose of the organisation is to maintain a particular kind of network of successful women (and those aspiring to be successful) who are at the same time able to use their position to benefit the community and, in particular, to enhance the status of women within it. Members of Soroptomist International, for example, pledge themselves among other things to ‘quicken the spirit of service’. Wide-ranging programmes of activities with clearly-defined foci on "economic and social development, education, environment, health, human rights/status of women and international good will and understanding" are adopted to facilitate this aim of service. Soroptomist International’s policy statement clearly defines the political and religious parameters of its service role:
It is the policy of Soroptomist International to be concerned with international and national issues that relate to its objectives and programmes. On matters of political controversy between nations, of party politics and of sectarian religion, SI maintains a position of strict neutrality.
Branches have to operate at local level within the broad aims stated. Although there were a few examples of cross-community activity, for example annual public speaking competitions drawing on girls from both Protestant and Catholic schools, analysis of data from one branch in a case study area revealed activities as having a ‘community’ rather than a ‘cross-community’ focus. Also like many charities, much of the focus has been directed towards international causes. At the same time, taking the cross-community dimension here more seriously and ‘intemalising’ their efforts to some extent would not detract from any notion of ‘neutrality’ but might even enhance their programmes. It would be helpful if memberships, as well as activities, were to be scrutinised, as one younger member suggested, not with the aim of promoting formal change, but informally, so that:
... there could be a half-way means of doing something which would help to raise people’s consciousness that the membership balance should be redressed.
The focus of this kind of organisation is very similar to other secular organisations but with one important difference. Professional organisations deliberately recruit from women who are influential in their community. This is part of their raison d’etre. Such women can be effective role models.
The Willing Horse
A useful measure of members’ interest in an organisation is the amount of time which they were prepared to devote to its activities, as well as the way in which this time was used. Often this was closely related to the position occupied by the member in the organisation, so that, for example, a committee member who was also a secretary or treasurer or branch president might well spend more time working for her organisation than someone fulfilling a less specific role as an ordinary member. This does not necessarily imply lesser commitment but it is unlikely that anyone who was not completely dedicated to what they were doing would be willing to devote the considerable amounts of time many officials were expending to any organisation. Indeed, it was common to find women at all levels in many of the organisations who, if they had been employed by their organisation, would have qualified as part-time or even in some instances full-time workers.
The organisations where this sort of commitment appeared most likely were the charities, as one would expect, because of the frequently open-ended opportunities they afford the volunteer with plenty of time on their hands. Figures from the 1989/90 Charities Household Survey (Brophy and McQuillan, 1991) indicated that there was a difference in the hours given by men and women to charity work. At the lower end, i.e. around 2-3 hours per week, the difference was insignificant but, over this, dramatic differences could be detected, with women in the great majority amongst those contributing significantly higher hours. As our fieldwork progressed, a pattern began to emerge of the kind of woman who spent a lot of time as a charity volunteer. Four examples are offered:
Volunteer A - Widow, pensioner, four grown-up children, worked part-time when children were old enough. Two afternoons per week but would like to do more.
Volunteer B - Married, late fifties, two grown-up children, worked part-time until back problem. Weekly, monthly and weekend time slots for charity, including 2-3 Saturdays per month. This she estimated as 25-30 hours per month.
Volunteer C - Widow, aged 60, no children. Employed for over 40 years until mother became ill, then died. Three days per week in charity shop.
Volunteer D - Unmarried, aged 60. Recently retired from full-time employment. Three evenings per week and most weekends plus time spent travelling throughout Northern Ireland on charity work.
All of the above women had time to spare which their charities could fill. But for them, the charities more than recompensed their efforts. As volunteers, they found companionship and satisfaction. But is there a downside to all of this? The following comment from an equally hardworking, but more cynical volunteer, shows the danger of charities taking volunteers, especially women, for granted: "Charities grasp but do not take the time to say thank you". However, as government policies appear to continue to shift the burden of caring and financially supporting many aspects of welfare provision out of the statutory sector, more and more will be thrust upon the community and therefore upon its caring charities. More volunteers will be needed and more will be expected of them. In a newspaper article written just after last year’s Red Nose Day, a youngster with spina bifida accused the fund-raisers of "directing all your energy at the wrong target". He explained:
I’m a bit worried that it makes matters worse; the better you do, the less pressure there is on government to do their bit. Do you see what I mean? You’re hiding the blood in the gutter, you’re muffling the cries in the night that might just penetrate ministerial conscience; by your brilliant generosity, you are reaching the parts that government funding ought to reach. (The Independent, 1993)
Yet, given the enjoyment and satisfaction which many women clearly derive from volunteer work, their labours show few signs of tailing off, even if some people are beginning to question the whole ethos of volunteering and the way volunteers are being used.
Church organisations also account for a great deal of the time of some of their members. This is particularly true of the clergy wives who devote long hours in executive roles. A special section in this report deals with them in greater detail. For some women, involvement in church work took up all of their free time but it was clear that like most charity volunteers they did not regard their efforts as ‘work’. The Free Presbyterian women interviewed felt that their contribution was particularly valued: "We are called to this work. It is not about time but eternity" and "I love working for the Lord" were two responses to questions about how much time they spent in church work.
If women are willing to give considerable amounts of time - and it seems they are - to organisations, is this always time well-spent? This is clearly a contentious area and comment can appear as criticism, but charities and churches apart, do women really give much priority to spending hours decorating an egg-cup or producing the ‘best-dressed cream-cracker’ or seeing how many items can be crammed into a matchbox, all examples taken from recent programmes of activities. Depending upon one’s point of view, it may indeed be time well spent, though there are signs of Parkinson’s Law in operation. At a more serious level, if the kind of activities in which women spend their time are overwhelmingly ‘traditional’ in that they are caring and demonstrative of solid domestic virtues, are they really valued by society as a whole? Could one argue that what all these women are spending their time on can be classified as ‘women’s work’ as has sometimes been claimed? Are their members ‘extended housekeepers’ like Caplan’s middle and upper class Madrassi women? When Mary Chamberlain wrote Fenwomen: a Portrait of Women in an English Village in 1977, she thought that some of her subjects restricted their interest in politics to the local government level because "the nearer the concerns of an organisation or assembly to women’s traditional sphere, the more women we find there" (Chamberlain, 1977). Feminists argue that this is a sure indication of women being marginalised, of women having to operate outside the public domain and being obliged to do ‘women’s work’ which is therefore undervalued. The member who answered, "I am just a volunteer" when asked what part she played in her organisation, could unwittingly have been responding to the role which society also placed upon her as a woman.
Leadership and the Role of the Leader in the Organisations
In discussing the methodology of this study we indicated that we had tried to interview both those who held leadership positions in organisations and ‘rank and file’ members, and that indeed a rather different interview structure had been used with the two groups. This reflected an initial view that leaders might well have a different perspective on the aims and functioning of organisations. The results of the case study work confirmed this but also brought out the importance of the leaders themselves and the influence they frequently had.
If a rather stereotyped model of a ‘typical’ woman who joins the types of organisations we studied has been established as middle-aged, middle-class, not in full-time paid employment outside the home and with strong church connections, this is reinforced by the leaders. Taking on the position of chair, secretary or treasurer of any organisation demands time and also, in many cases, mobility and some financial expenditure. It is hardly surprising that these are more frequently available to women who have fewer responsibilities for childcare, those who do not have full-time fixed working hours, those with personal transport and those with financial resources. But as in so many other aspects of the study we found that this often creates a ‘feed-back loop’. If the leaders are middle-aged, middle-class and not working outside the home this affects the image of the organisation which in turn influences who joins and thus the potential pool of new leaders.
Interviews also brought out the high levels of interconnectedness between organisations at leadership level. Women who were leaders in one organisation frequently knew those who held similar positions in other groups not only through formal contacts but also at a personal or social level. In addition quite a number held office in several different organisations, so one woman might be secretary in her churchwomen’s group, on the committee running a charity shop and an official in a professional organisation. This created a network of women with shared attitudes and interests who had quite extensive influence amongst women in their local community. Most would have been very wary of controversial issues or of any actions which could upset the delicate balances in their organisations and in the local community. This networking can also be off-putting to those who have less time or resources and feel excluded, or create the impression of an elite body of people who decide everything and have unequal access to influence and power.
A particular aspect of leadership which emerged as important was that in the church related organisations. Many of the Protestant churches had a set of specific women’s organisations which had no clear parallel in the Catholic church and within these leadership followed clear patterns. The wider significance of the impact of the churches on women’s lives will be examined in detail later, but here the issue of leadership in church organisations needs attention.
In the church organisations on the Protestant side, such as the Presbyterian Women’s Association, the Young Women’s Group and the Mothers’ Union, the wife of the minister was usually seen as the ‘automatic’ chair of the organisation and as a role model and this had considerable implications. In some cases young clergy wives appear to be pressurised into taking leadership roles, even when they feel uncertain and insecure in such positions, because the previous holder of the leadership post had been the last minister’s wife, and ‘the minister’s wife always does it’. It was difficult to pin down exactly why this was so and there was some evidence of change, but, in general, members seemed to feel either that it was almost ‘part of the job’, with a minister’s whole family being involved in his ministry or even that the minister’s wife would add the necessary religious tone to the proceedings, as this comment from a fairly ‘new’ clergy wife indicates:
They were afraid that if I did not give this kind of lead, then the branch would become just another WI
Expectations are always important determinants of opinion so that there may be instances where the more traditionally-minded members actually disapprove of a clergy wife being in paid employment, complaining as one organisation member did that it took time away from parish work and could even contribute to a fall in branch membership:
She [i.e. the rector’s wife] does not therefore have the time to do the job. You need to work at this kind of thing.
This does not leave much scope for personal preference. The task of leading a church organisation year after year can escalate into a full-time job. In addition, the ‘role model’ element can overflow into other aspects of the woman’s life. The consciousness these women have of being seen as having a wider leadership role was confirmed in accounts of inability to take part with other people, for example, at work, in events which might be seen to reflect badly on their husbands and/or their church congregation, for example non-attendance at funerals of victims targeted for their political involvement, particularly on the ‘other side’. These meant taking hard and personally painful decisions which also underline the problems of crossing existing community boundaries. Moving outside could be interpreted as a betrayal of community loyalty; not moving would be taken to signify either approval of sectarian violence or its rejection. Within such a labyrinth, clergy wives have to confront considerable difficulties and their frequent ‘conservatism’ may actually conceal enormous tension and stress. They may be the most obvious people to initiate change; paradoxically, they are often also the least able to do so.
The Influence of the Organisations
But do these leaders have influence? Indeed, do women’s organisations as a whole have influence at either local or national level? This turns to a considerable extent on the perceptions which society has of various women’s organisations since this is likely to affect how seriously the views they express are taken or how much power they are likely to have vis-a-vis other pressure groups.
From this investigation it seemed clear that one complicating factor was that the image or images which organisations present to the public do not always accurately reflect the images which they have of themselves or even the reality of their work and aspirations. Tradition has a lot to do with this. If an organisation was founded at a particular time and to meet a particular need or has been involved in a certain range of activities for a long number of years, it is hard for it to attempt to modify its image and sphere of influence and equally hard for the public to alter long-held impressions. This seemed to affect many of the organisations which felt they had changed considerably in the recent past but which were still characterised by out of date stereotypes. For example, the British Red Cross Society actually carried out numerous wide-ranging functions, including running charity shops and coffee shops, but cannot rid itself of the war-time band-aid image. Similarly the Mother’s Union - in this case the name helps, or hinders - is a classic case in point. Witness the story related by one interviewee of the lady who was invited to join but refused, saying that she could not knit!
What may be true is that until very recently most women’s organisations were viewed by many women and almost all men as features of leisure time activity and therefore not to be taken too seriously by the world at large. Professional women’s organisations might have been an exception to this, but they are a feature of the era of the professional working woman and draw on a small, carefully defined group so that they are not seen as typical women’s organisations.
If people organise themselves into a group it is usually for a purpose, they want to achieve something or influence someone. But when we attempt to examine the purposes of women’s organisations the information already presented in earlier sections of this report makes it clear that they are very varied both between organisations and even within organisations. This can make it very difficult for women to organise in any co-ordinated way and lessens the impact of their views even further.
The range of objectives in the groups we looked at was extremely wide, in some cases it could be defined as highly conservative, the organisation existing to preserve and perpetuate certain traditional values, for example relating to the family, religion and domesticity. There are many, perhaps the majority, women’s groups in rural and semi-rural area such as those studied which continue to fit this image. At the same time some organisations like the professional groups have a function similar to their male counterparts and these have considerable local influence. They are frequently seen as helping to maintain a network of useful contacts amongst an elite, successful group of people which has considerable power in a local community. But do the equivalent women’s groups have a similar impact? From this study we would suggest that they do not, partially because they are much smaller and have more limited resources. This may well be a reflection of the employment structure in small towns and rural areas where the opportunities for women in business and professional life are restricted and the ‘glass ceiling’ is still in place. But there may also be something else there. Does the difference in the influence of these outwardly comparable professional organisations highlight differences in the reasons why men and women belong to organisations?
It is difficult to answer this question in any conclusive way from the data we have gathered or from the literature relating to men’s activities in clubs, societies and organisations but a few pointers do emerge. For men their membership of clubs and organisations is often an extension of their business and professional life, a forum in which the discussions and decision making of their working lives can be continued or extended in a different setting. From the interviews it seems that women are likely to have less instrumental motives when they join, often suggesting that they ‘just wanted to’ or ‘enjoy it’. Another approach would be to say that it is their continued exclusion from the public domain which pushes women into the private sphere of activity and that though many may be seeking to do things they enjoy and regard as valuable, a number may even unconsciously see in their organisational work an alternative route to influencing local decision making. This was not explicitly stated by interviewees but the work of some of the leaders and those involved in a large number of groups and in ‘networking’ suggested that it might be taking place.
At the same time any influence exerted by women’s organisations has to be set in the context of a traditional society with all the attendant values about the role and interests of women. In both traditions there is a strong element of deference to authority, to the religious hierarchy in the Catholic tradition and in the Protestant tradition to what Sarah Nelson describes as "the importance placed on obedience to superiors (from husbands to political leaders)" (Nelson, 1984).
But even if women do have influence, earlier parts of this study have shown that this does not imply that it will necessarily be used to alter existing patterns in the community. The dilemma which Ridd and Galloway (1986) identified as affecting women in divided societies has clear relevance. Conflict and division in a society undermine existing structures, including gender boundaries, and thus provide new opportunities for women to extend their influence. These same tensions, however, also trigger impulses to reinforce and strengthen traditional patterns as a defence against the upheavals. In rural and small town Northern Ireland our evidence suggests that the emphasis for most women is currently on the latter. Reinforcing family values and supporting the upbringing of young people within the home and the church were frequently referred to as important, as was the view that religion is a private matter for the family.
The ‘voluntary ethos’ which pervades much of the work women do in organisations has already been mentioned and this also links with the issue of influence. All the organisations surveyed depend almost totally on voluntary commitment and time. Indeed amongst some older and more middle class members there was a feeling that voluntary work was in some sense more ‘acceptable’ than paid work. The voluntary work they undertake is for them an outgrowth of ‘natural’ or ‘caring’ activities - an extension of what they do in the home and for the family. It seemed that formalising or professionalising an organisation was seen as a bad thing by such members. But these are also processes which help to gain recognition for organisations and provide structures through which their voice can be heard and they gain access to forums where decisions are made. So another dilemma is identified in which women are anxious about the lack of influence but at the same time very wary of the traditional paths of formalisation and professionalisation which appear to facilitate access to decision making and resources but at the same time jeopardise the structures and patterns they value.
Religion and Women’s Organisations
When we began this study we identified the church-related organisations and church-related activities in which women are prominent as one of the central areas of concern and aspects of their work have been discussed at various points in the report. However, as the investigation developed the significance of religious organisations and activities in many women’s lives and the complex connections between religion and cross-community contact which emerged led us to believe there was need for a specific section addressing these issues.
Religion is so obviously involved in the Northern Ireland conflict - the two communities are most frequently characterised as Catholic and Protestant - yet it is also regularly stated that the conflict itself is not a religious one and that political, social and economic differences are of more fundamental significance and certainly policy initiatives have largely focused on these areas. Perhaps partially as a result of such emphases recent social science research had either not looked at religion at all or treated it only tangentially. Thus in the specific sphere of women’s experience, recent studies have examined issues such as child care, domestic violence, community involvement and political attitudes within the contact of the Northern Ireland conflict. In many of these investigations there has been some discussion of the impact of religion but it has not been regarded as central.
It may also be that the location of many of these studies in urban centres, especially Belfast and London/Derry has influenced the emphasis given to religious differences. Our investigations were located in small towns and rural areas where church attendance is high and the influence of the churches on most aspects of family, community and social life is marked. We did not set out with a view that the role of women in the churches and the influence of the churches on women’s lives was an especially significant variable, rather the study itself brought out how important and sometimes contradictory religious influences were.
Even in rural areas where regular church attendance is ‘the norm’ and few individuals would not at least formally identify themselves with some religious group, not all, indeed probably not even the majority, of women are actively involved in church-related activities. But our interviews suggested that those women who were not directly involved were still influenced by what they perceived to be the attitudes and teachings of ‘their’ church and that this had a considerable effect on their approach to community relations.
This is hardly surprising given that religious beliefs and teachings clearly have considerable influence on ideas about the role of women and gender relations in society as a whole. The government and organisation of both the Protestant and Catholic churches in Northern Ireland is almost exclusively in the hands of men, although women provide its main support. This ‘pillarisation’ is not, of course, specific to Northern Ireland, for "wherever one turns, in Christianity, except among the office-holders, there is a predominance of females" (Brown, 1987). In the Catholic church and some of the Protestant groups women are excluded from participation in some areas of worship and ministry and many decision-making processes on theological grounds. The priesthood and all aspects of the formal church hierarchy in the Catholic church are exclusively male and in Protestant churches such as the Brethren and the Free Presbyterian church women are excluded from the formal ministry or leadership of public worship. In other denominations all positions within the church are theoretically open to women but in reality men are overwhelmingly dominant. Thus in the Presbyterian church, for example, although women can be trained for the ministry and placed in charge of a congregation or as members of an individual congregation elected as elders, members of session or committee members, in fact many rural congregations have never had a woman in any of these positions. Indeed, there is some recent evidence, which was supported by the data we gathered in our interviews, that gains which had been made in the recent past were being eroded. Interestingly, quite a number of the younger ministers and candidates for ordination in the Presbyterian Church and the Church of Ireland appear to be opposed to women ministers on theological grounds and to support a very traditional model of gender relations in which the role of women is focused exclusively on child rearing and domestic responsibilities. All this is not to say, however, that the influence of religion is always conservative in relation to the role of women. Some women in almost all the churches questioned the current distribution of power and the theological interpretations on which it is often based and justified. In the Catholic church a considerable number of women including members of religious orders were particularly interested in feminist theology and redefining the role of women in the church and similar patterns were found in many of the Protestant denominations. Church commitment, therefore, made no simple or direct connection with views about the role of women in the community, some of those expressing the most conservative views we heard, based their ideology on religion as did some of those with the most radical approaches.
The attitude of the clergy themselves is clearly significant. We did not set out to try to gauge the opinion of every clergyman who lived and worked in the two areas under study - there was no time to do this. In any case, we were more interested in finding out what women themselves felt about their role within their church. However, from the small number of clergy whom we were able to interview, we were able to put together a picture which was matched fairly closely in our interviews with women. With one exception, the clergy interviewed were male. While individual clerics varied in the extent to which they considered women should participate in church, almost all had a tendency to regard women and, therefore, women’s groups, as supportive and as secondary to the main action. The vocabulary used by clergymen across the board to describe the part played by women in their church confirms this impression:
Women are the backbone of the church. (Free Presbyterian)
Women are the right hand of the priest. (Catholic Church)
The heart of the parish starts with the Mothers’ Union. (Church of Ireland)
I could not function without them. They are terribly supportive. (Methodist)
Nowhere does the ‘body language’ refer to the possibility of any cerebral contribution.
Significantly, there are no women’s groups in the Catholic Church which are the exact equivalents of women’s groups in the Protestant churches. Women feature prominently in many Catholic organisations and may even be in the majority, but these groups (for example, St Vincent de Paul or prayer groups) are almost always mixed. Why there should be this difference is hard to say. One female interviewee suggested that it was not a question of gender but of history, and the history of the laity at that. Until fairly recently, the role of the Catholic laity in church organisation and more importantly in liturgical terms has been circumscribed. As one interviewee recalled, "Traditionally the priest ran everything. It was not at all democratic." But even those Catholic priests who, reflecting the philosophy of Vatican II with its emphasis on the ‘active’ participation of the laity - ‘the People of God’ (Hornsby-Smith, 1987), - envisaged their women parishioners having a wider role, still seemed to be seeing that role as an expansion of what they had always done, rather than as something different. For example, women who had arranged flowers might find themselves taking an active part in setting up and running groups which counselled parishioners in marriage/domestic-related matters. According to one Catholic clergyman, the involvement of women in ‘family-oriented’ programmes in parenting, marriage encounter, etc. was good for women because it ‘suited’ them. Another referred to the participation of women in counting the weekly collections, "It is important that women would be seen to take part in this." There are at least two ways of looking at such change. One could argue that it is beneficial for women to have increased participation in their church, but if on closer inspection this participation happens in reality to be ‘more of the same’, where is the benefit? Pigeon-holing women into ‘caring jobs’ may not ‘suit’ those women who do not ‘care’ to be ‘contained’ for whatever reason. Monica McWilliams has written of similar dangers for those women’s groups traditionally linked with ‘caring’, for example mother and toddler groups, warning them that they might indeed ‘risk being a device for the containment of women’ (McWilliams, 1986).
The aspects of religious ideology which relates most directly to this study is clearly that focusing on inter-church links, but before we examine attitudes and beliefs a number of practical and organisational facts which proved to be very important need to be clarified. These practical problems were the ones which many women with strong church commitments pointed to when we asked about establishing links between women’s organisations in different churches and especially across the Protestant/Catholic divide. Whilst many of the Protestant churches had distinct groups and programmes of meetings for women, the women in the Catholic church worked through groups which were not exclusively for women or through more informal structures. This did not mean that they did very different things, right across the churches women put a lot of energy and commitment into providing food and organisation for meetings, functions and social events for the parish or congregation. What it did mean, however, was that establishing the initial contact with the women of another church was perceived as difficult. For women in the Mothers’ Union it might be a bit unclear who to contact in the local Presbyterian congregation but at least they knew there was a Presbyterian Women’s Association, but in the Catholic church there is no obvious equivalent. Even the clear figure of the minister’s wife who would be able to suggest who to contact or what sort of links might be appropriate was missing. A Catholic woman who from time to time attended Protestant church meetings in the company of friends regretted that "we cannot reciprocate". So there can be anxiety and uncertainty for women in almost all the churches if they want to organise a joint event between denominations, but these difficulties were regarded as insignificant compared with what were perceived as the enormous practical barriers in the way of establishing links between Catholic and Protestant women. This may seem like the over dramatising of the obvious but it was clear that for women who had given serious thought to establishing links, the actual step of contacting the parish priest or the minister or his wife was extremely daunting. One Mothers’ Union branch which was actively considering inviting women from the local Catholic church to a joint event had discussed it at length in their own meetings and were agonising over how to make the contact. They were involved in a lengthy process of making informal approaches to Catholic women they knew personally in order to establish how and to whom to make the official overture. It is clear that in situations where there is so much anxiety and uncertainty the danger that someone will inadvertently ‘put a foot wrong’ either in the initial approach or the subsequent response is considerable and even the slightest rebuff is likely to kill the initiative.
This uncertainty was part of a more general lack of knowledge about the ‘other side’. Catholic women and Protestant women do not seem to know much about each other’s churches or about what goes on for women in each other’s churches. This applies to the ‘leaders’ as much as to the rank and file. The lack of information was possibly worse in the second of our case study areas because here there seemed to be even less informal contact, possibly a reflection of the more scattered and rural nature of the area, but possibly also linked to the perception that community relations were more fraught. This absence of awareness about activities in other churches could reach surprising levels and was not exclusively connected with the Catholic/ Protestant divide, as in the case of the clergy wife who was unaware of the huge extension being built by another Protestant church about a mile down the road from her home.
At a rather deeper level there was ignorance of religious practice in other churches and this sometimes lay at the root of comments which appeared derogatory or ill-informed, like this one which seems to cover most possibilities:
You were hardly up before you were back down again ... it was just like High Mass. (Presbyterian who had joined Church of Ireland on marriage)
This lack of information was sometimes true even in cases where more accurate knowledge might have been anticipated, for example among clergy wives. It seems that for many women in Northern Ireland there is very little opportunity to ask questions about differences of religious practice in a non-threatening situation. Where this does become available questions which may appear peripheral but clearly have concerned the questioner emerge. For example in a group discussion, which arose partially out of contacts established during the project, between Church of Ireland women and a Catholic nun, one of the former asked about the changes over the last few years in the habit worn by nuns. Some saw this as trivial, but the opportunity to ask was important. This woman had never had such an opportunity before. What was important was not the content of the question but the fact that it was happening at all. The perception of the gap between one religion and another can be almost insurmountable. Such situations are not necessarily about changing views but about the ability to come to terms with the existence of one’ sown prejudices even if one cannot or does not necessarily want to change them.
Underlying these findings are questions such as whether Protestantism is inevitably confusing to Catholics because of the numerous strands it contains and whether this means that Catholics are more ignorant about Protestantism than Protestants are about Catholicism? Or are both groups equally unclear about the facts and likely to base their ideas on rumour and popular myth? A more sinister, if possibly paranoid interpretation might be that is it nothing to do with simple ignorance but is part of not wishing to know and feeling that even finding out about the ‘other religion’ is potentially dangerous. Some rather similar is sues arose during a project carried out by researchers which looked at integrated education (Morgan, 1991). During that research one of the Catholic teachers interviewed said that she found it hard to come to terms with the "intangible nature of Protestantism".
All of these difficulties arise even in situations where women are either anxious to make contact or are at least neutral and amongst women who do see separation between the women in the district as a negative and damaging thing. But it was also clear from the interviews that a considerable number of women with strong church commitments regarded contact as an aspect of ‘ecumenism’ and therefore unwelcome, damaging or even dangerous. For some, this negative view of contact was based on dislike of the religious practices of the ‘other side’ and bred an unwillingness to get involved in situations where they would have to accommodate to these. One interviewee, a university graduate and leader of a church organisation branch, explained why, for example, she could not consider attending any Women’s World Day of Prayer services:
I would not feel comfortable in this situation, nor would I encourage women to do this. This does not mean that one cannot personally be friends with Catholics.
At the heart of such comments there may also lie a genuine fear of contact, of the consequences of being ‘exposed’ to the teaching of another religion "which seems very different from my own". Our data only ‘hinted’ at the existence of this point of view, but its very presence is significant because it provides the backdrop against which others with lower levels of anxiety operate and may affect the opinions and actions of a much wider range of people than would care to admit to it.
Our investigation of women’s cross-community contacts suggests that at the centre of religious ideology in Northern Ireland there is a paradox which is currently unresolved and indeed rarely formally acknowledged. For some very committed Christians their faith convinces them that separation between Christians of different churches is alien to the spirit of the Gospels and that they should seek to build bridges. They believe that this can be done without compromising their own vision of Christianity and that such contact has a role to play in improving community relations and ultimately in contributing to the construction of a society free from violence. Another equally sincere and committed group believe that their own interpretation of the Christian faith is ‘correct’ and that all those who adhere to other versions are wrong. From their standpoint, contact is a danger to the eternal souls of members of their own communion. They believe that they must safeguard their salvation through separation and, if others are to share that salvation, it must be achieved through conversion. In this reading the political and social problems of Northern Ireland will be ‘solved’ when the religious errors have been removed. The two positions are set out starkly and probably in over-simplified form here but, as indicated above, the extreme position often dictates the form of the discourse in our society. Such positions are easily identified because they are quite clear about what they want and how they intend to achieve it.
At the same time, there are strong indications from our research of the presence of a third group, whose intentions are perhaps less obvious. Its members are church-going, law-abiding, committed to traditional moral and family values, and often heavily involved in the local community, though not necessarily in any political sense. To describe this group as a middle group, that is to say, to be found somewhere between the two positions described above, would be inaccurate because their stance is different rather than moderate. But they are usually drawn from one social class, the middle class. Many of those interviewed fell into this category. For sometime, this group has attracted heavy criticism for their apparent detachment from the Troubles (McKittrick, 1993), sometimes termed their "flight from the political process" (Oliver, 1990) and there has been some attempt at explaining how this has come about: "It is not that this class has been unaffected by the Troubles - far from it - but perhaps that it has not been affected enough" (Fraser, 1992). Recognising this, one interviewee thoughtfully commented, "With regard to crossing the community divide, we need to proceed quietly and slowly. Perhaps part of our problem is that we are all too comfortable." The middle class have always provided a ready, perhaps too facile a target for social comment. The other side of the argument is rarely presented. They might well argue that by going on with their everyday existence, by striving for normality, they are contributing to the eventual defeat of terrorism, even if, to some, that normality may be questionable. It was not the remit of this research project to examine the role played by women in politics here. Rooney and Woods’ recent work, Women, Community and Politics in Northern Ireland (1993) provides some valuable insights into this. Our concern was to try to gain an impression of a less formal, less visible, role at local community level. At the same time, it would be important to test the assumption that the inaction of the middle class with regard to politics here has created some kind of vacuum. Rooney and Woods comment on the ‘marginalisation’ of women in Northern Irish politics, as well as on their exclusion from historical studies. It is highly likely that women here have always been on the fringe of the political arena. If the Troubles have ‘alienated’ the middle class from participation in politics, especially at local government level, then women, in essence those women who often provide leadership, will have been placed at one further remove from the locus of power. This must go some way towards explaining the feeling of hopelessness expressed by some interviewees, "If I could just do something, but how?"
Within this context, we have identified three different sets of opinion. Readers may have strong feelings about the relative merits of these three positions and have a desire to support initiatives which seek to support the stance of one or more of the groupings. In a society such as Northern Ireland this is likely to be a contentious and also a very long-term approach with uncertain outcomes. From a practical point of view the challenge is to take all of these positions seriously and devise strategies which firstly will give those women who seek contact the confidence to do so and secondly enable those women who maintain separatism to find ways of living in a multi-cultural society which must respect the views and aspirations of diverse groups. Finally, for those who fall into neither of those two categories, they must be made to feel that their contribution to maintaining ‘business as usual’, although highly valued, could be interpreted by some as the equivalent of running on the spot, with the possible danger of the ground eventually disappearing beneath them. In considering whether they can make any different response, they too will require a strong measure of reassurance that their response can make a difference.
These may not be messages which those actively involved in promoting community relations wish to hear and clearly they do not represent the whole picture: they have to be taken in conjunction with the evidence of interesting and exciting initiatives being undertaken by women in other contexts, for example, community groups in Belfast like Joyce McCartans 'family feminists' (Mitchison, 1988). They do however reflect the reality within which many women in small towns and rural areas of Northern Ireland live, a reality of communities focused on family, friends and church in which there are few established lines of communication between Protestant and Catholic and where the characteristic 'polite avoidance' is highly developed.
There are clearly many practical constraints on women in such communities, particularly in the more rural districts where individual women can be very isolated. Getting to meetings and other events is difficult unless a woman has personal access to a car, since public transport is often virtually non-existent. This means that middle class women usually find it much easier to get involved in organisations, especially at a leadership level. Many women from all social groups have difficulty finding time to give to organisations either because they work outside the home, have heavy commitments to the family business or farm or responsibilities for care of children or relatives which cannot easily be delegated. In addition the maintenance of traditional values relating to the family and the role of women in the family make some women, particularly amongst the older groups, anxious about too much involvement outside the home.
Yet in spite of these difficulties many women do give a great deal of time to voluntary work especially for charities and their churches. From a community relations perspective the problem is that this work, though beneficial to the whole community in a general sense or to communities in other countries, has limited direct impact on community division in Northern Ireland. In the non-church related organisations there was no evidence of any wish to 'avoid' the other community but the practicalities of family, friendship and social contacts resulted in many groups being predominantly or almost entirely either Catholic or Protestant. This was coupled with the well-established Northern Irish desire to avoid trouble by steering clear of raising contentious issues: the 'don't talk about the war' syndrome. This highly developed sensitivity has a functional value in allowing the two communities to co-exist separately but if there is a wish to establish contact or to explore co-operation it can be an additional barrier.
The importance of church connections in many women's lives has come out clearly in many parts of the study and this implies that the churches have a crucial role in community relations. This is obviously a difficult area since different denominations have very different views about promoting contact. At a purely practical level it would be helpful if churches could provide more information in appropriate forms about their beliefs, forms of worship and organisational structures so that some of the confusions, misconceptions and myths current on all sides might be dispelled.
At a more fundamental level women in all the churches and in the whole range of charitable, professional and community organisations might examine their own attitudes to cross-community contact and improving community relations. This suggestion may in itself be seen as threatening, but an analysis of the issues should not be seen as an automatic step on a dangerous road. Some groups may find such an examination does not lead them to wish to change their policies, for example some church groups' reflection might not lead them to seek to establish new contacts, but it might result in them understanding and accepting difference more positively. Others may find that after reflection they do wish to develop policies and programmes which will ultimately lead to new forms of co-operation, undertaking different new activities or joint initiatives.
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