Life as a Religious Feminist: An Excerpt from Louise Omer’s Book, Holy Woman

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Louise Omer was once a Pentecostal preacher in Australia, but when her marriage fell apart, her faith eroded and she began to reflect on her dual identities: religious and feminist.

She then traveled the world speaking to women about patriarchy and religion and her new book, holy womanis both a confessional memoir and an exploratory travelogue – addressing his faith and that of others.

This edited excerpt – which seems particularly relevant today – is from his chapter on Ireland, during the country’s vote to repeal the abortion ban in 2018 (the repeal was successful, the abortion ban in Ireland was overturned).

Here is an edited excerpt from the book…

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Six people on the flight to Dublin wore black sweaters printed in capital letters: REPEA L. Designed by activist Anna Cosgrave, the white text referenced the fight to repeal the Eighth Amendment.

In 1983, the country introduced an amendment to the Irish constitution which granted an unborn fetus an equal right to life as a person. Abortion has been equated by law with murder, with

a maximum sentence of fourteen years in prison. Tomorrow, the country was to vote on its repeal…

Dublin Airport was rowdy with cheers, posters and banners welcoming returning expats. The formidable Irish diaspora, unable to vote by mail, were returning home from Boston, New York, London and Perth, a lavish return on a similar scale to that seen in the success of the referendum on marriage equality in 2012.

On the bus to O’Connell St, I thought of the women who had traveled in the opposite direction, flying from Dublin to England. Since 1983, it is estimated that over 170,000 Irish women have traveled to

Abortions: 12 women per day…

I waited at the Luas tram stop with a heavy backpack on my shoulders and spotted a campaign poster depicting a fetus in utero. Evidence has shown in every country in the world that, regardless of the legality, women resort to abortion when they need it. What was currently under discussion was accessibility to safe services.

Louise Omer's first memoir, Holy Woman $37, is available now.

Provided

Louise Omer’s first memoir, Holy Woman $37, is available now.

In the tram, I swayed with the movement. The current shadow system of traveling to England or the Netherlands was a logistical minefield. Even the cost: a person in a pregnancy crisis must miss work, take an international flight, pay for a hotel, then pay for the intervention itself. Or try it in 24 hours for cheap, take a bus from the clinic to the airport and hope she hasn’t bled on the seats. No matter the secrecy, the emotional and physical trauma, for some, the expense alone made it impossible. Reproductive health care was a class issue.

At the Rialto, Sarah’s figure was nothing but bushy hair and flailing arms. She pulled me into a tight embrace, tickling my face with red curls. Her winged blue glitter eyeliner shimmered under every street lamp.

“I spent about five hours dancing for Repeal today,” she said as she unlocked the front door. I threw my backpack on the sofa and she turned on the kettle calling from the kitchen: “I was only going to stay for two, but I felt like if I stopped dancing, someone would vote no.”

Sarah Devereux and I had met the last time I was in Ireland. An artist with a passion for bright pink and leopard print, she had won an award for her repeal-themed short film at the Dublin Feminist Film Festival. She handed me a cup and sat down.

“How’s it been in Dublin lately?”

“I yelled at a priest the other day. I did it! It was on Henry St, huge for non canvassers. He was on his f…… soap stand, with a microphone, and he treated it like a circus. “Give me a good reason to kill a baby!” So I took a deep breath and shouted, Repeal the f……Eighth!

Pro-choice activists calling for the repeal of the Eighth Amendment.

Alamy

Pro-choice activists calling for the repeal of the Eighth Amendment.

Tensions in Ireland were reaching their climax. Recent public events have demonstrated the low value of the female body in society.

Sarah spoke quickly. “The last two months: Jesus f…… Christ. Two women were raped and murdered. Then there is the Belfast rape trial.

I was reading the news. A young woman accuses two rugby players of rape. During the trial, the defense exhibited the victim’s lacy underwear as a sign of consent. The men were acquitted.

The media was lately filled with stories of women’s pain, turning into legend as they became the bedrock of the struggle. In 1984, fifteen-year-old Ann Lovett died giving birth at the foot of a statue of the Virgin Mary in County Longford. She had not disclosed her pregnancy to her family, nor asked anyone for help.

Case X, in 1992, detailed a rape survivor who planned to travel for an abortion. She asked the Gardaí (Irish police) if DNA from the fetus could be used as evidence; when they discovered she was planning to have an abortion, a High Court injunction was granted to stop her travelling. The Supreme Court then overturned the restriction, establishing that a woman had the legal right to travel for an abortion if there was a risk to her life (in this case, suicide).

And in 2012, a thirty-one-year-old dentist, Dr Savita Halappanavar, was seventeen weeks pregnant when she presented to a hospital in Galway with severe back pain. Diagnosed with a septic miscarriage, she requested termination several times, but was refused as a fetal heartbeat remained. She died after contracting sepsis, and her death in October 2012 brought the fight for reproductive health care to the forefront of public debate.

In the wake of this tragedy, the Irish began to break the taboo, and to speak of the abject cost of the law…

Sarah gave me caramel chocolate. “If it’s a no,” she said, breaking a square and putting it in her mouth, “I’ll probably leave. I’m going to move. I don’t want to be here.

The lively debate invaded the public space. The no side – which was reportedly funded by American fundamentalist groups – used street preaching, Sunday sermons and signs on churches and telephone poles. Your vote can kill or save babies. In England, one in five babies is aborted. Yes volunteers solicited; older women, young women and men, many of whom had never been politically engaged before, knocked on doors to educate: the autonomy of the body was the right to self-governance, without outside influence.

“If it’s a no vote, what does that mean? I asked Sara.

“It’s Ireland saying we don’t care about women.” His right eye blinked erratically. “Excuse me, I think I have glitter in my eyes.”

I left Sarah early, walking along the River Liffey. Above me seagulls swayed in a creamy blue. I sat down with an americano and a banana in a cafe near Tara St station, already pumped with adrenaline.

I had never needed an abortion, but one of my best friends at church did when I was eighteen. She withdrew completely and stopped coming on Sundays. I was angry that she abandoned our friendship. A year later, she contacted me and told me the story: she and her boyfriend, who was my close friend, were “doing it”.

When she got into trouble, he stopped answering her phone calls. She went to the clinic alone.

Her silence infuriated me and I was horrified that she insisted on going alone. I didn’t realize then that the sexual activity of our entire youth group was shrouded in secrecy. Shame was a gag stuffed in our mouths.

irish time Yes columnist and activist Una Mullally wrote in the anthology Repeal the 8th, “Like many people, I was indoctrinated by the Catholic Church at school and at Mass to believe that abortion was a wrong… My memories of how we talked about sex and reproduction in school are hazy; visiting nuns talking about black marks on our souls, or equating our souls with the water used to clean our brushes class – how a dirty brush could soil the whole pot.

I remembered another friend from church. She lost her virginity when her boyfriend raped her and she stayed with him for another year. She thought she was dirty, she told me; it was useless to try to become clean again.

The concepts of purity and dirtiness are intertwined with judgments of right or wrong. Cradling the hot ceramic mug, I opened my laptop and clicked on the notes of Dublin’s lost heroines. Social historian Kevin C Kearns recorded the lives of working-class women from the 1900s through the 1970s. Women who became pregnant out of wedlock, he wrote, were young, uninformed, and often didn’t even know how it happened. had passed.

To be unmarried and pregnant was to suffer “a humiliating fall from grace… To taint the good reputation of the family, to bring disgrace to their loved ones”. Visible sexual sins have tarnished the surrounding community.

Grandma Cadden's trial for death by illegal abortion in 1956 became a national spectacle in Ireland.

Breastfeeding Clio

Grandma Cadden’s trial for death by illegal abortion in 1956 became a national spectacle in Ireland.

Priests instructed and protected the social and moral welfare of parishes and reached the doorsteps of unmarried pregnant women, supported by community supervision. A person interviewed reports that in his street in the 1940s “a mother had a baby without a daddy”; the neighboring women were so furious that they took up a petition to have her evicted.

So where was she sent? Perhaps in England, with a married sister or, if the family had money, in a private institution. But if they hadn’t, she might have been sent to a Magdalene laundry.

Also called asylums, Madeleine laundries historically developed from workhouses – institutional homes for the destitute, designed to address societal poverty – and were funded by the state. In truth, they were a punishment for deviant female sexuality.

Women and girls arrived pregnant and under the command of nuns, steamed, washed and ironed, often up to six or seven days a week – without pay. Hospitals and hotels had contracts with laundries until the 1990s, the servitude of women thus generating income for the church. They were called “penitents”.

“Each convent,” Kearns wrote, “emphasized rigorous cleaning tasks — cleaning linen, floors, furniture, brassware, walls. Symbolically ‘to cleanse their souls’… to wash away the ‘sins of the flesh’.

Bitter black coffee in my mouth. Men did not encounter such punishment.

Edited excerpt from Holy Woman: a divine adventure by Louise Omer.

Scribe, $37.00.

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