Queen's Policy Engagement

Generational legacies and feminist futures: Researching women’s embodied histories

Our bodies hold our stories but women’s experiences remain untold within societies that silence and shame feminised bodies says Dr Shonagh Hill.

Generational legacies and feminist futures: Researching women’s embodied histories

These stories are a powerful legacy from one generation to another, and yet we more accustomed to media representations of generational division. There’s the supposed feud between Baby Boomers and ‘snowflake’ Millennials, and at pinch-points during the pandemic the young have been pitted against older generations. Within the specific context of Northern Ireland, journalist Lyra McKee described the ‘mocking tone’ with which the generational label ‘Ceasefire babies’ is deployed.

Earlier this year, I conducted interviews with four generations of self-identified women who work in theatre in Northern Ireland. Both the youngest and oldest interviewees shared a deep sense of anger about the sexual violence and misogyny that has permeated their lives and both cited the impact of the ‘Belfast rugby rape trial’ and the #metoo movement. The #metoo movement has spoken to women across the generations but feminism is often portrayed as riven by generational division. This is a distraction from the source of their grievances: patriarchy.

It is however productive to examine who feels side-lined by mainstream feminism: in the interviews, two of the participants describe their exclusion by a feminism which is coded white and straight. Nandi Jola notes,

“At times I feel that Black feminism is different to White feminism and living in a majority white country, it still feels as if I’m still oppressed in some way and this time by white women.”

While Ruth McCarthy remarks that,

“There’s still a lot of unpacking to do around straight feminist discomfort around lesbians.”

This serves as a reminder of mainstream feminism’s blindspots, and of the range of feminisms which circulate through contemporary society and culture.

And yet, the tendency to focus on the sectarian divide in politics and culture in Northern Ireland (and its analysis) has side-lined exploration of more complex identities and politics, including feminisms. Against this backdrop, it is necessary to find ways of exploring the embodied experiences and histories of all who, as theorist Sara Ahmed puts it, “travel under the sign women”. Moreover, examination of women’s relationship to feminism is productive as “if we start with our experiences of becoming feminists not only might we have another way of generating feminist ideas, but we might generate new ideas about feminism.”

Under the remit of a Marie Sklodowska-Curie Individual Fellowship, (this project has received funding from the EU’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Sklodowska-Curie Grant Agreement No 889279), I have been working with Nicola Curry, artistic director of Belfast-based Maiden Voyage Dance, to develop a somatic movement workshop that will facilitate women to explore their embodied stories and their relationship to feminism. Curry is trained in Hanna somatics (founded by Thomas Hanna) which focuses attention on the soma, or the living body, and its status as a process. Hanna was not concerned with feminism but for the purposes of my research, the approach overlaps with that of feminist phenomenologists. Elizabeth Grosz and Iris Marion Young have explored the implication that the lived body is fundamental to both experience and the production of knowledge. Learning from the lived experience of the body and asserting the value of embodied knowledge is fundamental to my project. On an island where women’s bodies have historically been associated with shame and silenced, this becomes a radical act.

Dance scholar Susan Leigh Foster proposes ‘scholarship that addresses a writing body as a well as a body written upon’. The workshops incorporate movement inquiries and written reflections to facilitate participants’ discovery of their writing bodies. They will author their own stories through their bodies: a powerful refusal of the silence imposed on women’s bodies. Moreover, this embodied knowledge will inform my research into the complexity of women’s experiences in Northern Ireland and the range of feminisms at play. Looking to our bodies’ pasts in an effort to expand feminist futures.

If you are a self-identified woman based in Northern Ireland and are interested in taking part, there are a few places left in the workshops. They take place 11.00 am – 1.00pm on Tuesday 3rd and Thursday 5th August at Queen’s University (you only need to attend one). The workshops are open to all ages (over 18) and all abilities.

Please contact S.Hill@qub.ac.uk for more details and for more information on the project please click here.


The featured image is a detail from the programme for the 1984 Lyric Players’ Theatre production of Christina Reid’s Tea in a China Cup (Linen Hall Digital Theatre Archive).




Dr Shonagh Hill
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Dr Shonagh Hill is a Marie Curie Fellow at Queen's University Belfast. Her project, ‘Generational Feminisms in Contemporary Northern Irish Performance’ (GenFem) examines the embodied experiences of different generations of women in Northern Ireland, as well as their differing relationships to feminisms: both feminist movements and feminist ideas as they circulate within culture.

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