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The Female and the Species

The Animal in Irish Women’s Writing

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Maureen O'Connor

Describing the Irish as ‘female’ and ‘bestial’ is a practice dating back to the twelfth century, while for women, inside and outside of Ireland, their association with children, animals and other ‘savages’ has had a long history. A link among systems of oppression has been asserted in recent decades by some feminists, but linking women’s rights with animal advocacy can be controversial. This strategy responds to the fact that women’s inferiority has been alleged and justified by appropriating them to nature, an appropriation that colonialism has also practiced on its racial and cultural others. Nineteenth-century feminists braved such associations, for instance, often asserting vegetarianism as a form of rebellion against the dominant culture. Vegetarianism and animal advocacy have uniquely Irish implications. This study examines a tradition of Irish women writers deploying the ‘natural’ as a gesture of resistance to paternalist regulation of female energies and as a self-consciously elaborated stage for the performance of Irish identity. They call into question the violent dislocations and disavowals required by figurative practices, particularly when utilizing Irish topography, an already ‘unnatural’ cultural construct shaped by conflict and suffering.

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Chapter One: Introduction: ‘Vile Bodies’ 1

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chapter one Introduction: ‘Vile Bodies’ A constitutive link among systems of oppression has come to be asserted in recent decades by many feminists, a corrective to the most trenchant critiques of second-wave Anglo-American feminism’s focus on the demands of white, Western, middle-class, heterosexual women. In contrast to the welcome acknowledgement of the need to expand the discussion to include, for example, women of colour, working-class women, lesbians, and women living outside of the ‘first’ world, however, linking women’s rights with animal advocacy can yet be controversial. In 1974 Sherry Ortner famously asked, ‘Is Female to Male as Nature Is to Culture?’,1 an early consideration of the problems of essentializing women’s nature in this dualistic way, a response to the fact that women’s inferiority has traditionally been alleged and justified by appropriating them to nature, an appropriation that colo- nialism has also practiced on its racial and cultural others, including the Irish. Many nineteenth-century feminists exploited such associations; for example, not only were some of the most prominent feminists also anti- vivisectionists, but vegetarianism was often asserted as a form of rebel- lion against the dominant culture. Vegetarianism and animal advocacy have uniquely Irish implications, however, a vital distinction to which this book attends in its study of the role of the animal in interrogations and configurations of gender and Irish cultural identity in the work of Irish women, beginning with some significant Irish New Woman writers at the fin de siècle, a time when the ‘Irish Question’...

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