When I think about the women in my own family, my eyes often well-up thinking of the struggles they had faced throughout their lives. Poverty, domestic abuse, discrimination, and basic rights denied to them. Their strength to overcome adversity has been something I’ve always admired.
To raise a family is difficult enough but to do so in working-class conditions is more so. Belfast is very much a working class city and I maintain it is a matriarch city. Although men tend to be the face of Belfast, it is women who are the arms, legs, brain and heart.
My granny would often tell me stories of back in the day and how life was for them during the height of the Troubles. She would speak fondly of the times when women had to rally together, “…they had to, the men were either interned, fighting or off working in England”. She would tell me about the ‘Moyard Demolition Campaign’ and how it was essentially ran by the local women fighting for better housing conditions for their families and the community. The campaign gained notoriety internationally, it succeeded and that little housing estate at the bottom of Black Mountain is there today because of these women. It really is true that when women support other women, incredible things can happen. My granny still lives in Moyard and has been living in the same house since it was built in 1985.
Another prominent noun to describe Belfast women is the word ‘Milly’. This term is often used in a derogatory sense to describe a working-class girl/woman who speaks in a common way. However, what a lot of people don’t know is that the word ‘Milly’ was given to name the women who worked in the old mills of Belfast. I’ve done some research into my family tree and it seems that the mills employed many of my female ancestors and I know my granny, aunts and my mum had worked in the mills as well. My mum was a stitcher and she would tell of how sore the work was on her hands. Belfast’s industrial boom between 1870-1920s was very much contributed by the ‘Millies’ as these women who toiled in the factories and mills for very low wages, and under arduous conditions, were essential to Belfast’s early success.
Although I have so many women figures to be proud of, it is my mum who outshines them all for me. Before my step-dad and sister came along, it was just me and her. I remember those days in our shabby little house in Divis. We had a red milk crate as a TV stand but yet I was surrounded by everything I ever needed. As a child I was diagnosed with autistic tendencies, I had learning difficulties and a pretty bad studder, I was basically written off from achieving anything by the ‘specialists’. Despite all this though, she always told me I could be anything I ever wanted to be. I remember one time telling her I wanted to be an archaeologist so she went out and bought me magazines on Ancient Egypt and dinosaurs. My mum eventually went back to school, got her qualifications and is now an Office Administrator for a local charity that works with Autistic children, and if you’re wondering what ever happened to that red milk crate, it had a good life as Christmas tree stand for many years after.
In Sociological studies, there is a theory that we are socialised into our gender roles. Therefore, we are processed into learning the social expectations and attitudes associated with our sex. I would agree with this to an extent as society does favour this approach and can be seen to do so in our everyday lives socially, economically and politically. However, women throughout history have often smashed this theory by being ‘deviant’ and stepping outside the norm by advocating for something better. Belfast women reflect this very much and there is no scorn worse than that of a Belfast woman. Those actively involved in the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Movement had certainly held their own, speaking eloquently and passionately throughout the campaign. Without women, the Civil Rights Movement would probably not have gained as much momentum as it had. The rallying cry made much louder by women’s voices.
If we truly are the products of our environment, then the daughters and granddaughters of Belfast women have inherited something special. Strength, endurance, determination, defiance, resourcefulness, and an abundance of compassion and love. If my generation of young Belfast women can somehow measure up to our predecessors by even a fraction, then imagine the world we could give our daughters to grow up in.
Happy International Women’s Day.