Speaking of I.M.E.L.D.A – Direct-action feminist performance group

Helena Walsh and Anne Rossiter are founding members of Speaking of I.M.E.L.D.A (Ireland Making England the Legal Destination for Abortion), a direct-action feminist performance group focused on challenging the anti-choice laws in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. As an inter-generational collective, they use disruptive tactics such as knicker-bombing the Irish Prime Minister to spread their message and drive the agenda of change.

(Left to right) Helena Walsh and Anne Rossiter. © Vicky Grout

Can you give us your name and tell us what you do?

I’m Anne Rossiter, I’ve been a pro-choice activist, campaigner and supporter since the early 1960s. My name is Helena Walsh and I’m a member of Speaking of I.M.E.L.D.A.

There are severe restrictions on abortion in both Northern Ireland and in the Republic of Ireland, so we use performance, direct action and intervention as a tool to operate against the shaming and silence of women who have had an abortion and to challenge anti-choice laws.

What is I.M.E.L.D.A's main message?

Helena Walsh: Our main message is that women have the right to govern their own bodies and get access to appropriate health care to support their reproductive choices. We want free, safe, legal and local abortion services across the island of Ireland.

In the Republic of Ireland, an independent state, access to abortion is restricted by the 8th Amendment. It’s an amendment made to the Irish Constitution in 1983 that states that the foetus has the same equal rights to life as the mother from conception. This severely restricts abortion unless there is a risk to the life of the mother, including suicide, but even then it’s very difficult to gain access to legal abortion. Even now, in 2016, having an illegal abortion in the Republic of Ireland carries a 14-year prison sentence.

© Vicky Grout

What inspired you to take up your form of activism?

Anne Rossiter: I had a backstreet abortion myself in the early 60s here in London. It was bad, if not worse than the kind of scenarios you see in the film Vera Drake. I ended up in hospital haemorrhaging. There was no network or anyone to help me. Rather than incapacitating me mentally or intellectually it made me feel very strongly that I needed to do something about what women were having to undergo in their thousands all over the world, not least in a place like London and at home in Ireland.

HW: In 2012, Savita Halappanavar, an Indian dentist who was a resident in Ireland, went to hospital as she was miscarrying a wanted pregnancy. She repeatedly requested an abortion as the pregnancy was unviable. This was refused because there was a foetal heartbeat. Tragically, she went on to die of septic shock. Had an abortion been performed when she requested it, she would still be alive today.

As a group of women, we were just so sick of sitting around talking about how these draconian laws were affecting women’s lives. We wanted to get out and do something about it. The effects of these laws are horrendous for women. They don’t eradicate abortion; they just make it unsafe.

How have you been affected by the ideas or actions of past activists/rebels?

HW: The acronym I.M.E.L.D.A came about because the word IMELDA was used as a code word for abortion by the Irish Women’s Abortion Support Group (IWASG), active from 1980 – 2000, which Anne was part of.

AR: The 60s weren’t swinging times for everyone. They were grim times. A group of women had been supporting abortion-seekers coming to London since the 60s. We met the women at train stations or at ports, we helped arrange the clinic appointments, looked after the women in our own homes and supported them in their choices. In 1980 the Irish Women’s Abortion Support Group (IWASG) was formally realised and became a lot more organised. It was a very underground network. We were progressive, some might say revolutionary, we were certainly rebels!

HW: When they met women at ports and train stations, they always wore a red skirt so as to be identifiable – it’s for this reason that we always wear red on our protests. When we were formed in 2013, we wanted to pay tribute to those women who had performed those duties of care.

What is the main form of action you carry out in the name of your cause?

HW: We pop up as the un-policed voice of the Irish diaspora. We’re most famous for the knicker-bombing of Enda Kenny, the Irish Prime Minister. He was visiting London to fundraise for his political party in an upmarket hotel. We got tickets to the event and had women outside dressed in red waving ‘pro-choice' knickers and attempting to sell them to attendees of the dinner. Some of us disguised ourselves (not in red) and slapped a pair of knickers on his dinner plate saying, 'repeal the 8th'.

What are your tools of activism?

HW: Key tools in our activism include interventionist-style performance, popping up unexpectedly at Irish cultural or political events and also working as a collective. Our actions draw on the diversity of the group and are devised in group brain-storming sessions. We also use social media to publicise the videos of our actions and pro-choice campaigns. In our performances we use an array of materials and objects in a subversive manner, such as knickers! One of our campaigns is the #KnickersForChoice campaign. It is a very simple idea, which involves us writing pro-choice slogans on pairs of knickers and putting them up in public. We tied a giant pair of knickers around the gates of Leinster House (the parliament of the Republic of Ireland) that read, 'Women are not breeding machines. The time to Repeal the 8th is now'.

With #KnickersForChoice we wanted to find a form of activism that we could pass on and something for people who live in communities where they feel they can’t be vocal, so they could do this anonymously. We encourage people to send us pictures of their home-made, pro-choice knickers proudly hanging in public spaces, which we publicise on our twitter account and other social media accounts.

This also relates to the idea of airing dirty laundry in public – we play a lot with the stereotypical ideals of Irish femininity. The Irish Constitution states very clearly that it sees the woman’s place as in the home and performing the duties of motherhood. So we’ve been playing with those stereotypes in cheeky and mischievous ways.

© Vicky Grout

Do you find that these unexpected methods of activism resonate more with the wider public? Do they work better for the cause?

AR: The progression from what we were doing as a network from 1980 – 2000 to now is an amazing development for me. One gets tired of pounding the asphalt so this is a great way of campaigning from a different angle. Performative activism is important to engage with a younger audience who are on social media. We must use all of the tools that are available to us. We have to use our own bodies as a weapon for change.

HW: I think there’s a place for a diverse range of activism. We wouldn’t see ourselves as lobbyists, but you need people to lobby politicians, you need people who will knock on doors and talk to people one-on-one. I think it needs to happen all at once in order to make a real difference. Performance has been very effective in engaging people in pro-choice conversations, because when we use our bodies it brings a face and a person to the issue.

You’re an inter-generational group, how important is that to you as a movement?

HW: Being an inter-generational collective of women is crucial to the development of the work we do. We have women members who have been activists since the 1960s as well as younger women involved in our campaigns.

Anne Rossiter and Marian Larragy, the older women in the group who worked previously with IWASG, are amazing and we learn so much from them. They tell us about feminist protests from the past that I would never have heard of as they haven’t been documented or they’ve been written out of history. We’re retrieving all of this amazing history and learning from it. We’re trying to activate those historical stories and points of view in a way that’s relevant to today’s issues and society.

The younger members bring different ideas, perspective and outlook. We all learn from each other. The work we do comes from mixing these different ideas, knowledge, skills and approaches together.

How do you see things progressing?

AW: I’m 72 and I wonder if I will ever see real change. I think I’ll see the repeal of the 8th amendment and the provision for abortion under very extreme cases but not as one has it in the UK.

HW: I think the movement is growing and getting increasingly stronger; people are talking about it a lot more openly. The campaign is countrywide; today there are activists in every corner of the country. Really, we want to get to the point where we’ll no longer have to operate. That’s the ideal! I like to think that all the diverse forms of activism will eventually come together and we’ll create change.

Find out more about Speaking of I.M.E.L.D.A