Irishwomen United, the Contraception Action Programme and the feminist campaign for free, safe and legal contraception in Ireland, c.1976-81

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This article explores the contraception campaigns of Irishwomen United (I.W.U.) and their offshoot, the Contraception Action Programme (CAP), in the Republic of Ireland from 1975 to 1981. It draws on ten oral history interviews with former members of I.W.U. and CAP conducted by the author, in addition to feminist magazines, newspaper sources and the Roisin Conroy/Attic Press archive. For Irish feminists, the issue of class was paramount to their contraception campaigns while, in common with their counterparts in the United States, they were also concerned about the increasing medicalisation of women's bodies and the potential health risks of the contraceptive pill, commonly prescribed as a 'cycle regulator' in Ireland. Fundamentally, I.W.U. and CAP members believed in a women's movement that allowed for the equal distribution of sexual knowledge and access to contraception. In this way, they foregrounded the connection between health and economic rights. Through their demonstrations, meetings and service provision, in unconventional spaces such as shops, markets, community centres and caravans, they challenged not only the law, but also the authority of both religious patriarchy and medical expertise in Ireland. Through an exploration of the activities of I.W.U./CAP, this article will contribute to understandings of campaigns around contraception and, with my commitment to profiling the experiences of 'rank and file' women, it will highlight class inequalities and concerns surrounding the medicalisation of women's bodies to a larger extent than has been done before. It also seeks to show the importance of informal women's networks in providing access to contraception and information about contraception pre-legalisation. Moreover, the article seeks to further elucidate the contribution of Irish grassroots organisations which have received limited historical attention.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)269-297
Number of pages29
JournalIrish Historical Studies
Issue number164
Early online date13 Dec 2019
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 13 Dec 2019


  • Contraception Action Programme
  • Ireland
  • Irishwomen United
  • medicalisation
  • contraceptive pill
  • sexual knowledge
  • health

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