when I got my first period…

catherine-aug16-2Catherine Harper is Deputy Vice-Chancellor of University of Chichester, and is a Northern Irish writer, artist, weaver and feminist.



I became a Dangerous Woman on Good Friday 1977 when I got my first period. That day I changed from a girl who could roam the fields, ditches, hedgerows and bogs, fierce and wild, to someone who needed watching. That day, I headed out as usual with my canine companion by my side and no care or concern, but in the distance I saw my mother and father drive slowly up the road, as if they were invisible, to watch me.

What had changed? Like Christ on Good Friday, I was bleeding. But unlike Christ, I was a girl who had – that very day – supposedly become a dangerous woman.

The initiation into womanhood began. Messages I received were odd and confusing, signals obscure and indirect. I had ‘bedroom eyes’ apparently, whatever they were. I needed to be careful I wasn’t ‘misinterpreted’, consequences being that I could end up in a ‘sticky situation’ or in ‘difficulties’.

I developed a sense of power without quite understanding what power actually was. Apparently, ‘the wrong kind of look’ could leave a man ‘not responsible for his actions’, and I ‘needed to be careful’. But what that particular look looked like, what would happen if it was inadvertently used, and what I needed to do to have the requisite care, was never really explained. My teen years brought apprehension and awkwardness, incomprehension and embarrassment, but coupled with the thrill of ‘the test’ – finding out what provocation, excitation, palpitation and ejaculation even meant – in action! Pushing levers, winding springs, revving engines, and pressing stop buttons just in time was my preoccupation and that of my peers. We didn’t discuss our experimentations – nobody wanted that label ‘slag’ – but we all got on with being (as we thought) dangerous women, without comparing notes.

Every action seemed self-consciously sexualized, every movement that of a dangerous woman’s body, every look charged because it came from ‘bedroom eyes’. I could hold a stare unblinkingly long enough to make a boy hot and flustered, but remain icy to any consequent affection. I would blush if a boy spoke to me in public, but pull away from any further interaction. I learned to reference my physical attractions in a way to gain interest, but revealed only enough and no more, flirting with perceived ‘girl power’ while inside I was in turmoil.

My family made jokes about a local boy who would come and stare up at our house when it was dusk, and about heavy breathing phone calls to our house, but I didn’t feel funny – I felt like a bitch on heat, or a cat on a hot tin roof. A few times in the rural nighttime darkness, I thought I could feel eyes looking in at me. I jumped if a man stood up too suddenly, and I ingested what happened when ‘The Wages of Sin is Death’ came true. There were casualties: a girl at school dropped out pregnant, and ‘a dim view’ was taken by school and parents – from what I could gather ‘the signs were there’ and ‘she had a look about her’, but of what? Another girl ‘went with soldiers’ at the British Army barracks near by, had a child in her teens, and was blown up in a pub bomb. No sisterhood sympathy, just relief tinged with hypocrisy and blame from our little stigmatizing sorority. We were indeed in a land and culture that Ireland’s Prime Minister Enda Kenny referred to later as a “cruel, pitiless Ireland distinctly lacking in a quality of mercy…judgmental, intolerant, petty and prim… that welcomed the compliant, obedient and lucky ‘us’ and banished the more problematic, spirited or unlucky ‘them’”.

In adulthood I’ve learned that I was a fairly typical young woman in late 1970s, early 1980s Northern Ireland where developing female sexuality was considered dangerous and we were taught that our female bodies were incendiary, explosive, volatile and provocative. With our burgeoning, blossoming and bleeding bodies we were apparently a hair’s breadth away from being out of control, and all manner of societal, clerical and parental mind games kept us confused and cowed, contained as dangerous women.

Ireland and Northern Ireland’s constitutional, legislative, cultural and conventional frameworks were designed to ensure that we understood that sexual transgression of the behavioral codes of self-denial and self-repression was the way to self-inflicted social condemnation and self-imposed moral damnation. Nobody to blame but ourselves: the terrorism of the soul that came out of Sin was very real.

The land and culture of Ireland was confusingly expressed as essentially female: women in history were goddesses of martyrdom and of blood sacrifice, women in sainthood were emblematic of sacred repression, and women in homes were practitioners of piety, humility and acceptance. Mother Ireland to us seemed devouring and voracious, our bodies and our land cast as toothed and ravenous, spawning and interring, nurturing and incarcerating, exposing and castigating. I lived the multiple confusions of identity – virgin, vessel, mother, martyr, whore, castrator and, harbinger of death, the banshee. And I learned the steps of the delicious dance between the exhilarating danger of desire and the potent danger of being caught. I was a dangerous woman, but the rules of engagement weren’t mine.

As the Northern Irish Troubles played out the relentless repetition of devastation, suffering, atrocity and execution through the 1980s, revelations began of the extensive and systemic sexual, emotional and physical abuse of thousands of children. Aside from happy hearths and homes, many of the religious and industrial institutions in which this happened were established to house ‘illegitimate’ children, their unmarried mothers, or so-called ‘promiscuous and precocious’ girls, some themselves the victims of rape and incest. The last Irish Magdalene Laundry was closed in Dublin in 1996, but thousands of women and girls had lived, worked unpaid, and ‘disappeared’ in these institutions in the so-called Free State. Incarcerated and abused, their lives spent washing immoveable stains from the cloths of ecclesiastical, governmental, civic and commercial bodies throughout Ireland.

The notion – spoken amongst my peers in whispers – that such inconvenient children were ‘given up for adoption’, took on a less rosy tint. I closed my ‘bedroom eyes’ when a girl I knew was beaten black and blue when her father saw her fecund belly bulging over the undone zip of her jeans. I pretended not to know when a girl I knew went to Dublin to have a baby she would never hold, and returned in silence. I said nothing when a woman – the adult child – of my raped relative made awkward contact with a mother she wanted to know. Were these bloodied, haemorrhaging, gagged and bruised girls dangerous women?

1984 brought the fifteen-year-old Ann Lovett to national attention. Three years my junior this girl slipped out of her school to give birth to a little boy on the frozen ground beside a Virgin Mary grotto in the Irish midlands. Wrapped in her school coat, his umbilical cord cut with kitchen scissors she had brought, her son was dead or had died shortly after birth. Found crying and haemoraging beside his body, Ann died later that evening. Her community, clergy and family purported to have no knowledge of her pregnancy, but had clearly played their parochial roles in a wilful national blindness concerning the ‘illegitimate’ consequences of sex. Was Ann a dangerous woman, or a terrified tragic girl?

 In the same year, the horrendous and infamous Kerry Babies scandal brought unmarried motherhood, infanticide, familial terror, and the ethical treatment of women in distress further into an increasingly uncomfortable Irish media spotlight. Seamus Heaney’s poem Limbo (published 1972) was never more apt:

Fishermen at Ballyshannon

Netted an infant last night

Along with the salmon

An illegitimate spawning.

A small one thrown back

To the waters. But I’m sure

As she stood in the shallows

Ducking him tenderly

Till the frozen knobs of her wrists

Were dead as the gravel,

He was a minnow with hooks

Tearing her open.

She waded in under

The sign of the cross.

He was hauled in with the fish.

Now limbo will be

A cold glitter of souls

Through some far briny zone.

Even Christ’s palms, unhealed,

Smart and cannot fish there.

My land and culture mythologises and celebrates an ideal maternal woman – the ideal mother, the ideal foetus, the ideal baby, the ideal child, the ideal (not dangerous) woman. It is hard to escape the Mother Ireland that enshrines the notion of land as woman, and Irish nationhood is heavily associated and constitutionally enscribed by an essentialist idea of female destiny as wholesome and legitimate motherhood.

In the 1980s, travelling alone to the Women’s Peace Camp at Greenham Common, I heard different voices from what seemed to be truly dangerous women speaking – some in Irish accents – of equality of citizenship, social justice, women’s rights, and full reproductive autonomy. And in 1990, the appointment of Ireland’s first female President, the radical feminist and human rights lawyer Mary Robinson, a dangerous woman, was an extraordinary and transformative moment. A new social and feminist politics had begun to question and to shift Irish constitutional and Irish governmental bans on divorce, contraception, abortion and homosexuality. Women were still dangerous to State and Church morality, tradition and convention, our bodies became battlegrounds for the changes gaining momentum in Ireland, but our voices were beginning to be raised and our experiences made visible.

The Eighth Amendment to the Irish Constitution was made in 1983 to make the foetal right to be born equal to its mother’s right to life. Dangerous women carrying dead, dying, malformed, unviable foetuses, or those that are the product of rape or incest or error, are still required to carry them to term. Or be one of nearly five thousand lonely souls making the unforgetable and unforgiveable journey every year to England to abort what sits in their own wombs. Since the famine of the 1840s Ireland’s greatest export has always been its people; now its abortions – forbidden at home, exported to be taken care of.

Child X, abused, raped, made pregnant at fourteen, was constitutionally forbidden to leave Ireland for termination in 1992. Permitted to travel some weeks later by the Supreme Court, as her extreme risk of suicide threatened both foetus and herself, this abject, exported dangerous woman miscarried on arriving in London and before her procedure. Dangerous Irish women clamoured for justice.

The barbaric symphysiotomy procedure split apart the pelvises of around fifteen hundred dangerous women in Ireland during childbirth up to the 1980s to ensure no family size-limiting Caesarians were permitted. This came to light in new millenium Ireland, and three hundred immobilised, traumatised and incontinent survivors still seek Irish state recognition and restitution. Dangerous Irish women clamoured for justice.

A brain-dead 15-weeks pregnant dangerous woman was kept on life support for four weeks in 2014. There was no prospect at such an early stage of a viable birth, while legal process deliberated on whether it was permissible to withdraw artificial support to what was in effect a deteriorating corpse and terminally distressed foetus. Dangerous Irish women clamoured for justice.

A dangerous woman suffered fatal septic shock in the Ireland of 2012 when medics delayed prohibited abortive intervention during a prolonged but inevitably unsalvageable miscarriage of a wanted child. Dangerous Irish women still clamour for justice.

Ireland and Northern Ireland’s twin cultures remain to this say marked by the leakage of persistent sores and raw wounds borne by the unhealed messy flesh of the national body. A dangerous woman, she is swaddled, shrouded, stifled and sheltered by cloth enduring stains of desire or grief, of memories traced on the skin, imprinted by the sensations of smell, touch, sorrow and mortality that are the bloodied, messy traces of sex repressed and denied, abandoned and aborted abroad.

I became a Dangerous Woman on Good Friday 1977 when I got my first period. That day I changed from a girl who could roam the fields, ditches, hedgerows and bogs, fierce and wild, to someone who needed watching. I still need watching, but differently. And while Ireland remains “cruel, pitiless…petty and prim” [Kenny 2013] and it does, it is my absolute duty, my sovereign obligation, and my utter pleasure to be a dangerous woman, and to ‘dance like I’ve got diamonds / At the meeting of my thighs’ [Maya Angelou, Still I Rise, 1978].