contextual study: gendering the nation-state

(image: anna livia plurabelle. dublin) doing some reading research for my contextual study and exploratory project. i’m reading through some of the chapters related to landscape and gender in ‘Gender, Identity and Place‘ by Linda McDowell (1999). in her chapter ‘Gendering the Nation-State’ (p.170 – 202), McDowell raises many points related to some of the questions that i have begun to explore…

nation-state – a value system: McDowell argues that representation of nation-states are linked to gendered meanings and ideologies and effect how certain groups are included or excluded; women, ethnic and racial groups. these values are often defined and reinforced by national institutions and their regulations, and define women as different from men, where ‘difference’ always implies a value system and hierarchy. she argues that institutions and their practices influence both the public life of women (their formal rights as citizens) and also private life (social and family health, welfare) (p. 170 – 171).

linking nation-state to gender: particularly relevant to my contextual study is what McDowell has to say about the links between gender and the representation of the nation through images, symbols and representations (p. 172). terms of ‘motherland’ and ‘fatherland’ and gendered symbolism of the state emerge in times of crises and in post-colonial and post-imperial nations as an reaction against their histories. for me, this resonates with irish history/national identity and the formation of an irish ‘free state’ in 1922.

a feminist definition of ‘nation-state’: McDowell goes on to define ‘nation-state’ as a combination of a group of institutions; legislative, judicial, government, police and armed forces (with marxist theorists emphasising institution’s interest in capital, labour, industry and financial). a gendered and feminist definition of ‘nation-state’ looks at how these groups of institutions act in the interest of man and masculine power (p.172). the definition of ‘nation-state’ changes over time and McDowell references the feminist theorists Yuval-Davis and Anthias (1989) who say that defining ‘nation-state’ “involves looking at the specific political projects of states and the economic and social context within which they are articulated as well as the social forces that both construct and oppose them.” (1989, cited in McDowell, 1999, p. 173).

national symbolism and gendered representation: Mc Dowell includes in her discussion, the use of gendered imagery in the construction of irish national identity;  irish identity is linked to masculinity where strength and the martyrdom of men are celebrated (history, visual arts, song) and women rarely appear as individuals but unnamed in a group or “confined to the world of metaphor” thereby disempowered. the image of “mother-ireland” is a protective and suffering figure and links to the small-scale and private spheres of nation-state (p.196). she references Nuala Johnson’s (1995) study which discussed how mythical and fictional women are celebrated over real political and cultural figures, such as ‘ana livia plurabelle’ from Joyce’s ‘Finnegan’s Wake’. this figure was erected as a statue in O’Connell Street. she later became known as ‘the floozie in the jacuzzi’ and ‘the whore in the sewer’ … a prostitute with gender-coded stereotyping. i remember it well in O’Connell street, in fact the sculptor Eamonn O’Doherty was a tutor of mine. people would come down to it regularly with bubble bath and splash about in it or sit on its side drinking cans.

redefining a gendered national identity: McDowell makes a brief reference to the Catherine Nash’s interpretation of the irish artists Kathy Prendergast’s drawings which map nationalism on the female body without reducing it to the usual ‘woman and nature’ symbolism. all very relevant to my contextual study and exploratiry project – i am a little familiar with the work of Prendergast and will look into Nash’s study further.

reference: McDowell, L. (1999) Gender, Identity and Place, Understanding Feminist Geographies. Cambridge: Polity Press.






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