Helen Stonehouse, ARC P&A member and T4Y volunteer
My repeal memories feel like they take up so much time and no time at all. I’m going to tell you a little of what I remember about canvassing.
I remember how nervous I was before I knocked on the first door. I remember how much my feet hurt after a full day. I remember the woman who chased me down her driveway waving our flyer, hoping that she could have some more to stick in her window. I remember the man who gave an unrepeatable racist explanation as to why he would vote yes if he ever bothered to vote, then shut the door so he could finish cooking dinner before I could speak (I’ve never been more glad to have interrupted someone’s dinner). I remember how pleased I was when I figured out how to get a leaflet through a letterbox without jamming my fingers. I remember the woman who told us she’d voted against abortion every time before; then she looked into the middle distance, told us she’d talked to her daughter about it and then said she was going to vote yes this time. I remember the teenagers who were SO excited that this was going to be their first vote. I remember the people who really wanted to talk through specific issues, who really needed the space to tease it all out. I remember piling into buses to join canvases outside Dublin, handing out hi-vis and briefing on talking points. I remember how canvassing small villages in Sligo is *very* different to canvassing Dublin Central, and how in awe I was at the commitment of regional groups with huge swathes of territory to cover. I remember the quiet enigmatic nods, unsure if they meant yes, no or maybe. I remember the men who shrugged and said “it’s nothing to do with me”. I remember the women who told me it was going to be alright this time.
Some doors really stick with you. I remember the man who enthusiastically told me he was voting yes, barrelling right into a detailed exposition on the kinds of assault after which someone would “deserve” an abortion, and finishing with “but those career women who are just too lazy to have kids, they should just get on with it and have the baby, right?”. I don’t know what he was expecting me to say next, but I smiled through gritted teeth, told him I was glad he had decided to vote yes, reminded him to check where his polling station was and moved onto the next house. Was ignoring his misogyny the right thing to do? Should I have called him on it? I’m still not sure. Like many other women, I’ve plenty of experience of having men’s support flip to hostility as soon as they’re challenged. I don’t think I could have changed his mind, and I think I did the right thing. A referendum is a binary question on a complex topic – the historic vote may have removed the 8th amendment but didn’t repeal misogyny any more than marriage equality erased homophobia. We don’t lead simple, single issue lives, but canvassing calls on us to distill our nuanced experiences into two minute doorstep pitches. I remember driving through Granard in the little blue T4Y bus, looking up at the grotto, painfully aware of all the women who had gone before us, all the shoulders we stood on, all the people who should have been with us still.
I remember May 25th 2018 very clearly. I spent most of the day waving a giant “YES” bubble, handing out “I voted” stickers, pestering my friends until they’d voted. As a non-citizen, I couldn’t vote myself – I went with my partner, hovering awkwardly at the polling station. I explained to the returning officer that I couldn’t vote but I still wanted to be here. She nodded like she understood. I remember panicking at the red alert on social media. I remember standing with a friend on a bridge near HQ at the end of the day. People had been thanking him as he handed out “I voted” stickers, and he told me he felt like he didn’t deserve thanks for the little bit of canvassing and leafleting he did. I looked him in the eye and thanked him. I remember saying if we all did a little something, then hopefully together we would have done enough. We cried and hugged, and I went back to HQ with the signs and a handful of stickers. I remember getting back and asking Deirdre if I needed to go out again. She told me to rest, that I’d done enough. I sat down and ate pizza and cried again when the exit polls came in, hugging colleagues in one of our many windowless overcrowded rooms in HQ. I spent a fair chunk of the next few days crying, with joy and anger and relief and sadness and tiredness. I still cry sometimes when I think about everything.
A twelve week campaign can’t undo thirty-five years of oppression and repression and fear. But without it, without Together for Yes, we wouldn’t have removed the 8th from the Constitution. That was the fight in front of us, and canvassing was the best weapon we had. Convincing 1,429,981 people to vote for choice and change was the biggest single fight I’ve ever been part of. And, of course, it’s not over. We still have to fight for bodily autonomy and reproductive rights are threatened here and all over the world. But we did something life-changing, world-changing. I will always be proud of the thousands of doors knocked, difficult conversations and minds changed. So to all of my fellow canvassers, thank you.