Fredericton Faculty of Arts

Arts Research Abroad Eaton Visitorship takes Dr Joanne Wright to Queen s University Belfast

Author: Fredericton Arts

Posted on Oct 5, 2015

Category: Research , Spotlight , Arts , Faculty , News

Joanne Wright

Dr. Joanne Wright, Professor of Political Science & Associate Dean of the Faculty of Arts, is a recipient of the Fredrik and Catherine Eaton Visitorship Award. This Visitorship has taken her across the ocean to Queen's University Belfast (QUB), Northern Ireland. Read this brief interview to learn more about the specifics of Dr. Wright's research projects and why Northern Ireland and New Brunswick offer a compelling comparison for the study of reproductive rights and abortion politics.

Please explain what the Eaton Visitorship is and the process involved in being awarded this research grant.

It is formally the Fredrik and Catherine Eaton Visitorship Award, for which I applied in the early spring. The Award allows professors to visit Queen’s University Belfast to undertake research and to participate in academic life on the campus. As I understand it, the goal is to build connections of varying sorts between the two campuses; these might be in the form of research collaborations but can also include teaching and administration.  At the same time, scholars from QUB will also be visiting UNB for the same purpose.

How do you like Belfast and QUB so far?

I have not been here for a week yet but I can say that so far, it has been an incredibly positive experience.  The weather has been sunny and warm, prompting many jokes about how it’s always this nice in Ireland. The university is quite centrally located and is very beautiful, especially the historic Lanyon Building, which is featured frequently in images of Queen’s.  The campus is adjacent to the Botanical Garden, so looking out the windows of the new McClay Library one sees lush green gardens. New buildings seem to be going up and older ones are being renovated.  Term has just begun here and, just like at UNB at start of term, it is a very active spot, with students moving about trying to get their courses sorted.

Lanyon Building, QUBGrad School Building, QUB
(Left: the Lanyon Building. Right: the inside of the Graduate School)

I am staying in a residential neighbourhood not far from the university; it takes about 15-20 minutes to walk and en route there are lots of cafés and shops. I have yet to explore a lot of the city, but there is a great deal to see, including, of course, the Titanic Museum, the political murals and the Peace Walls.

What kind of research will you be doing while you are in Belfast?

I am working on two projects while I am here, and am affiliated with two different academic units, the School of Politics, International Affairs and Philosophy as well as the School of History and Anthropology.  Both have been incredibly welcoming and helpful in terms of connecting me with other scholars who have similar research interests.

The first project is the more established of the two, and it is a book length study of the political thought of Margaret Cavendish, a widely-published English woman of the 17th century.  She is extremely well known by literary scholars but virtually unknown in my home discipline of Political Science.  One of the advantages of being at Queen’s is having the opportunity to connect with Professor Mary O’Dowd, whose own work examines the social and political history of Irish women in the early modern period and into the present.

The second project is at the beginning stages, and that is a comparative study of reproductive rights and abortion politics in Northern Ireland and New Brunswick. I see this comparison as necessarily interconnected with the state of women’s rights, equality and citizenship in both Northern Ireland and New Brunswick.  In this regard, I will benefit tremendously from my affiliation in the School of Politics, International Affairs and Philosophy with Professor Yvonne Galligan, who is a scholar of gender and politics in Ireland and Europe more generally.  She is the Director of both the Center for the Advancement of Women in Politics and the Queen’s Gender Initiative. While here, I will be participating informally in her undergraduate class on Gender and Politics. This will be helpful, not only for my own teaching and research, but also in thinking about women's position in the university.

What prompted you to examine these particular research questions in Belfast?

I was struck by some key similarities in women’s situation in Northern Ireland and New Brunswick with respect to abortion and reproductive rights. They are each part of larger political entities in which abortion is decriminalized and where access to abortion is provided by public healthcare. The 1967 Abortion Act was not extended to NI and, in NB, despite the Morgentaler decision of 1988, successive governments maintained outdated and unconstitutional regulations that created significant barriers to access.  Some welcome change has occurred since the election of the new Liberal government in NB last fall, but the government continues to refuse funding to procedures performed outside the hospital setting. In both NI and NB, women with few options have to travel (if they can do so) to obtain services, which then must be paid for out of pocket. This travel is costly as are the services themselves. Politically and culturally there are similarities as well, as the situation in both NB and NI is often attributed to the religious conservatism of the population and each has gained the reputation of being a ‘backwater’ when it comes to women’s rights.  And yet in both cases, religious conservatism is not the whole story, as attitudes in the population are changing here in Ireland and we know that NB has seen unprecedented levels of activism on the part of women and youth on this issue.

Having said all of that, there are obvious and significant differences between these two jurisdictions and how women’s rights issues play out, especially as a result of Northern Ireland’s complicated relationship with the UK and its history of conflict during the Troubles.  Even so, activists here and in the south of Ireland have established connections with activists in NB and PEI and are committed to promoting dialogue on reproductive justice in their respective regions as well as globally.

The politics of rights and choice, an area you have written on before, are deeply embedded in debates around access to abortion and reproductive health services. How does your earlier work on these themes play into this current study?

This project is very connected to my previous work on sexual violence and consent, the politics of choice and body modification, and is also fundamentally connected to my study of Margaret Cavendish, which looks at her early arguments in favour of women’s inclusion in the state.

In each of these projects, my interest is in the recognition of women’s autonomy, citizenship, and their ability to exercise meaningful consent.  I examine the ways in which discriminatory practices and violence (from sexual violence, to coercive bodily modification discourses, to depriving women of reproductive justice) skew power relations in society, limit women’s autonomy and undermine their citizenship.

What do you hope to produce or achieve with this research visitorship?

Several things, first and foremost, I hope to continue establishing connections with other researchers and students whose interests overlap with mine.  Secondly, I hope to make significant progress in the writing of the Cavendish project. Thirdly, I will be doing archival and other research on the abortion question with an aim of producing a comparative study of NB and NI.  Exactly what form that will take, it is too early for me to specify (it is a huge topic!).