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Standing At The Water’s Edge

Updated: Mar 11, 2019

By Ali Murphy

"The tides are turning, the fourth wave of feminism has choice on its horizon."


Seeping, leakage, fluidity, bloodiness, weeping. I need not elaborate. Such terminology retains its old familiarity; porosity, even today, is repeatedly invoked as evidence that validates the condition of dis-eased womanhood.

The tides are turning, the fourth wave of feminism has choice on its horizon.

We are intent on achieving corporeal autonomy regarding our sexual and reproductive rights. Irrespective of this surge, current abortion law oozes insufficiency. The centralising of corporeal dis-ease in the experience of women is a repetitious narrative.

The imagery of the robust, militarized masculine body directly opposes the discourse of seeping from which, ironically, and perhaps most painfully, it/they came.

Water Breaks

Fluidity and its terminology is repeatedly invoked to bolster the myth of female corporeal inadequacy. Yet, as Jacqueline Rose makes plain in her most recent work Mothers: An Essay on Love and Cruelty , those who are nourished by (perhaps doubly nourished by) this myth want to forget the hazardous force of the metaphor they seek to deploy. She writes, ‘the one who most loudly promotes the ideal of ironclad self-sufficiency must surely have the echo of the baby in the nursery hovering somewhere at the back of his or her – mostly his – head’.


The imagery of the robust, militarized masculine body directly opposes the discourse of seeping from which, ironically, and perhaps most painfully, it/they came. Waters break. The deprecating narrative pedalled by those (mostly male those) who seek to reassert the fragile fluidity of the female form forget too quickly the hazardous capacity of the force with which they reckon. Water breaks, its devastating force is as unpredictable as it is unparalleled.

The Storm

Until 1979 hurricanes and tropical storms in the US were named only after women. Roxcy Bolton rightly criticised this practice, in stating that women ‘deeply resent being arbitrarily associated with disaster’. Though certainly, such association forms a damaging coalition between femininity and spontaneous havoc, perhaps, such a convergence is not entirely without use.

Perhaps, in the reclamation of our own bodies, the hazardous, indeed unpredictable force of water’s image provides an internal contestation of the negative association of women and wateriness.

The precarity of water makes the metaphor slippery, fluidity itself lies beyond the patriarchal desire to exert the metaphor as a tool of gendered control.

Water forms (for the most part) our geographical boundaries; historically, water forms our understanding of national identity, water forms the image of our imaginary margin lines. Thus, water possesses the capability to both form and ravage our identity simultaneously.

Water, then, is a powerful resource for breaking. It is a feminist tool. I connect wateriness to womanhood for what should be obvious reasons, the repetitious vindication of the female body at the hands of its slipperiness is one. The other, the geopolitical, militarized inversion of this image in national frontiers. In morphing from its feminised depiction to its use in geopolitical discourse, water’s significance in our imaginary is distorted.

At once corporeal, insufficient.

Once more, a borderline, a vital resource for the nation state. The tide comes and goes.

A sea between us

In 2018 Donald Trump reinstated the infamous ‘global gag’ also known as the ‘Mexico City Policy’ that bans the use of US funding to overseas abortion education and services. Motherhood is a slippery category, it teeters on the brink of the corporeal and the geopolitical. Whilst women’s bodies are politicised, ruled by law, women are continually imagined as the a-political birth-giver of political men. The assumption is as ancient as it is weighty. The most prominent image that circulated following Trump’s reinstating of the infamous ‘Global Gag’ featured no fewer than seven white, male politicians, not a single woman was witness to the signing of a bill that poses a very real threat to the lives of women who live beyond the shores of the United States.

On the other side of the Atlantic, in my motherland, people were chanting. ‘The laws of the Church have no place on your flesh’, ‘Get your rosaries off my ovaries’, the promise of baptism, carries no weight in a state that continues to sign our fate as women, to mothers, and more dangerously, to dead mothers and as mothers of dead children. If religious conservatism on both sides of the Atlantic makes no effort to conserve me, then what place do I occupy in the state I am supposed to call home?

Before the 8th amendment was repealed Irish women travelled daily to England, to Spain and elsewhere to undergo abortion procedure. Water, the geographical borderline that I previously invoked, and the fluid figuration of the female body takes on renewed significance here.

The laws of the church have no claim to my flesh.

Femme Natal

And yet, the historical significance of wateriness in the baptismal promise makes the metaphor all the more compelling, one that must be broken. Water’s power to break is significant. The history it retains in the imagery of baptism, borderlines and dis-eased femininity is breakable in the reclamation of water itself.

No longer must women take to the water, to travel dangerous routes (and roots) in order to possess the most basic human right: bodily autonomy. Resurfacing became a prominent metaphor used by the pro-choice campaign. With it came an attention towards the historical (and ongoing) punishment inflicted on the bodies of Irish women.

‘We Face This Land’, produced by Project Repeal, depicts several Irish women standing on the shores of Ireland, before submerging themselves within the sea. Trial by water, they recount. If the woman sinks, she’s a woman, if she floats, she’s a witch. From trauma, there has been no repeal.

Baptism and its water takes on a renewed, albeit inverted significance. New life. A better life for the women of Ireland. Submerging themselves in the Irish sea, the women of this campaign, old and young, use water as a breaking force, as a metaphor for the turning of the tides. In contradicting the conservation of religious law on the female form, the campaign inverts a historically traumatic narrative into an image that hopes for better.

Water’s break, new life, my life, my body is my body. Water governs the laws of the land, it carries the weight of historically significant violence. Water is a precarious, fluid force. We can change its shape.

Standing at the water’s edge, looking out at the horizon, I am no match for its force. Water exists beyond patriarchal, church and state control; its precarity is mine to claim. The sea does not part, though perhaps water’s break.

Standing at the water’s edge, I watch, the tide changes.


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