Student Story

Undergraduate Symposium Keynote Speaker Cara MacKenzie '21 on the The Trauma of Irish Womanhood

Why did you decide to come to Simmons?

I decided to come to Simmons because I thought I'd feel more at home in a women-centered space. I felt like I fit in when I toured campus since Simmons allows space for both community and individuality.

What inspired you to pursue a BA in English?

I always loved English classes growing up and basically lived in my town's library. I wasn't planning on majoring in English, but I took an English class on a whim my first semester and just fell in love.

Tell us about your project: "The Trauma of Irish Womanhood: An Examination of the Masculine Nation State in Literature and History."

I started this project during Summer Undergraduate Research Program at Simmons (SURPASs) the summer after my sophomore year, and it was inspired by my mother who came to America from a small town in Ireland when she was 21. I had always been enchanted by Ireland growing up and visiting my family in the summer, but I knew from my mother's stories that there was a darker underbelly. I wanted to expose it.

Then, I took a class on postcolonial literature with my advisor Audrey Golden and realized the power of applying a postcolonial lens to women's trauma in Ireland. I chose two books, one that was my mom's favorite and another more contemporary novel, because I believed the themes would ring true in the years between both publications. Essentially, women are continually traumatized by a nation state that became overly masculine in response to the feminization of colonization. During my junior year in a sociology class on transnationalism, I wrote a research paper on the sociological side of this and decided to do an independent study connecting the novels I had read for SURPASs and my sociology research to form a multidisciplinary lens to examine women's trauma in Ireland.

This project really helped me learn what it means to have nuanced feelings.

What were your findings?

My findings were that women in Ireland are subjugated by a nationalism that revolves around masculinity. Historically, women in Ireland have been institutionalized for unmarried pregnancy after experiencing sexual violence as well as consensual sex in inhumane spaces such as the Magdalene Laundries. I also found that, both historically and in literature, Irish women live in a society that deems them always transgressive just by the nature of their bodies.

I eventually chose three novels that focus on women characters and found that trauma plays a significant role in each book. Each woman experiences individual trauma as well as the national trauma of existing in a space that wants to make her small. I came up with a working definition of the "sacrificial Irish woman" and learned about the ways that Irish women are valued for what can be taken from them and the emotional labor they provide instead of being valued for their individuality and agency. I then defined the "masculine nation state" as a space that privileges masculinity at the expense of women. 

Ireland became a masculine nation state in response to British colonization, allowing me to show direct links between women's rights in Ireland and the colonization of Ireland by England. I also learned about contemporary Irish movements for abortion rights as well as pervasive rape myths that exist in Irish society, which led me to believe that the masculine nation state is very much alive and well.

Were any of your findings surprising?

It was surprising for me to have to shed the rose-colored glasses I had always used to view the place my mom grew up. Ireland had always been magical for me, and learning about Irish womanhood and trauma forced me to reconcile my love for Ireland and my family's history with reality. 

It really surprised me how little other people know about total human rights abuses in Ireland like the Magdalene Laundries. I realized no one knows because Ireland has a history of being silent on issues of women's rights, which have allowed issues like this to become stigmatized and not talked about.

What did you learn from this experience?

I learned how passionate I am about my major as well as the strength of combining sociology and English literature to examine social issues. I also learned that I can still deeply love the country my mother is from whilst understanding the ways it has perpetuated violence against women. This project really helped me learn what it means to have nuanced feelings.

If there was one thing you'd like us to learn from your project, what would that be?

I would like others to learn about issues in Ireland that have existed for a long time but haven't been talked about. I want others to understand the deep-seated effects of colonization on a culture and the ways this colonization perseveres in the postcolonial state. The silence around historical issues for women in Ireland such as the Magdalene Laundries, women's institutionalization, and abortion laws aid shame, allow harmful narratives to continue to exist, and ultimately disallow women from healing.

How did it feel to be accepted as a keynote speaker for the Undergraduate Symposium?

I was just absolutely ecstatic. I've been working on this research for so long, so it's amazing to see that others understand how important I think the subject is! I was actually with Sander, another accepted speaker, and two close friends in our bubble when I found out and we all high fived. It was an amazing feeling.

Do you have a favorite Simmons memory?

My favorite Simmons memory is a culmination of all the times I hung out at Bartol late night with my friends just laughing and talking and eating candy. We always had the absolute best time and there was so much space for us to be goofy and ourselves. Some nights, we would stay till we were asked to leave, and we would be the last ones there. That sense of togetherness and community and joy was always there on those nights, and I miss it dearly.

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