Period politics: How 'tweet the Taoiseach' made global headlines
Frustrated with Irish abortion laws, comedian Gráinne Maguire decided to tweet Enda Kenny details of her menstrual cycle. She wasn't expecting what happened next, she tells our reporter
Published 11/11/2015 | 00:00
Aunt Flo, the painters and decorators in, your moons, surfing the crimson wave, time of the month… there are a million different, coy ways of describing a woman's menstrual cycle - but it's still oh so shocking to talk about it in public.
A fact that was highlighted this week when the news that an Irish comedian was tweeting the Taoiseach details of her period made headlines around the world.
On Monday last week, Irish comedian Gráinne Maguire told her followers on Twitter that, since the Government felt it had the right to make decisions on women's bodies, then they might as well know the whole story.
She then tweeted the Taoiseach, saying: "Hey @EndaKennyTD just so you know, I got my period two days ago. Pretty heavy flow at first but now just occasional spotting #repealthe8th."
The hashtag, relating to the 8th Amendment to the Constitution that gives equal rights to foetus and mother, criminalising abortion except in cases where there's a definite risk to the woman's life, went viral, with other women sharing her tweet and joining in tweeting the Taoiseach their own menstrual updates.
Since then Gráinne's original tweet has been shared 118 times and favourited by 150 people with the topic covered not only in the Irish press, but around the globe, on BBC World and in the New York Times.
"I think it was when I saw that my tweet was being covered in Ecuador, that I realised this was something big," she laughs. "Even now I think it's absolutely bonkers. Mia Farrow has tweeted about it and it's been covered in Japan. There's something very surreal about seeing a foreign language and then my name and tweet in the middle of it."
The 35-year-old comedian and comedy writer from Navan, Co Meath has been living in London for some time, where she's worked for Channel 4 and BBC Radio 4.
But she says she was shocked that many of her English friends were unaware of the 'draconian' abortion laws in Ireland. Wanting to highlight the issue, which she feels passionately about, 'but without sounding like an angry woman', she sent her tweet.
"I thought I would get one or two sympathy retweets from my friends, but you can never underestimate the power of women," she says. "I think a lot of people just 'got' the point I was making and jumped at the chance to engage in the debate. There's a lot of solidarity there among women who think the situation is just ridiculous."
Encouragingly, she says the vast majority of interactions on the topic online have been positive, with only a few criticising her for being distasteful. "I tend to reply to them thanking them for their support and adding lots of kisses or asking if they're flirting with me," she says mischievously.
But it's telling that in this day and age, some people still find talking openly about a woman's body is disgusting or improper.
When Nell McCafferty and co threw contraceptive pills in the air after returning on the 'contraceptive train' from Belfast in 1971, there was a response of shock and horror that women would be so vulgar as to handle such items. It's disappointing to think that we haven't moved on. Nor is the reluctance to debating women's health issues a uniquely Irish problem.
When two 20-somethings in the UK recently protested the tampon tax by standing outside Westminster, wearing white trousers and 'free bleeding' while on their periods, they were attacked online, branded 'gross'.
A few years ago in America, Representative Lisa Brown was banned from speaking after she dared to use the word 'vagina' in the State Senate.
Not only are such things not to be spoken of, but they're often synonymous with derogatory language. Donald Trump has come in for criticism for appearing to insinuate that a female news anchor's aggressive questioning was because she was on her period, describing her as having 'blood coming out of her wherever'.
"I don't care if it's not 'ladylike' to talk about periods," says Gráinne. "If it takes a few gross tweets about tampons to show that women are treated like second-class citizens in their own country then that's fine by me."
She reckons we need more women involved in government decision making if such archaic thinking is to be challenged. "The right to life is a philosophical debate for men, they can sit around pondering it like a debating society, but when it's your body, you have a vested interest.
"It's a big leap to expect a load of middle-aged, middle-class, white men, who are spooked by the word 'period' to effectively discuss pregnancy and reproduction."
Michelle O'Donnell Keating, co-founder of Women for Election (womenforelection.ie) agrees that entrenched cultural bias over women's health issues need to be addressed by a higher number of women represented in the Dáil.
"We would definitely argue that getting more women into government would widen the perspective for policy making," she explains. "Women represent 51pc of the population, we have different needs, particularly when it comes to health, and any decision about women can't be fully informed if they're not involved. It's like trying to make a decision on fishing without inviting fishermen to the discussion - it's a no brainer."
A European study has suggested that social media may be promoting women's involvement in politics. In a world where women often feel sidelined from the decision-making process, the internet has become a forum where they can unite and make their voices heard. There will be people who are scathing of social media's reach and see such hashtag campaigns as shouting into an echo chamber, or a vanity exercise that can never affect real change in the real world. But the reality is that such campaigns can raise awareness, bring empowerment and galvanise support for political discussion.
Viral hashtags like #everydaysexism, #yesallwomen and #whyistayed have shone a light on misogyny and the often silent plight of women dealing with sexism and domestic abuse. It's easy to focus on the limitations of such digital campaigns - Saudi women are still largely prohibited from driving despite a mammoth 'Right to Drive' campaign, nor did Michelle Obama tweeting 'Bring Back Our Girls' release the 300 women and children seized by terrorist group Boko Harem - but it does give global reach to injustices that might otherwise have gone unreported.
"For many campaigners, increasing conversation - especially around topics that may not be readily discussed publicly in society - is a key reason for using social media," explains Stephen O'Leary, a media analyst and managing director at online media and social media monitoring company Olytico (olytico.com).
He believes there is a clear cause and effect between what we see online and what happens in the non-digital world. "One of the most recent high-profile examples in Ireland was the Marriage Referendum where the online activity on those campaigning for a Yes vote can be directly linked to the increased voter turnout and ultimate change in legislation," he reveals. "Another would be the increase in conversations about mental health, this has definitely been aided by increased awareness online."
Gráinne's disappointed that, to date, she has received no reply from Enda Kenny, nor, despite her story being featured on news outlets around the world, has she been contacted by the State broadcaster.
"It shows a reluctance to engage in the subject. If I'd a problem with my wheelie bins, I could probably get on Joe Duffy, but not talking about periods," she says dryly.
And she's sardonically dismissive of any accusation that her actions are more about garnering personal publicity than promoting a cause.
"Ah yes, jokes about periods and abortions - that's famously what people want to hear from comedians. That's where the money is."
But she's hopeful that the amount of attention her tweet has garnered will at least keep the issue of women's rights to the forefront of people's minds. "I'm not naïve enough to think that next week the eighth will be repealed and everything will change," she says. "But hopefully this act of solidarity will show that Irish women aren't going to be silenced or ashamed and embarrassed.
"I feel really happy and proud to have been associated with this and that it's shown just how many women out there are angry and frustrated at the situation in Ireland."
What they're saying
@EndaKennyTD Howiya Enda, I'm expecting my period any minute now and am PMSing like a wagon. Do us all a favour and #repealthe8th
@EndaKennyTD dear Enda, I just finished my period and started a new pill. Hope it works now, can't afford the boat. #repealthe8th (@funnyharpgirl)
Hey @EndaKennyTD are you BLEEDIN listening to these tweets? We're waiting for a BLOODY response @GrainneMaguire #repealthe8th (@sunniecoolbeans)
Hi there @EndaKennyTD!This Canadian is bleeding LOVE for @GrainneMaguire & the women of #Ireland #repealthe8th #becauseits2015 (@emilyamacrae)
Here, @EndaKennyTD I'm surfing the crimson wave today…thought you should know hun xoxo @GrainneMaguire (@ThatSharonOne)
Hey buddy @EndaKennyTD My period feels like a bull in a china shop, but instead of a shop it's my uterus. #repealthe8th @GrainneMaguire (@KatiePoushpom)
So @EndaKenny, my period's just over. But I could tweet you some old smear test results, if you'd like? #repealthe8th (@TaraFlynn)
@EndaKennyTD I'm definitely PMS-ing so I'm not pregnant - phew! #dodgedabullet #repealthe8th (Heidiboots)
@EndaKennyTD Help!! Clueless girl here doesn't know what to do after she thought her period was over now it's back!! #repealthe8th (@omglennon)
Hey @EndaKennyTD In Bangkok now, still have my period. In bits. Maybe I should just have a baby. What do you think? WB xoxoxoxo #repealthe8th (@heatherbetsy)