Liz O'Donnell: Shattering glass ceiling is not enough
Published 21/06/2014 | 02:30
All issues are women’s issues, from housing to economic policy to war The theme of this year's National Women's Council Annual Conference was “So tell me why we still need feminism?”
At first glance, I felt jaded by the question posed by the conference theme and the challenge to justify feminism.
I empathised with actor Stephen Rea's candour in a radio interview. Asked why he spent so much time away from his native Northern Ireland, his wry retort was that he “was tired of having the same conversation”.
Remarkably, some young people see no need for feminism these days. They see it as an outmoded ideology, out of step with sophisticated contemporary life, where equality can be taken as read. But advocacy for ensuring the female perspective is included in policy making has never been more important in this troubled world.
And it is not just about ensuring women are roped in to handle so-called “women's issues”. All issues are women's issues, from housing to economic management policy to war and peace making.
Indeed, had feminism been in existence in the Ireland of the 1950s and 1960s, we would not be dealing with the shameful legacy of the Magdalene Laundries and the subjugation of generations of women and girls in church and state-run institutions just because they fell pregnant.
If feminism was integrated into global politics, we would not have honour killings and impunity for gang rapes in India or schoolgirls abducted and used as sex slaves in African countries.
Closer to home, if feminism was more powerful in Ireland today, we would not be tearing ourselves apart as a society over a woman's right to life-saving treatment in pregnancy. That recent debate was essentially a rerun of the 1992 and 1983 referenda. So, one can be forgiven for being tired of the “same conversation”.
In 1992, a 14-year-old girl was judicially prevented from leaving the jurisdiction for an abortion following a rape. The case propelled the country into a political, constitutional and humanitarian crisis. It propelled this writer into politics.
Twenty-two women were elected to that Dail. When I retired in 2007, 15 years later, there were just 25 female TDs; stubbornly low figures. Change was not happening and to this Government's credit it has introduced quotas that will ensure 30pc of party candidates at the next General Election will be women.
It is notable that not all women politicians are feminists. Some would deny it as an outmoded credo and oppose gender quotas.
But, there are different manifestations of feminism. For this writer, it is primarily about acknowledging and honouring diversity. The perspective, life experience and intelligence of women is distinctive. So to exclude that shade of humanity in managing society defies logic.
As former President Mary McAleese said this week when commenting on the Pope's plan to host a synod of male celibate bishops to deliberate on family policy in the Catholic Church, it is “bonkers”.
Yet that is what parliaments, societies and churches have done for decades, only recently making space for women in policy and decision- making. That change has been tortuous and hard won.
Equality for women has never happened by chance in Ireland or anywhere. Primarily the work of women, it has been achieved inch by inch over generations.
So perhaps the compelling contemporary challenge for feminism is for women in positions of power and influence to be active, not passive, leaders.
Having made it to the top of their game, their voices must be vital, not silent or acquiescent.
Rising to positions of power is not enough; women must be champions and advocates of equality and greater diversity.
That is why Mary McAleese's remarks this week matter. Her stance on the role of women in the church is grounded by her intellectual power as a lawyer and her standing as former President of Ireland. She is using her hard-won clout to influence public affairs and discourse.
In similar vein, Helena Morrissey, CEO of Newton, a global investment subsidiary of BNY Mellon, has launched a 30pc club in Ireland, which aims to have 30pc female participation on company boards of directors by 2015.
The target for Ireland is 2020, as the current figure for female participation on the boards of the top 25 companies here is just 13pc compared with the UK figure of 20.8pc.
This week in Dublin, 25 Irish women were honoured for their achievements in the arts, politics and business at the WXN Top 25 powerful women awards. All trail-blazers in their field, resilience is a feature of their success.
But with the plaudits comes a duty to speak up for diversity as public leaders.