Opinion Martina Devlin

Sunday 28 August 2016

Battle for equality at the Forty Foot is still making waves

Published 26/12/2013 | 02:30

Women protesting at the Forty Foot back in July 1974. RTE Archive
Women protesting at the Forty Foot back in July 1974. RTE Archive

It's a last bastion of discrimination and the battle has been fought for four decades

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JUST when you thought all the Neanderthals were extinct, replaced by a more evolved species known as homo sapiens, proof emerges that some diehard pockets of cavemen continue to survive in a rocky enclave of south Dublin.

Biological differences between these primitive men and their modern replacements are not obvious to the naked eye. At first glance, the cave-dwellers look exactly like everyone else. However, their reactionary attitudes are the telltale sign.

The throwbacks have huddled together into a discriminatory group called the Sandycove Bathers' Association, using their veto to prevent women from being members.

Nothing in the association's rules specifically embargoes women. Primitive though the men's behaviour men is, they have the brainpower to realise they can't put the prohibition in writing. But make no mistake, it is a de facto male-only organisation.

And while every member can't be tarred with the same brush, a majority appears intent on resisting efforts to nudge the association into the 21st century. Perhaps the prehistoric era just feels like a more congenial fit.

The Sandycove Bathers' Association was founded in the late 1800s and helps to keep clean and safe the Forty Foot bathing area -- scene of the traditional Christmas Day dip into decidedly nippy waters.

The sea there was described by James Joyce as "snotgreen" and "scrotumtightening" in his novel 'Ulysses' -- so we can presume he wasn't a fan, despite living briefly at the nearby Martello tower.

However, a number of regulars are convinced a daily dip is healthy, and plunge in come hail, rain or shine. Those who wish to dispense with bathing costumes -- customarily it was a nudist spot -- generally nip round the back.

Of course, you don't have to be an association member to swim at the Forty Foot -- you don't even have to be a man. The notion of gender division in bathing has been swept away. But a single-sex club remains.

So what, you may ask? It's nothing more than an unrepresentative group of small-minded men intent on stopping the clock.

But it's one of the last bastions of discrimination and the battle has been fought for four decades. Next year is the 40th anniversary since women staged protests at the Forty Foot to insist on their right to swim in this scenic location. They went mano-a-mano against chauvinists resistant to change, who tried to assert male-only bathing. Ultimately, the men's position proved to be untenable, but some vestiges of fanaticism remain in the association's insistence that a male-only group preserves the area.

Back in July 1974, a group called the Dublin City Women's Invasionary Force -- I love that name -- challenged men about swimming there.

The archive footage is fascinating: women in swimsuits wave placards reading: 'The Forty Foot is for women too', 'Out from under and into the swim' and (my personal favourite) 'We'll fight them on the beaches, we'll win between the sheets'.

An RTE report covering the protest showed the journalist being told to clear off by a male bather, whose coup de grace was: "No self-respecting woman would be in here anyway."

Another man, whose well-educated tones were a reminder how those enjoying life's advantages do not necessarily believe in sharing them, offered the following argument for exclusivity: "We don't rush into Dun Laoghaire country club and say it should be open to everybody. We don't rush in to Telefis Eireann and say we should have our coffee in your canteen."

The question of access to a public place rather than a club or place of employment was the subject under discussion. But the public element escaped the Neanderthals.

Watching the clip is a time-warp comedy and you can't help but laugh at it. Except the residue of that culture remains evident in the evolutionary-stagnant attitudes of some members of the Sandycove Bathers' Association.

So, to recap, women can swim there today because they pushed for that right. But they can't be members of the association, which raises funds from the public and by membership subscriptions of €15 a year for the Forty Foot's upkeep. This means they have no say in how the area is maintained. Nor can they avail of changing hut facilities.

And while the rules do not explicitly debar women from membership, that is the reality. They state that membership can be refused without giving a reason -- allowing every application from a woman to be turned down.

Rule 15 (i) is the clincher: "Where these Rules appear to require interpretation, or to be silent, the matter shall be referred to the Committee whose decision shall be final." Translation: they can make it up as they go along.

LAST year, efforts were made to bring women in from the cold, at a specially convened meeting. The motion was rejected by 24 votes to 17 -- the vote confirming the existence of a male-only membership policy. Some members complained later the meeting was poorly advertised, and said they were unaware it had been called.

In 2014, the 40th anniversary since women forced men to accept their right to swim at the Forty Foot, it would be worth testing whether the Sandycove Bathers' Association breaches equality legislation. It would also be interesting to establish whether other state bodies, including the local authority, should be more proactive in ensuring men and women are treated equally.

One day, anthropologists will study the association's stance with the same curiosity that's extended to studies of how apartheid managed to survive for so long in South Africa. But that lies in the future.

Meanwhile, I have a question for all those men blocking female membership: you have created an unequal world, but is it really one in which you want your daughters to grow up?

Irish Independent

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