Tuesday 20 August 2019

Clear-eyed book from one of Irish feminism's most popular rabble-rousers

Mary Kenny, writer and author. Photo: Tony Gavin
Mary Kenny, writer and author. Photo: Tony Gavin
Am I A Feminist? Are You? by Mary Kenny

Tanya Sweeney

Every year in Dublin, a small but perfectly formed group of women meet for lunch and to share good memories. Among them is Nell McCafferty, who calls their gathering "The Dying Feminists' Lunch".

It's a coterie of women who founded and became part of the Irish Women's Liberation Movement in the 1970s - their members also include Eimear Philbin Bowman, Rosita Sweetman, and Mary Kenny.

Oh, to be a fly on the wall at these lunches, not just to hear these women reminisce about decades past - when women couldn't buy contraceptives, sit on a jury or collect children's allowance - but to hear their take on today's feminist politics, too.

Kenny has delivered the next best thing to a seat the Dying Feminists' Lunch, with a take on almost every aspect of modern-day feminism, from the gender pay gap and everyday sexism to workplace harassment and manspreading. Also in the mix are thoughts on perhaps less voguish conceits like Camille Paglia, the Feminine Mystique and the Ursuline Order, all of which explain what feminism has accomplished down the years.

Delivered in a neat A-to-Z format, Am I a Feminist? Are You? works well as a handy reference book. Want to know exactly what 'patriarchy' means? Take yourself to Page 141. How about the term 'unconscious bias'? All will be revealed on Page 213.

"Looking back to my youth, I think feminism was, for me, a route to knowledge and a way of making sense of life as a woman," Kenny writes. "It was also of course, exciting and radical and in tune with the times that were a-changing Dylan-like."

Kenny has a rich and deep history with identity politics, and it shows. There is a streak of easy yet sharp authority on every page.

And there's no doubting that today's feminist thinkers owe Kenny and her ilk a vast debt. They're the women who blazed a trail at a time when holding up a mirror to society was difficult. In their wake, we are merely travelling comfortably in their jet-stream.

Yet there's something about Am I A Feminist? Are You? that will leave many readers wanting more.

Over 84 essays, she explores a wide swathe of feminism, and yet some of these weigh in at around 150 words. It's an opportunity lost to really get one's teeth into issues like mansplaining, the media, vaginas or imperialism. Instead, the topic is touched on, before we are right onto the next.

The book is billed as part polemic and part memoir, but all told, it's a hefty slice of the former with a mere soupçon of the latter. It's consummate and informative journalism, certainly... but the reporting is lacking in emotion or warmth at times. And this, somehow, belies Kenny's eminence.

With five decades in playwriting, broadcasting and journalism, both here and in the UK, Kenny has clearly led an intriguing life during the country's most turbulent times. Regrettably, it only ends up here in all-too-tantalising nips (although readers who want to read more can do so in Kenny's brilliant memoir, Something of Myself and Others).

An essay on menopause, for instance, might have been greatly bolstered by some heartening home truths, rather than relying on Simone de Beauvoir and Carol Vorderman's take on things.

Perhaps this is an unfair summation: feminist polemic does not have to be served up with a side order of personal recollection, nor confessionalism.

And yet it has worked so well in the essay collections of other feminist thinkers. Many younger writers, hoping to engage new readers at a time when telling it like it is seems more fraught with risk than ever, have sweetened the polemical pill with lightness and humour. There was the giddy ebullience of Caitlin Moran's How to be a Woman. The barely suppressed rage in Lindy West's Shrill. The quiet frustration in Jessica Valenti's Sex Object. Kenny's book is a catch-all battle cry, but thanks to a proliferation of online voices, Twitter users and columnists, it's a cry that today's strident feminists are already long versed with. Clear-eyed and yet rabble rousing at the same time, Am I Feminist? Are You? perhaps works best as an introductory text.

It is extensively researched and covers a multitude of both buzzwords and age-old truisms. Required reading, in other words, for the 'un-woke' who are trying to find their sea legs in a debate with many different facets.

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