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Monday 16 September 2019

'I hope you won't ask any silly questions about my shirt!'

Astonishing sexism in Irish public life was highlighted in the 1980s by the groundbreaking 'Status' magazine, whose team was headed by Marian Finucane. Damian Corless tells its story

Breaking the mould: Marian Finucane edited the short-lived Status magazine in 1981
Breaking the mould: Marian Finucane edited the short-lived Status magazine in 1981
The first issue of Status magazine

The uproar over the shameful behaviour of Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein has focused attention on the grubbiness of the casting couch, the economics of consent and the ugly blight of sexism. Since the scandal broke, countless people - perhaps most of them male - have cast their hands to the skies and cursed: "Really? This again! Didn't that all go out with cavemen, Alf Garnett's slippers and Benny Hill's pervy milkman?"

Well no. Clearly not. But rewind to the brief lifespan of Ireland's first feminist magazine, and you might conclude that things aren't quite as bad as they once were. Status was launched in March 1981 with great fanfare. It had a strong and committed editorial team, headed up by Marian Finucane, who were determined to tackle the second-class citizenship of Irish women in terms of property rights, access to contraception, equal pay and anything you could think of.

Women were paid half what men earned for the same work. Forced into addressing this by Europe, governments had put equal pay laws on the book, and then done absolutely nothing to enforce them.

For some commentators, the real problem wasn't women wanting equal pay, but wanting to work at all. Reverend Brother Vivian Cassells complained: "There are a large number of married women working for no valid reason... depriving many young people from starting their careers."

The first cover of Status asked 'Is Your Son Sexist?'. In the Ireland of the day, it was almost a rhetorical question.

Status had set itself a tall order to kick-start a fundamental culture change. The simple act of assembling a staff of women journalists was a statement of intent. The few females in print at the time were generally packed off to the cubby hole marked 'Fashion' and 'Recipes'.

A Fianna Fáil minister thought himself the bee's knees when he settled down to do an interview with a woman. He began: "I hope you won't ask any silly questions, like what's my favourite colour shirt."

Dismissing calls for divorce, a senior Fine Gaeler spoke for many in the body politic when he said: "There's much that's made of women's rights - in inverted commas - but what about the rights of the children? What about women's duties? You can't wean a calf from a cow overnight."

Sending out a jury to reach their verdict, a top judge told the 12: "You all have to be a man. Even the ladies have to be a man, in that you have to make up your minds."

Issue 1 was an instant sell-out success. As the months rolled by, Status produced penetrating analysis of Irish life, but it was the 'read 'em and weep' pickings of the No Comment section that threw the hostile environment of Ireland 1981 into sharpest relief.

Consider this from the window of a Grafton Street job agency: "Receptionist/Typist. Christmas decorating? Why not start with your reception area and employ a girl like Joan. Joan is 25, very attractive. Altogether a lovely girl." Another said: "Deck the halls with bows of holly!!! How about decking your office with this lovely dolly?"

An excerpt from the property section of a national newspaper announced "a sophisticated computer system will render it immaterial whether the modern secretary puts her shapely little bottom on a chair in Stephen's Green, Sandymount or Santry". An ad for a new word processor said it could do "400 words per minute uninterrupted by boyfriends, broken nails or holidays".

A newspaper death column marked the passing of one citizen, naming his three sons, but none of his three daughters. Ireland's top business magazine regularly caught the attention of No Comment. Reporting on inflation, it came up with the following: "Spirits led the drinks increase at 80pc. In the clothing sector, women's panties went up 86pc - but at least in that instance it was a case of what goes up must come down."

In the early days of Status, the staff agonised over what sort of adverts they could accept without selling out the magazine's feminist principles. There were earnest debates about whether perfume, make-up and frills were appropriate. In the event, the agonising proved mostly moot. The fashion and cosmetics industries took one look at Status and decided its strident feminism was strange and disturbing.

If the boycott had stopped there, the publication might have survived. After all, it could deliver other advertisers a substantial and desirable readership of educated, middle-class women.

But it didn't stop there. Status met with naked contempt from just about the whole of a deeply laddish advertising industry. At a national conference of advertising executives in Tralee, a group of delegates rounded off an evening's networking by ceremonially setting fire to an issue. At Christmas 1981, despite continuing healthy sales, Ireland's first feminist magazine went to the wall.

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