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Thursday 18 January 2018

Mary showed who wore the trousers - and it's a lesson women still need

We must teach young women that their hearts and heads matter more than the latest celebrity make-up, writes Andrea Smith

Mary Tyler Moore in the early 1970s
Mary Tyler Moore in the early 1970s

Actress Mary Tyler Moore, who died this week aged 80, was the first woman to wear trousers on a television sitcom. No small boast.

Not wanting to appear like a stereotypical TV housewife in dresses and heels, she successfully fought to wear capri pants on the The Dick Van Dyke Show in the 1960s. Even at that, she was under pressure initially to only wear them in one scene per episode, as the sponsors weren't happy, fearing that the tight pants revealed too much of Mary's shapely bottom.

The actress later had her own 1970s series, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, which was unusual for its time. She played a single woman who worked her way up to become a successful news producer, and wore a modern wardrobe on the show. This reflected the clothes worn by a burgeoning sector of independent-thinking American women, who were beginning to step out from behind the stove to become professional, working women.

Fast-forward half a century, and it looks like we are as much in need of pioneers like Mary as the women of the 1960s were.

The results of a UK parliamentary report into workplace dress codes were reported last week - and it found that many female workers have been told to dye their hair blonde, wear revealing outfits and constantly reapply make-up.

The inquiry was sparked by the case of 27-year-old Nicola Thorp, who was sent home - without pay - from her temporary receptionist job at PwC in London for not wearing high heels.

It was her temp agency Portico, and not PwC, who objected to her wearing flat shoes.

The Petitions Committee and the Women and Equalities Committee subsequently investigated after Nicola started a petition that gathered more than 150,000 signatures. It called for a law that would ensure that no company could ever again demand that a woman wear heels to work.

Although most of my friends love heels on a night out, I can't bear them because I always end up in pain. Heels have long been blamed for causing everything from lower back and calf pain, sprained ankles, callouses and shortened Achilles tendons - so it's staggering that any company would insist on them being worn by their female employees.

The inquiry found that Portico had indeed broken the law, and concluded that existing legislation needed to be tightened to overcome outmoded and sexist workplace codes.

The Fawcett Society, a British charity that promotes gender equality and women's rights, told the inquiry that requiring women to abide by gendered dress codes, often of a sexualised nature, sends out the message that their appearance is of more value than their skills, experience or voices.

In today's Living cover story interview, former TV3 presenter Aisling O'Loughlin describes how Irish women are far more nuanced than we're portrayed. You wouldn't know it by the overriding media perception that we're just interested in filling our heads with fashion and make-up, she says.

Her stance echoes a prevailing wind that is blowing through the country right now, as women take to the streets in support of repealing the Eighth Amendment and against President Trump. Last weekend's pussy hat protests suggested that the new incumbent of the White House has galvanised us into action again, with his shameful history of lewd, sexist and offensive remarks to women.

I say again, because it's more than 45 years since Nell McCafferty and 48 other women took a train from Dublin to Belfast to buy the contraceptive pill, which was then illegal in the Republic. Since then, we have been fighting all kinds of gender equality battles, from sexism to equality of pay and visibility, but on some fronts, we seem to have grown weary of the battle.

It is vital that we find our voices again and make ourselves heard on issues that affect us all as a society. There is still much to be done, as women are vastly under-represented in politics and, with few exceptions, while our bodies create the world, men still rule it. Our voices are not equally heard on radio, for example, and The Late Late Show has come under fire this season for having a huge imbalance in the number of male versus female guests,

Relatively few women seem willing to take up the fight, outside of a few daring social media commenters like Barbara Scully, Lucy Keaveney and Mary McAuliffe, who tweet on the hashtag #wherearethewomen

When you look at the hordes of young women busying themselves Instagramming their contouring routines and Snapchatting their gym workouts, you'd sometimes feel despair.

Celebrities are their role models, and they are only ever asked, "Who are you wearing?" and "What shade is your lipstick?" at red-carpet events. They're never asked, "What are you concerned about?" or "What do you believe in?" Nobody cares what goes on in their heads as long as they look hot.

It's only older stars like Helen Mirren and Meryl Streep who have the self-confidence to speak out against the elements that try to suppress them. And they are only in a position to do that right now - as they have nothing more to prove and can't damage their careers.

It's rare that any of the new breed of celebrity - bloggers and influencers - sticks their head above the parapet to voice a concern around equality or women's rights. Many train their laser focus on making a quick buck out of getting their very young followers to buy their overpriced fashion and beauty lines. That makes them a #girlboss apparently, and young girls think it's the pinnacle of feminism.

Which is why we must stand strong and teach our young women that what goes on in their heads and hearts and shaping how society views them as a gender, is far more important than what brand of jeans they're wearing and whether their eyebrows are on fleek?

And we older women need to keep the fight up for their sakes, even if we're a bit battle-scarred and weary from a lifetime of doing it.

Sunday Independent

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