Saturday 24 August 2019

Máirín de Burca: 'We are in an age that poses an even greater threat to women'

Mary Robinson. Photo: Damien Eagers / INM
Mary Robinson. Photo: Damien Eagers / INM

Máirín de Burca

A couple of days ago, I was astounded to find that four of the leading stories on the Six One News concerned discrimination and/or violence against women. Two were about the murder, by men, of women. I doubt very much that that this statistic could be replicated in any other country of Western Europe. How did a relatively civilised country get to this pass?

I have lived and worked in Ireland since the 1940s and was a founder-member of the Irish Women's Liberation Movement (IWLM) in the early 1970s. Growing up in that period, a girl knew, instinctively, that she was an inferior human being. That inferiority manifested itself at all times, and the fact was that we accepted our inequality as part of being a woman. Few, if any, queried, much less fought, against it. Outside of rural areas, it was different but not better. Women could earn their own money but had to give up their jobs when they married.

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Apart from the financial servitude, there was the ever-present threat of physical ill-treatment. The #MeToo movement has proved what every girl/woman knew from the time she started walking - that standing close to a lot of men meant being groped. It was a taken that this would happen and, again, you simply accepted it as something that "men did".

I would be rich if I had a euro for every man's hand I removed from around my body. Some were lay, some were clerical hands. They were practical strangers, they were work colleagues and, while sometimes I would question why they thought it okay to do these things, I did not fight it at the time. It was life, it was men and, as long as it didn't go any further, you put up with it.

I joined the workforce and received less money for the same work as my male colleagues. I went into politics, not to liberate women but, as I saw it, liberate Ireland. Then, everything exploded. The North descended into war and the Civil Rights Movement in the US gripped the world. Young women involved in the US movement came over to Ireland and many found themselves visiting political activists here. For the first time, Irish women who were politically active heard stories of the women's movement in America. Our eyes were opened to our own oppression by these stories. Things we had taken for granted as being part of the natural order were shown to us as rank discrimination, if not degradation.

The IWLM was the natural result of this historical story. Ireland's 1973 entry into the European Economic Community hastened the end of some of the legalised discrimination. Official commissions helped and individual women such as Mary Robinson fought for and achieved much for women's rights. Contraception and divorce became lawful, the appalling Criminal Conversation Act was ditched, women could keep their jobs after marriage, and didn't have to apply to sit on juries. Tax laws were amended, homosexuality decriminalised and, more recently, abortion and gay marriage were legalised. We were finally in the post-feminist phase of civilisation. Women were free, they could have it all and would they now please shut up?

But discrimination against one half of the human race is alive and well. We had the 'Her name is Clodagh' Facebook campaign; we had the vile texts that emerged from the Ulster rugby players' trial; a court heard that a certain kind of underwear denoted a willingness to engage in sexual activity. We are not in any post-feminist phase. We are in a technological age that poses a greater threat to the safety and well-being of women than any they've faced in modern times.

Máirín de Burca is a writer, activist and a founder of the Irish Women's Liberation Movement

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