Friday 18 October 2019

What does it mean to be a feminist? Some of Ireland's most well-known faces give their take on the f-word

The childcare issue is far from being resolved in this country, and that has to be addressed before we can even begin to talk about women having equality

International Women's Day is on March 8
International Women's Day is on March 8
Ailbhe Smyth. Photo by Gareth Chaney/ Collins
Lynn Ruane. Photo by Tom Burke
Imelda May
Zainab Boladale
Emma Dabiri
Gemma Hussey. Picture by Steve Humphreys
Mary Kenny. Photo by Tony Gavin
Miriam O'Callaghan
Tara Flynn. Photo by Gareth Chaney/ Collins
Emilie Pine
Susan McKay
Lian Bell. Photo by Kate Horgan

What does it mean to be a feminist? The writer Rebecca West famously once quipped that people called her one whenever she spoke in a way that distinguished her from a doormat. Today, the word carries a lot less baggage, but the fight for gender equality still has a long way to go.

As International Women's Day approaches on March 8, Irish women from across public life reflect on their path to feminism and consider the next key challenges facing women in Ireland.

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Tara Flynn

Tara Flynn. Photo by Gareth Chaney/ Collins

Actress, comedian and writer

Feminism, to me, is naming discrimination where it exists. Misogyny runs deeply but almost invisibly in our culture, from the daily and mundane to the pay gap and threat of violence. It's no craic naming it, but it's the only place to start. I'm not a fan of 'Lean In' feminism, where some women get to thrive in a system many others are shut out of. I'm a much bigger fan of checking who's not in the room, and trying to see how they can get in. Feminism shouldn't only be for middle-class white women (like me) who want to be CEOs (unlike me).

I used to be one of those "we don't need feminism" people when I was younger: "We want equality, regardless of gender!" I guess I didn't want to be considered 'off-putting' or 'difficult'.

Internalised misogyny is real, and I can't tell you how much I regret it. Sadly, we're not equal. And being honest about that is more important than being 'one of the guys'. That said, it's great how many of the guys are openly feminist these days, too. Patriarchy and toxic masculinity hurt lads, too: we really are all in it together.

There's so much to tackle post-Repeal, but the lesson I think Irish feminists have learned is that grassroots organising - across class, race, political affiliations - can really work. The baton will necessarily be passed as to who will be the voices for tackling the housing crisis, or ending Direct Provision, or reforming health services, but when we get behind them and pool our collective and considerable resources, there's a lot to be gained.

Mary Kenny

Mary Kenny. Photo by Tony Gavin

Author and journalist

Women in Ireland now have three dedicated days: Nollaig na mBan, International Women's Day and Mother's Day (not all women are mothers, but generally, all mothers are women). So that's a good thing, isn't it? Or does it imply that women still need more attention before they're considered on a par with men? There are no special days for men, and even Father's Day is a bit of a recent afterthought. The problem is often how to make these events inclusive. When I was involved in the 1970s Irish Women's Liberation Movement, I think we did try to also include women who were homemakers: not every woman (or every man, either) is a dedicated career person.

If, as planned, we soon see a Referendum on Article 41.2 of the Irish Constitution - informally called the "woman in the home" clause - I do hope it will be genuinely inclusive of women (or men, too) who choose to be homemakers. The language as it stands is outdated and somewhat patronising ("The State recognises that by her life within the home, woman gives to the State a support without which the common good cannot be achieved"), but the substance is worthy of respect: that the person who cares for the family at home is making a real contribution to the community. Let's not consider individuals worthless just because they're not bringing in revenue.

I'm not a natural homemaker myself - Marie Kondo would have the vapours if she saw my kitchen - but when I became a carer for my disabled late husband, I came to understand the crucial importance of organisation in home life. So, for International Women's Day, be inclusive to all and remember that women in the home - even if we wouldn't relish the 1937 description of that role - also deserve validation.

Emilie Pine

Emilie Pine

Associate Professor in Modern Drama at University College Dublin

I am a white, middle-class, highly-privileged woman, and yet I still need feminism. I work in a profession still very much dominated at the top by men. I have never myself been refused promotion, or sexually harassed at work, so in the main I'm doing fine. But the fact that the absence of these things makes me feel fortunate tells its own story. And the other side of that story is just how often I encounter casual sexism, which for all its superficiality, can be bruising nonetheless.

As I tried to describe in my book Notes to Self, I have been shouted at in meetings by senior male colleagues who rely on me not speaking back because I am junior and female. I have been called a 'feminazi' during a particularly unpleasant encounter. And I have generally been talked down to and talked over and sometimes just ignored, all because I am female.

Faced with these situations, what do other women do? What swift mental calculations do they perform? Do they challenge the shouting man? Do they laugh along at the sexist joke? Or do they just try to ignore it because, like me, they are tired of having to be the feminist in the room, and tired of it being women's responsibility to identify and tackle and fix sexism.

And now we need feminism to be better than it has been, to fix more than just sexism against white, middle-class professional women, to recognise that there are women being overlooked by feminism.

We need an intersectional feminism that thinks about race and class and access to power in more diverse ways, that includes women living in Direct Provision, that includes women working in the home, that includes transwomen, and that includes men, too.

Imelda May

Imelda May


We still have a long way to go until things are equal both at home and at work. Feminism to me is about equality, and for that to be achieved we need everyone to be feminists: men and women. Part of the struggle is about changing the expectations we put on people.

Men often have this go-get-them attitude, whereas from an early age, women are taught to hold back and be polite. Women are expected to be good cooks at home when men are expected to be professional chefs. I mean, I still get people asking me if I really do want to 'have it all'. My talents as a writer are regularly questioned, even by music journalists: I get asked who helps write my songs, despite it being my actual profession. My answer to that is to ask who helps write their interviews.

But the most important thing in all of this is women's safety. We need to talk about consent, and we need to talk about locker-room banter that makes us feel threatened or uncomfortable. Even doing something as routine as parking your car, you think about how close it can get to where you're heading so you don't have too far to walk back in the dark.

We choose our routes home carefully. We worry about getting into taxis. We take earphones out to hear if someone is coming up behind us. Men don't have to think like that as often. We're striving to be taken seriously, but we're also striving for the right to feel safe.

Zainab Boladale

Zainab Boladale

Presenter of news2day, RTÉ's children's news programme

For me, feminism in 2019 means working towards equality for all women. I say 'all' because sometimes in Ireland when the topic of feminism comes up, it can leave out the work done by marginalised women, or the opinions of those on the margins. Women of colour, women from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds, women with visible and invisible disabilities, Traveller women and transwomen also need to be championed, and their narratives need to be heard, and not tokenistically. Women have to be heard in a way that genuinely brings more voices and perspectives to the table.

We're hearing more and more stories about successful Irish women, which is great, but we have to remember for every success story there are also women hard hit by inequalities. I think about women without access to affordable childcare, or women of colour and immigrant women concerned that their foreign-looking names might work against them in job applications, or women facing discrimination because of the reputation of the area where they live.

We can't achieve the true meaning of feminism until we can say we're ready to stand up for everyone. But I do think the future is bright, and we have so many strong and inspiring Irish women on the frontline ready to work hard to achieve much-needed changes.

Gemma Hussey

Gemma Hussey. Picture by Steve Humphreys

Former Minister for Education and Fine Gael TD

Feminism now means an all-embracing philosophy which has as its aim the rebalancing of society in order to give men and women freedom to follow their instincts. It means that the waste and curtailment of talents which mostly applied to women will stop, to everyone's benefit - not least children.

I have delighted in seeing the strength of feminism in recent years, and the inclusion of men in, for example, the Repeal the Eighth campaign. This is a wonderful thing. And as the barriers fall, I am convinced society will become a more peaceful and friendly place for women and men. The acceptance of feminism by society in general has been a major and encouraging phenomenon. How different it is today from battles of the 60s and 70s when we feminists were - to put it mildly - seen as hysterical subversives.

Several key challenges remain. The gender pay gap is a disgrace. The unequal political ratio in Dáil and Seanad, as well as in government, shows how slow and painful real power-sharing is. A few years ago we had women in several major roles - as Minister for Justice, Attorney General, Garda Commissioner, Director of Public Prosecutions, Chief Justice, Chief State Solicitor. Down through the decades all those posts had always been held by men. But as those present-day women retired or left their posts (one is still in situ) they were replaced by men. That's where the phrase "the glass slope" came from. You break through the glass ceiling, and - hey! - find yourself on the slope.

However, I'm optimistic. The biggest challenge for Irish society is to elevate child rearing to the important level it deserves. Men need to take equal responsibilities and opportunities to nurture and rear the coming generations. The State must not only facilitate this, but actively encourage it. After all, we are slowly realising that the strength and future health of society depends on how we cherish in childhood those who will be its adults. The State today must therefore devote time, energy and resources into dong the best possible job for today's children and their parents.

Ailbhe Smyth

Ailbhe Smyth. Photo by Gareth Chaney/ Collins

Feminist activist and former co-director of the Together for Yes campaign

Feminism is always about fighting, about struggling to ensure all women have the rights to which they are fully entitled as human beings. Not much about that struggle has changed, in my view, over recent decades. The result of the abortion referendum was brilliant, but of course it doesn't mean that reproductive rights are now completely sorted. We have to push to ensure women have access to the full range of reproductive rights, which to my mind should include free contraception.

Beyond that, I'm very conscious that we have a whole world of work that is not equal for women, in terms of access to employment, promotions, pay, and so on. The childcare issue is far from being resolved in this country, and that has to be addressed before we can even begin to talk about women having equality. Violence against women and children also continues to be a running sore. Our legislation in that area has vastly improved, but it could still be better. Certainly more funding is needed for service provision in relation to rape, trafficking and domestic violence.

The issues raised by #MeToo are very live, and they all intersect with that broader challenge of ensuring women feel both sexually independent and secure. We have to start looking as well at deeper structures in our society, and addressing other social and economic problems faced by women.

Lian Bell

Lian Bell. Photo by Kate Horgan

Arts manager, set designer, and former director of 'Waking the Feminists'

Feminism is about considering everyone an equal. The struggle can take public forms, as it did when we campaigned for better representation of women in theatre and the arts. But I think the interesting question now is how to bring about change on a micro level, in ways that permeate everything we do. The challenge is about embodying those values in every part of your life, and in all the engagements you have on a daily basis, so that they become second nature.

I don't think our focus going forward should be on only one particular challenge. What needs to be done is bring a sense of intersectional feminism into a range of other campaigns, so that we can look at issues like housing and health, and understand that these affect different women in different ways.

The women who are most visible in feminist campaigns are often middle class, possibly because we're regarded as the most acceptable faces of the movement. But I know there are working-class feminist activists who have struggles to fight that we don't have to fight. We need to embrace feminism in as broad a way as possible, and make sure not to silo ourselves away from women in Direct Provision, and single mothers, and Traveller women. Women with different, more complex struggles have to be included as well.

Lynn Ruane

Lynn Ruane. Photo by Tom Burke

Independent Senator

Feminism as a way of thinking came fairly late to me. Class was always more central to my struggle, coming from a position where it was the biggest barrier in life. I didn't think about feminism all that much. What does it mean to me now? The central message is about equality and equal access to all sectors of society, whether it be in work, politics or parenting. But my own feminism is very much focused on diversity and intersectionality, and raising awareness that feminism can look very different depending on your living conditions. The gender pay gap is irrelevant to the feminism of someone living in poverty in a community like mine.

If you take gender quotas in politics, for example, we talk about the importance of 50pc representation but not so much about what that 50pc might look like. What use is it to me to have Fine Gael women making up half of the Dáil?

The big challenge we have to tackle is poverty. Women are deprived of freedom every day because of unemployment, or a lack of housing or education. There are so many women out there for whom feminism feels very far away, and who don't think or talk about their rights as women. We have a huge body of work to do to ensure feminism is something all women can connect to and benefit from. Feminism should be a struggle shared by all women.

Miriam O'Callaghan

Miriam O'Callaghan

RTÉ broadcaster and presenter of Prime Time

I think feminism is more important today than it's ever been. What is it? Everyone has a different opinion, but for me it's just about equality. I grew up with a mother who was a teacher and a father from a farm in Kerry, and as brothers and sisters we were never treated differently. Dad was an early feminist, and it was always taken for granted that we would all go on to have careers.

I think a lot of the challenges remain the same. The women who campaigned for suffrage rights accomplished so much, and with second-wave feminism in the 1960s, even more achievements were won. But we live in the real world, and the practical difficulties of being a working mother are still there.

A lot of women opt out and choose to bring up their children at home, which is a tough and very honourable job, but there are others, like myself, who assumed that you would fight to do the best you can at work as well as being the best mother you can. We need a system like the Nordic countries, with better childcare and more flexible working hours. Until society changes the way we work, the obstacles will remain.

Susan McKay

Susan McKay

Writer, journalist and founder of the Belfast Rape Crisis Centre

I would say I have always been a feminist and been aware of the discrimination we face as women. I was conscious of growing up in a man's world where women had to struggle for equality in any area of life.

Now I have daughters and am very dismayed that they face many of the same disadvantages in spite of all the years of campaigning and awareness raising. Patriarchy is very resilient, but I think it's encouraging that we hear a lot more people talk about it these days without being dismissed as loony lefties. Feminism has become much more mainstream.

One of the most important challenges for Irish feminism moving forward is standing up for women in the North. Northern women supported women across the border during the Repeal campaign, and that pledge that the North would be next has to be kept.

Abortion is punishable here by life imprisonment, and as we've seen a woman can even face trial for getting her teenage daughter abortion pills after being raped. As well as that, Northern Ireland is still excluded from UK legislation on stalking and coercive control, and laws against upskirting.

A lot of women's organisations in the North also don't know if they're going to be funded in the coming years because of the absence of devolved government. Solidarity with women in Northern Ireland should be a priority now, given the huge achievements won in the Republic.

Emma Dabiri

Emma Dabiri

Author and broadcaster

There is a commonly repeated phrase that feminism is the radical idea that the sexes are equal, but I think it's a lot more complex than that. For me, feminism is about striving for equality within a different system to the one we have now.

We should be working towards a fairer system instead of trying to fit into the current one. We still have so many patriarchal norms deeply embedded in our way of thinking. We've been conditioned to accept a lot of things, especially in terms of traditional gender roles.

I grew up not really knowing I could do ­anything I wanted; I felt like my options were a lot more limited than they were. The ­challenge is about giving women the sense that anything available is also available to them.

I find our emphasis on looks and appearance very oppressive as well. The focus on weight loss in Ireland is still so entrenched. Body standards aren't quite as fixed in other places I've lived. There are different seemingly acceptable body types in the UK, particularly in multicultural areas, but in Ireland, the default look tends to be tall and skinny.

At this moment in time, I think the horizon seems optimistic, but we have a lot of work left to do to undo the wrap patriarchy has on our culture.

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