Wednesday 21 August 2019

Let's celebrate normality of women being on world stage

Mary Kenny looks back on a year when the true success of feminism was must noticeable when gender went unremarked upon

Iconic image: British PM Theresa May with German Chancellor Angela Merkel
Iconic image: British PM Theresa May with German Chancellor Angela Merkel
IMF chief Christine Lagarde
Pop superstar Madonna
Lian Bell with the Waking The Feminists movement

Is the iconic feminist photograph of 2016 Chancellor Angela Merkel meeting Prime Minister Theresa May - two women of power in an encounter? Or Hillary Clinton defeated in the US Presidential Election, although winning the popular vote by more than three million voices? Or Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland's first minister, getting a standing ovation in Seanad Éireann? Or Christine Lagarde, boss of the International Monetary Fund, being convicted of negligence by a French court?

Is it the dominance of women in pop music - Beyoncé, Adele and Madonna all topping charts and pulling in huge amounts of revenue (even if Madonna, whose latest tour grossed $170m, complained that "to age is a sin" these days)?

Is it Irish-born Samantha Power speaking for the American administration at the UN? Or, perhaps, Taoiseach Enda Kenny with his line-up of female ministers and TDs?

The biggest difference between today and yesteryear, for women, is the sheer visibility of females on the world stage. Call up a photograph of, say, the signing of the Treaty of Rome - that founding document of the European Union signed in 1957, the 60th anniversary to be celebrated next March - and the most striking aspect is just how masculine it is. Not a female in sight. And whenever a female figure did hove into the picture, it was usually a monarch - Elizabeth of the United Kingdom or Juliana of the Netherlands.

IMF chief Christine Lagarde
IMF chief Christine Lagarde

By 2016, women - if not yet 50pc of public figures - are nevertheless infinitely more visible on the international stage. And the real success is when the gender is unremarked upon: when no one falls about saying "Oh look! A woman is actually doing this job!" (recalling Dr Johnson's famously dismissive quip about a woman preaching is rather like a dog walking on its hind legs - "It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.")

True achievement is measured by the normality of women's appointments - and by the normality of women making mistakes, just as men make mistakes. Christine Lagarde had to face the fact that she made a political error (although she denies that she did anything wrong) in approving an award of €404m to politician Bernard Tapie, but no one is pleading - "Oh, she's only a poor wee woman - make allowances!" Ms Lagarde is well able to take any flak that comes her way - as part of the responsibility of her position.

Similarly with Arlene Foster in Belfast. It was indeed gratifying to see a woman lead the DUP - itself quite a macho organisation. But she's had to face the responsibilities of office like a man - or a woman - and cope with charges of having mishandled that Renewable Heat Incentive scheme.

It was, granted, a disappointment for many women supporters that Hillary Clinton failed to become the 45th President of the US, because she did not win the Electoral College: some voices claimed that "misogyny" was at the root of Mrs Clinton's defeat, but some voices debated the issue with more grown-up criteria. The voting system is complex and favours smaller states (otherwise California would carry everything before it), but not quite enough women really did vote for Hillary, in the end.

We don't always vote according to our chromosomes and rightly so. I wouldn't vote for Marine Le Pen just because I share the XX chromosomes with her.

In Ireland, the issue of gender quotas was advanced by many feminist supporters, including the Minister of State for Sport, Patrick O'Donovan, who proposed that 30pc of senior positions in Irish sporting organisations must be held by women within the next few years. But not all women, themselves, agree with the notion of quotas, because it can imply that women are not talented enough, or don't have the drive or ambition, to succeed by merit alone. Personally, I had a bad experience with an unofficial quota system - I was once appointed to an executive job because the boss said "we need a woman" and I was quite inadequate to the task. So I'm wary of any quota system: what women (and other groups who may have felt marginalised) need is opportunity, openness, and, in many cases, domestic support.

Lian Bell with the Waking The Feminists movement
Lian Bell with the Waking The Feminists movement

Still only 22pc of TDs are women, granted, but I remember a time when it barely topped 7pc.

More childcare is always required, to give mothers a level playing field, and 2016 saw more recognition of this need, if not much more material advance. Yet it remains a truth that many mothers would also like the choice of being at home with young children, or having recourse to more part-time and flexible working.

It was a tough year generally for the world, and we saw how often women and children suffered in agonising situations such as Aleppo and the dreadful war in the Yemen. The position of women in Islamic societies remained a major issue.

In Britain, Dame Louise Casey, the British official charged with examining social issues, reported that many Islamic communities are alienated, and most isolated of all are Islamic women, who are quite often sequestered in the home coercively, and may not even speak English.

Germany proposed banning the burqa in public, as France has done (and prosecuted Islamic women for donning the burqini): yet the debate aroused conflicting notions about liberty and choice. Is it government's role to dictate to women (or anyone else) what they should wear?

In Ireland, many women took to the streets to demand a repeal of the 8th Amendment, and in the Dáil, Ruth Coppinger and Clare Daly emerged as leading political voices demanding choice for women on abortion. However, among the electorate, women are divided on this issue (as are men), and pro-life public demonstrations also featured many younger women, with the lawyer Cora Sherlock emerging as a leader for retaining the 8th.

Graham Linehan wrote a poignant account of how his wife Helen was obliged to travel to England to terminate a pregnancy where the child had life-limiting conditions: and in the Irish Independent, Tanya Coonan wrote a similarly heart-rending account of she continued her pregnancy in similar circumstances. In this difficult and delicate matter, there are no easy answers.

In the world of media and broadcasting, there were some really remarkable women visibly doing a great job. The Canadian war reporter for the BBC, Lyse Doucet, was superb under fire in Aleppo, and came to speak about this awful situation with knowledge and authority. On RTÉ, Audrey Carville showed a firm command on the flagship radio programme Morning Ireland - tackling Gerry Adams, a notoriously slippery interviewee, after the Brian Stack story, with grit, persistence, and courtesy. You could hear Mr Adams' uncertainty in the way his voice stumbled.

Again, the success of women in current affairs lies in its normality: there was a time, as I recall, when two women speaking on air were expected to engage in girly subjects. But listening to Ms Carville interview, say, Margaret Gilmour - a Syrian expert from the Royal United Services Institute in London - the seriousness of the conversation, without anyone thinking that it ought to be otherwise, is a symbol of success. There's a raft of young (and even older) women coming to the fore speaking on politics, economics, science, law and, of course, the arts and it's the authority and quality of the talent that impresses, without anyone having to underline the fact that they're female.

In the arts, it was great to see the great reception for the "Waking the Feminists" campaign, aimed principally at our National Theatre, the Abbey. The theatre director Pom Boyd authored a stunning Waking the Feminists manifesto, which I liked so much I put into a book collection.

Women are never absent from the world of books, and Irishwomen remained particularly successful, internationally, notably, Emma Donoghue, Eimear McBride, Anne Enright, Celia Ahern.

One of the most harrowing, and yet one of the best movies I've ever seen, was written, performed and directed by women: the French-Polish production, The Innocents, directed by Anne Fontaine, told the true story of Polish nuns raped (and impregnated) by Soviet troops in 1945. Unforgettable.

In sport, a minor but significant victory occurred when Fitzwilliam Lawn Tennis Club elected the first woman president, Helen Shields, for 140 years. Some commentators scoffed that it was ridiculous that such a petty advance should have to be celebrated: but that seems to be a little graceless in the face of any progress.

Of course there were many sad occurrences, both personal and collective, and problems that have been with human nature for many a year: accounts of domestic abuse, cruelty, homelessness, addiction. Most tragic, surely, was the death and suicide of the Mayo-born Sinéad Higgins and her son, Oisín. As Christmas approached, a deeply distressing picture of desolation emerged - at a time when the universal image of motherhood should be care and consolation.


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