Friday 24 May 2019

Let's discuss feminism, even if it annoys people

Alison O'Connor

It was an interesting week for Irish feminism. Our strongest female role model exited public life; a well-known female journalist was on the telly saying that women who give up their careers after having children are a drain on society; and a feeble effort to get a little bit of sisterhood going in the Dail was hijacked in a publicity bid by a female TD.

Being a feminist myself -- there I've said it and I can't take it back now -- I find it a positive thing that at least there is some discussion going on, as opposed to the usual grim acceptance that the place of women in Irish society is a boring topic not worth wasting breath or ink on.

Having a female president for the past two decades has given a false impression of a more equal society, masking the pathetic representation of females in Leinster House and at the top level of industry and public life. Despite this Mary McAleese was a marvellous example of a strong, intelligent woman who did the sisterhood proud. I'd like, though, to have heard more from her on the subject of Irish women, motherhood and careers.

Over on Kildare Street, meanwhile, Fine Gael TD Mary Mitchell O'Connor, was attempting to do something about getting more women into politics. A new deputy, she has found herself propelled from the female-dominated profession of primary school teaching, to the opposite end of the scale in the Dail.

Mary was trying to encourage some solidarity and improve female representation by organising a meeting of female Oireachtas members. Up rolls Labour TD Joanna Tuffy who deemed the meeting as backward and outdated. Joanna has some form here. She is also against gender quotas, and entitled to that opinion, but I can't say I've seen too many suggestions or efforts from her on how to otherwise improve the situation.

The truth is that there are male-only meetings taking place in Leinster House all the time. The men are so used to the situation it doesn't even register with them as any way odd. Women are elected in such small numbers that the only way they can attempt to be effective is by banding together in the manner Ms Mitchell O'Connor is suggesting.

Laois/Offaly TD Charlie Flanagan was one of those who agreed with Ms Tuffy. Charlie thinks there are sufficient channels and committees to meet the needs of all. He might be interested to know that when I asked the Oireachtas Public Affairs Unit this week how many committees there are in Leinster House -- Dail and Seanad joint committees, sub committees etc -- and how many were headed by females, the answer was: 34 committees and one female chair. That lucky woman is Cork senator Deirdre Clune and she chairs the Seanad Members' Interests Committee. Sigh.

Another strong Irish woman was on our television screens on Tuesday night. As part of the series 'Now it's Personal' Emer O'Kelly was explaining her views on why women who have babies have an obligation to stay in the workforce. According to Emer, stay-at-home mothers (SAHMs as they are known on the mum's websites) are a drain on society.

Babies, she did acknowledge, need hugs and love, but that doesn't have to come from their mothers.

I can see exactly why so many women were enraged (check out the cyberspace response), especially since Emer herself has no children. She has never had to go through that awful, usually guilt-filled, decision-making process, of whether or not to leave your children in the care of others, or turn your back on the career that you worked your ass off for when you were young and free and childless.

Then there are the SAHMs who admit to you guiltily that there are frequently times they rather enjoy being at home with their children. They are delighted to be out of the rat race.

Another of those truths that is often not aired is that motherhood can rob you of your ambition, taking you into a place where you have zero interest in getting back onto the corporate ladder.

Equally some women run silently screaming from the house, glad to be in a place where they can actually visit the toilet whenever they feel the need and without a junior audience who keep trying to flush before they're finished.

Up to the point that you have children, any subject under the sun can be a legitimate topic of conversation with your girlfriends. But that comes to a rather swift end when decisions are being made about work and childcare. The unspoken golden rule is that you don't offer an opinion on someone else's child-minding arrangements, lest it seem as if you are implying your own situation is superior.

This can be a sensible approach but does stifle debate and creates opposing camps. So while I also found Ms O'Kelly patronising, and supercilious (this as a mother who has a foot in both camps, minding children and working part time) I was glad to see discussion on the topic, and respect her right to her views. Sadly the programme had an almost overwhelmingly female input. It also gave no recognition to the way in which Irish society fails mothers, and fathers, so spectacularly, in their valiant attempts to raise their children and keep careers going.

When is the last time you met or spoke to someone who told you they work for an Irish company which is family friendly and flexible? Hand on heart it's a conversation I have never had with anyone, even during the boom years.

It sounds a ridiculously naive thing to say, but imagine if Irish women of child-bearing age decided, en masse, that the situation which exists makes it far too much hard work to have children and decided to stay on the pill. That would certainly generate some chat.

Irish Independent

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