Feminism: From George Hook to your cleaning lady
Poet and novelist Mary O'Donnell spent most of her 20s, 30s and 40s in a steaming rage about the patriarchy, so how come, she wonders, does she now find herself grappling with a range of contradictions about feminism
Almost 40 years ago, I was hairy and wore dungarees. I kept my name and insisted on Ms, and I was sharpish with men who called me 'love'. I believed the women of Ireland needed access to contraception and divorce; that gay people should have complete legal recognition in our society; and that adopted children should not have to have a different-coloured birth certificate. I had no view on abortion at the time. I was an average sort of feminist, I suppose - not so radical that I was strapping myself to the steel fences of Greenham Common, or taking part in cervix-examining workshops, nor did I view the penis as an instrument of torture.
Even so, I spent most of my 20s, 30s and 40s in a steaming rage about patriarchy, signing petitions, marching, joining collectives that informed me of my rights at a time when I needed informing. Back then, too, the poetry I wrote and published was sometimes combusted into being by the ideology dear to my heart, with narratives of women finding freedom, women being fierce, strong, and if needs be, solitary. Gradually, I grew to believe that women were the superior sex (falling into the same trap some men unconsciously fall into, except in reverse). How come then, that today I grapple with a range of contradictions?
Perhaps the passing of time has something to do with it. Wear and tear, the longer perspective and the global stretch, in a manner of speaking. I've done a hell of a lot, worked and played and thought hard - very hard - loved, lost, loved again, experienced pain and joy and complexity, like many people my age. Survived. Yes, survived. Occasionally triumphed. Often failed.
That's how it's supposed to be in the course of a life. Increments of the mosaic of experience gradually build and build, but the thing is, the edges that once seemed black and white are no longer quite so crisply clear. I try to manoeuvre myself into more or less holistic ideas about equality, yet often experience a sense of defeat. In the end, I haven't worked everything out, and I can't answer certain questions in a way that adheres to current received doctrine. There are connections to be made, but none so satisfactorily conclusive as to be intellectually watertight. And although I'd like feminist credos to be watertight, perhaps the problem is that nothing is, or actually should be, so watertight it's beyond criticism, and none of us lives the dream of our ideology as completely as we might do.
For example, although married, I honestly see marriage as an outdated, ridiculous contract, constructed to support economic, patriarchal and even feudal needs. It quaintly offers 'respectability' on the social front; a sense of people of all orientations having 'settled down' - though to just what is another question. Why so many modern people gallop into marriage in their 30s is puzzling, choosing the whole sometimes childish wedding pantomime with its sweet-carts and prescribed first dance, as a rite of passage, the reward for which ensures social kudos based on appearance, a ring three times his monthly salary, a dress and... so help me, but has feminism even happened?
Meanwhile, other seemingly unconnected concerns within a feminist context tickle my brain, among them the knocking of George Hook from his evening work perch at Newstalk radio and - odd as it may seem - the failure to ratify the International Domestic Workers Federation. So what's the connection?
Hook was sidelined for his blundering, and, to some, offensive on-air comments regarding why a girl who had just met a fella would go back to a hotel room with him and get raped. Everyone responded medievally and put him in the stocks, as he seemingly failed to grasp that the decision was hers to make, no matter how foolhardy or drunken it might have seemed, and that acting as she chose to, in which, as Hook put it, she "has no idea of his health conditions, she has no idea who he is, no idea what dangers he might pose" is very much beside the point. Hook lost his job because of social pressure, and because his comments could be seen to reflect on his employers at Newstalk, who had to be seen to be squeakier than clean on the feminism front, the #MeToo front, and everything to do with equality. Oh cynical me! The #MeToo movement? Marvellous in some ways, but really questionable in others, a centripetal force that sucks every piddling male misdemeanour to its centre for a public flaying.
But Hook's comments entered into the terrain of the uncertain, the still-up-for-discussion, even the paternal. Here was a man, clearly imagining the things that might befall beloved daughters, and lacking the brass-bottomed certainty expected today to drop like the sword of Damocles on the head of anyone who dares suggest that a woman always needs to think three steps ahead for her own protection in certain situations.
Now coincidentally, I imagine that a few of those who promote gender rights, and who surely gained a certain jouissance from the curtain falling on Hook's career - which they had helped engineer via their scandalised tweets - also employ (often migrant) women in their homes. To clean up after them. To do the work they can't do because they are otherwise engaged, as happens. Eighty per cent of domestic workers are female. Yet domestic work, or what is assumed to be 'unskilled' work, is regarded by some ignoramuses as bottom-feeder employment. And I can never consider feminism without taking into account the injustices against women, globally, who work for next to nothing, especially for other women. Not all women, but some of them.
In Ireland today, middle-class people employ migrant workers from Brazil, Nigeria, Lithuania, Latvia or Poland at highly variable rates. Over in the Middle East, migrant women from the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, and India are also employed to clean for the wealthy and arriviste, but have to hand over their passports, because in some such places, they have no rights, and live as slaves.
Staying overseas for a moment, my feminist nature demands that I consider one of our favourite breakfast fruits, bananas, and the female plantation washers of said bananas in the vast and profitable banana empires of South America. Because it is here that ideas about femininity can be manipulated, if you're a male executive in one of the big banana corporations selling produce to Tesco and Carrefour. The thinking presumably goes like this: it's a woman's job to wash things, right? And washing bananas straight from the field in a humid shed for hours on end can be characterised as low-skilled precisely because women will perform such work, hosing down tons of bananas picked by the more 'skilled' men, who, naturally, are paid more. In such guises, patriarchy thrives: men (even miserably poor men) on top; women below, earning less.
Although washing bananas isn't, strictly speaking, 'domestic' work, it falls within the span of the most lowly paid work in the world, and it's interesting to note that in 2011, the International Domestic Workers Federation succeeded in persuading delegates in Geneva at the headquarters of the ILO, to pass Convention 189, the world's first international treaty explicitly guaranteeing the labour rights of women and men employed as domestic workers. Incredibly, among the governments that refused to ratify C189 are the UK and the USA. In fact, by 2016, only 23 governments had ratified this convention, which says something about attitudes to cleaning and unskilled labour worldwide.
So I see a relationship between the local and the global, connecting George Hook's ill-fated comments and the international failure to support the International Domestic Workers Federation. The former, an ill-thought-out few sentences from someone imagining what might happen a daughter, or a sister who hadn't been primed by the 'right' kind of advice, and the latter, an ill-thought-out official failure to support the IDWF by people who should know better, proving that too many nations don't give a shit about rights, and rarely, if ever, act for change.
Sometimes the failure to think things through is accidental (as in Hook's case, I believe); at other times, it's calculated, because it can be got away with, especially if a collective of high-ranking national representatives is powerful. As a result, I'm cautious about anyone holding a position of power, or any group with a duty of care towards others, especially when those others are impoverished women. Equally, I am watchful of the feminist movement itself, because it sometimes seems to resist conversations that diverge in the slightest jot from its own accepted 'inspeak'. When I think of Irish feminism, I remember George Orwell's Animal Farm, and the well-worn sentence, "All animals are equal but some are more equal than others",
As feminists, we are sometimes over-vigilant about the wrong things and blind towards what can't be categorised so easily. We nip like an angry puppy at the boot-heels of a system which, in this country, has never fully embraced feminism on the level of class rights. The focus is like a close-up photograph in a jumble of contexts, failing to take the long as well as the near view. It avoids the question of how class defines attitude, how having a home you know you can keep defines attitude, how knowing you'll be educated fairly defines attitude. We have failed to convince a moderate-to-right-wing Irish majority that our focus is part of something broader than an 'ism'; yet surely it is part of a global movement of rights for people who work, for people who want to read; surely it must embrace humanitarian ideals of justice for all citizens, espousing controls and mechanisms that might prevent men from doing their worst.
So my dream of feminism is aligned to a world in which women do not have to hold down three underpaid cleaning jobs in Ireland's cash-rich black economy in order to send money back home to the Philippines; a world in which they are physically free to move where they want; free to vote; free not to be beaten by husbands, or have acid thrown in their faces; a world in which they can choose to be sex workers if they so wish, without being condemned; a world in which their genitals are not cut via FGM in the interests of 'culture and tradition'.
And thinking of class, feminism needs to consider the link between how the playing of certain sports like rugby (in Ireland) often creates automatic entry to a patriarchal world theatre of well-paid work, while sports such as MMA are rooted in the underworld of the disenfranchised, and represent the unleashing of a particular kind of male rage against life. That rage needs to be heard, because our prisons are full of men who rage.
Feminism could, if it wished, show the way towards harnessing men's great tenacity and energy, and put these to work in our favour, instead of placing men at an apologetic distance, which renders them redundant to the ideals of what is essentially an egalitarian movement. In a way, what I'm asking is that women recognise their own power, the power to civilise, influence, and behave honourably.
Being honourable means we stand up for what we believe in. We follow through. Which makes me wonder what's wrong with men that they never seem to be sufficiently arsed about violence towards women to actually go and do something political about it themselves? After all, one of their own is out of control. It mystifies me that decent men aren't out there, agitating, objecting to the savage abuses against women's bodies that occur daily. Apparently, they feel they don't need to; and if so, they're so wrong, because ideals of equality hang out on a two-way street, no matter how patriarchy squirms its way around the latest challenge to its ranks. We are all needed - together - in this primitive battle of power and control, who wields it and who, courageously, shares it. The time for sharing is now.
Sunday Indo Life Magazine