There was a great meme doing the rounds a few weeks, that showed how few women there are in the political landscape worldwide. The pictures depicted lone women sitting down in various governments and organisations, with the men around them taken out. The pictures were a stark reminder of how much work needs to be done before female equality is achieved, and also, whether we realise it or not, our lives are dictated by a one-gender world viewpoint.
Something strange and wonderful has been happening within the Irish community however, both worldwide and at home, over the last couple of weeks. People have been looking for the missing women. Ignited by the Abbey Theatre’s virtual exclusion of women in its centenary celebrations, the conversation started by Lian Bell and #WakingtheFeminists is having an open discussion at the Abbey today. I am cautiously optimistic about this. The first part in any process is dialogue, hence the optimism. The caution because, let’s face it, most women have been in this place before. I marched on the original Miss X marches in Dublin, and was reminded of this starkly when Savita Halappanavar died. Those of us who’ve emigrated and been away from Ireland always have this dichotomy when it comes to the motherland: we love its optimism, we hate the inertia towards meaningful change. And yet, quietly hopeful since the Yes Equality vote that maybe real change for women is possible.
There has also been the inevitable backlash from some quarters – fairly quiet, but inevitable. Regarding the Abbey, I’ve seen a few comments on social media along the lines of ‘Maybe women haven’t been submitting plays to the Abbey theatre and that’s why they haven’t been chosen’. Yes – well, maybe. But the way to dispel that train of thought is to get the figures on submissions from the Abbey Theatre itself. I’m fairly confident that is not the issue however, as the Abbey itself has acknowledged potential unconscious bias in its selection. Also, if that were the case, there would need to be questions asked as to (a) why was this lack not identified and (b) what are the impediments to women writing and the solutions i.e. a room of one’s own, childcare etc. We also have to recognise that opinions and preferences are formed, by and large, by our life experiences; and no one person’s, or group of people’s opinion is infallible. We only have to look at the history of the Abbey Theatre (as an example – the theatre is far from the only institution to reject great works) to see that is the case: the rejection of ‘The Silver Tassie’ by O’Casey, several early works by John B Keane, and also of the modern Synge himself, Martin McDonagh.
Women are hamstrung in the world of film, theatre and TV, more than our male counterparts. That’s a worldwide issue, not just an Irish one. And it happens to women across the spectrum. Reese Witherspoon made a valid point when she joked to Amy Schumer this week that she, at age 39, would probably now only be able (in the prevailing patriarchal ‘wisdom’ of Hollywood) to play Schumer’s grandmother, and Schumer would have to play her own mother in a biopic of Schumer’s life. Ageism and sexism mainly has an adverse effect on women, to the detriment of fulsome storytelling in society. In a way, when we look at the gender bias in parliaments and board rooms worldwide, this is not surprising. In Dáil Éireann, the Irish parliament, women make up 20.5% of the total TDs (MPs). That’s an increase last year, by the way, and was seen as a ‘record high’. In a patriarchal society, the dominance of the stories of one gender takes precedence over the other, and that is down to a number of factors – social status, economic status, power prerogative – which all have their roots in inequality. One of the more imaginative campaigns that is challenging that narrative is that of my namesake, Gráinne Maguire, who has taken to live-tweeting the Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, her menstrual cycle. A light-hearted approach to a serious issue, she makes an important point: Irish women are such second-class citizens in our own country that our bodies are not our own and our voices and stories go unheard.
Maybe it is the case that women have to be more vociferous in the telling of our stories. There are economic factors that sometimes mitigate against that however, one of the biggest being economic. When you are living a life, trying to put food on the table, be you married or single, it is made more challenging by the fact that women work the best part of two months of the year for free. As Laura Luchador tweeted to @EverydaySexism this week: “If I had a pound for everytime I was told I didn’t need feminism I’d have 85p each time”. There’s childcare. There’s trying to operate in a man’s world with female biology. As Oona King recounted, she was expected to do her job despite suffering monthly with endometriosis, to the extent of collapsing on the House of Commons floor and being stretchered out on an ambulance. I sometimes wonder whether there would be a sea-change in Irish men’s opinions on female equality in Irish society if they sat down with their mothers and had a frank discussion about the challenges in her life: maybe the men who sexually harassed her, even in casual instances of everyday sexism; the expectations placed on sexual self-restraint and the real consequences in the era of the Magdalen laundries should she fall short of that; the fact that she could not legally buy contraception and had to give up her job up till the 1970s if she married. Maybe we could start an #AsktheMammy campaign. I’m sure it would be an eye-opener for some men into the world of women.
And here’s the crux of this issue: women are usually well-versed in the ways of men, because we live in a world dominated by their systems and stories, whereas the reverse is rarely true. So this latest chapter in the history of the Abbey Theatre is of paramount importance not only on an artistic level, but on a national, and potentially, because of the history of great writers in the English language our country has produced, on an international level also. To be fair to a lot of men out there, they are keen to know more. I’ve been inspired and grateful for their support and interest and their stories of the great women who’ve inspired and helped them in their lives and careers. To be fair to the Abbey, they are engaging and hosting this discussion today and that is a very positive step in the right direction. But with a mere 10% of the female experience originally proposed for such a seminal centenary by the theatre that had as one of its founders the playwright Lady Gregory – well, there’s a lot of discussion and constructive action to be had. I’m looking forward to it.