‘Until we are all free, we are none of us free.’
This quote by Emma Lazarus came to me tonight, after watching an utterly devastating clip on YouTube about the Tuam babies . Those of you who read my blog will probably be aware of my feelings about the Catholic Church in Ireland – a vile, patriarchal, inherently corrupt and venal institution which should never have gained the place that it did (and among people of a certain age and mentality, still does). But an institution in itself does not have the power to wield authority – and what is becoming clearer, with the uncovering of each scandal, is this:
- Power and status was roundly abused by priests and nuns, the self-proclaimed representatives of Christ on earth.
- They were aided in this by the State, and, it seems, both profited by the incarceration and slavery of women and children for over 200 years.
- The feminist rebels of 1916 and the promise of gender equality for which they fought were roundly dismissed.
- In order for these places of slavery to have flourished, there had to have been collusion from the general public.
- In line with all patriarchies everywhere, and all countries dominated by religion, there was an unhealthy obsession and stereotyping of women into either Madonna or whore categories.
The first point is self-evident. It doesn’t need me to point out the sexual and physical abuse of women and children – this has been well-documented. The second point is perhaps less well-discussed, but a point that niggles at me on this score is: who profited? Because all that money made from slave labour, the selling of children to wealthy Americans etc, had to have made somebody (or somebodies) rich. Yes, the State is compensating these women. Notably the Church has yet to do this. One wonders, in austerity-stricken Ireland, what deals have been struck behind closed doors that the direct perpetrators of these crimes have virtually, bar receding power and reputation, gotten off scot-free.
What interests me most are points 3-5, because all of them have one thing in common: Patriarchy. This is not necessarily particular to Ireland, though Ireland serves as a relatively recent example of the betrayal of the promise of gender equality, and how, when women have served their purpose in fighting on the frontlines, they are pushed to being a footnote in history.
Men I’ve spoken to about this have normally come back with ‘But the nuns were just as bad’. Yes – behaviour-wise, they almost were (though there doesn’t seem to have been the widespread rape of children that was a feature of their male counterparts). But they were also operating under a system devised by men, for men. For a lone woman to go up against that could be fatal. We saw that all too clearly with the Gay Byrne interview with Annie Murphy, where she was cast as the evil seductress bent on taking down a poor fallen man of God. From my own conversations with an elderly relative, who was a young woman in the 1950s, people knew what was going on – but as young girls/women, they were terrified to speak up for fear of being sent to the laundries themselves.
So let’s take this argument back to where it should lie: at the feet of men. At the feet of the men to whom female sexuality was and is an affront, something to be controlled, not encouraged. At the feet of politicians and the priesthood, who wielded the bulk of power and privilege. At the feet of fathers, brothers, male relatives who saw their daughters and female siblings as less than equal, deserving of slavery.
And this is an argument that still dogs the Irish psyche. We can afford marriage equality to all (marriage essentially being a conservative, approved institution, and Ireland being a conservative society at heart), but we cannot yet afford women equality. Either in the workplace, in the public spaces (which is what #WakingtheFeminists was about – the irony of women having to fight to be heard in a space which was championed by Countess Markievicz!), or, most humiliating of all, over their own bodies.
I would have more tolerance for the pro-life brigade if, in the interests of absolute consistency, they condemned every male masturbatory act as an act of murder and picketed every man’s bedroom and sperm donor clinic. To paraphrase Monty Python, by the argument the pro-lifers make, why isn’t every sperm sacred? Again, there will be those who say (rightly) that there are prominent female ‘pro-lifers’ who also, in the mode of Kelly-Anne Conway, see themselves as both ‘pro-life’ and an ‘individual feminist’. Ladies: there is no such thing. You can be one, but not both. Because your brand of ‘individualistic feminism’ takes away choice from other women – and that’s not feminism, that’s patriarchal brainwashing, and pandering to male fears about losing their supremacy in the world. In Ireland, to realise the Proclamation in full, it is absolutely vital that the 8th Amendment is repealed. Worldwide, (and again, it’s interesting to note that this backlash against women’s rights is not just confined to Ireland, but worldwide) it is vital that women’s reproductive options are defended against a worldwide resurgence of male supremacy.
The issue of supremacy is an interesting one. Here are my thoughts on it – be it along race or gender lines. Supremacy is weakness. It is weakness because it explicitly needs structures in place to give its beneficiaries an unfair advantage over another group. And we have reached a tipping point where, as women fighting to maintain rights hard-won, and move towards a more equal world (which benefits everyone), we don’t want to do it alone. We can – that has what the last 100 years of suffrage has been about – but in order to make real steps forward, it requires men to yield the supremacy in power and privilege that has rendered our world weaker. So this International Women’s Day, it is up to men not only to notice what life would be like without women, but also how much better it might feel to not rely on an unfair advantage. I wonder if men as a group are that fair-minded – history and evidence would point to the contrary. Yet I remain hopeful.