Tag Archives: wakingthefeminists

The weakness of supremacy

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‘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:

  1. Power and status was roundly abused by priests and nuns, the self-proclaimed representatives of Christ on earth.
  2. 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.
  3. The feminist rebels of 1916 and the promise of gender equality for which they fought were roundly dismissed.
  4. In order for these places of slavery to have flourished, there had to have been collusion from the general public.
  5. 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.

 

 

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Fail Better

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I have David Cameron to thank for this post. No, really – I have.

This morning I awoke at 4.44am after a dream whereby I was serving David Cameron at a Westminster function. My attitude to him was servile, obsequious; he was, as I imagine him to be, loud, bombastic, patronising. Every fibre of my being in the dream hated having to smile and bow and scrape; but smile and bow and scrape I did, in survival instinct mode. And then I woke up.

My first thoughts, in the early morning hours, was that must have been the feeling that, prior to 1916, many Irish people felt towards their English lords and masters. That unsettled feeling of being treated like a second-class citizen – and in one’s own land. The many slings and arrows of imperialist patronising remarks about the ‘savage Irish’. People who are happy with their lot do not lead rebellions, and the bravery of those men and women who cleaved themselves to the ideals of the 1916 Proclamation is but something which this generation can only imagine. Or is it?

Based in London, I’ve been following with interest the various and varied opinions on the commemorations for 1916. Clearly, there’s a section of society that sees it as something to celebrate unreservedly. And in a way, they are right. There’s another section who sees all the failures: the side-lining of women, the subsequent subservience of the Free State to another imperialist power, the Church and its Holy Empire, the enslavement and abuse of women and children, the gombeen politics – the list could go on. And in a way, they are also right. Here’s where I stand.

I grew up in the Ireland of the late 70s/80s. Being of Russian/Ukrainian/American/Irish and God knows what else parentage, I’ve felt connected to Ireland, though not of her. My presiding memories of those days is darkness and gloom. There always felt there was something not quite humane, not quite ‘Irish’ about the stranglehold the Church had over every aspect of society. People’s absolute, unerring, unwavering belief in the teachings of the Church both fascinated and frightened me simultaneously. In retrospect, and to a certain felt extent at the time, it was clear that Ireland had simply exchanged one imperial master for another – and one that was arguably more far-reaching and cruel. It’s one thing to impose oppressive laws of the realm over people; it’s far more insidious when oppressive laws are imposed on the human spirit.

Probably the biggest betrayal of the ideals of 1916 is the way that women have been treated in Ireland, like another second-class caste altogether. The sidelining of women in the life politic not long after the Civil War. The Magdalen Laundries. The fear that every Irish woman of a certain generation must have lived with of being incarcerated in one of these laundries, from any or all crimes ranging from being too pretty and a ‘temptation’ to unmarried pregnancies. Unequal pay and working rights up to the 1970s. The dominion that the State still holds over women’s bodies via the, quite frankly, archaic laws on abortion.

But maybe the biggest lesson that is most obvious to me is that, over the last 100 years – where the State has failed, it has been a failure of our own making. We can claim, to a certain extent, post-colonial trauma; but ultimately, our failures have been our own. We voted in the corrupt politicians, election after election, which led to an unsustainable Tiger economy and its inevitable crash. There are many in Ireland who gave into the venality of that period, based on the shakiest of foundations, and over-invested in property, like characters out of a John B Keane play. There was fear, the type of fear that a post-colonial economy exudes, the grasping for affirmation that we were as good as the rest of the world and could stand as equals. We learned that we couldn’t compete in that way or at that level.

But the good news that I see for Ireland is that we don’t have to. As someone who emigrated to the UK in the late 1990s, I hated coming back to Celtic Tiger Ireland where it seemed as if all people talked about was the latest property they’d invested in, their flash cars, the latest designer label they’d acquired. What has happened to many people since the crash is terrible, and they must be helped, and issues like poverty and homelessness must be addressed.

However, it seems to me that since the crash that the real riches of Irish society are returning. The creativity that has always been a hallmark. That ability to connect with each other on a more profound level. The ability to express ourselves through words, ideas that have not only shaped us, but the world. The spirit of rebellion in many of the protest groups that have sprung up: the water protests, the #WakingtheFeminists movement, Speaking of Imelda. What better way to celebrate rebellion than to engage with and support protest?

The biggest turning point for me however, and a key indicator of something quite unprecedented happening in Irish society was the ‘Yes Equality’ vote. I came home that weekend for my niece’s communion. I was struck equally by the joyousness and change that came about not only through the LGBT community, but also through the recently departed emigrants who returned en masse, with all they had seen and learned abroad, wanting, by their presence, to be part of a more equal and pluralistic Ireland; and by the greatly reduced numbers at the Mass the next day where the Church we attended was only a fifth full. I remember the packed Masses of Ireland of 30 years ago. This was something quite new, the passing of the old, the embracing of a brave new world with brave new ideals.

So on this very special Easter weekend, my stand on the 1916 commemorations is this: Let’s acknowledge the mistakes of the past, learn from them, and let them go. Let’s use our failures as stepping stones to achieve the ideals of the 1916 Proclamation: to ensure the “guarantee of  religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities of all its citizens…”, and renew our “…resolve to pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation and of all its parts, cherishing all the children of the nation equally”. These are lofty and noble ambitions. Like most ideals, they are difficult to attain, and, given our history, it’s also entirely possible that we did our best with the behaviours learned at the time, and it’s entirely possible that we can achieve these ideals, if there is but the will. In the words of one of our great scribes, Samuel Beckett “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better”.  Beannachtaí na Cásca oraibh go léir.

 

 

 

 

The Awakening

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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.

#WakingtheFeminists #WakingtheNation

A nation once again?

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Last year I did some ADR on a little film called ‘Brooklyn’. The book, by Colm Toibín, is one I’ve had a sort of tenuous relationship with – a couple of years ago, I narrated it for the RNIB, and was delighted to be involved, even in a small way, with the movie. The book itself is wonderful, delicate and as one would expect of a master like Toibín, extremely well-told. Even from the brief recording session, it was clearly a beautifully crafted film, telling a story that has been familiar to many Irish people, myself included, of the homesickness of being an Irish immigrant in spite of always having dreamt of leaving the motherland.  There is a romance attached to this sense of Irishness and being Irish abroad which neatly fits into universal sensibilities and the perception by others about what it means to be Irish. And this is a notion that is somewhat based in a truth, and which we have fostered and encouraged, to a certain extent.

But there is another narrative that is no less true, though less often told. This week was the week that it became blatantly apparent that Irish women’s voices were being silenced at our national theatre, which is a microcosm example of what has happened to Irish women over the last 100 years. It brought me back to something that happened to me a few years back. I was in hospital visiting an elderly female relative. She was in a frail and very vulnerable state and began crying as she recounted that she perhaps could have done more to help Magdalen girls she had come across. The sheer sense of terror however at the thoughts of going up against the powers-that-be (the Church, the State) was palpable, and it made me think about what it meant to be a young girl or young woman in 1950s/60s Ireland: the knowledge that if you gave into natural sexual desires, were raped or were too pretty, that you ran the risk of being incarcerated. Given what was known to happen, it’s hard to blame those who did not stand up and be counted.

Ireland’s treatment of its women is something that has not been scrutinised, because by and large in society in and out of Ireland, women’s stories are not seen as important enough. Out of the activists involved in fighting for a free state, the names of Maud Gonne (through association with Yeats) and Countess Markievicz may be known – but who knows the names of Hanna Sheehy Skeffington, Mary Galway, Margaret Cousins, Louie Bennett, Kathleen Lynn, Rosamund Jacob and Helena Molony beyond a few interested scholars? They certainly don’t rank in recognition in the same way that Pearse, De Valera, Collins, Connolly, Clarke, MacDermott, Plunkett and MacDonagh do. I don’t even have to use their first names for them to be instantly recognisable to anyone who went through the Irish school system. Sure, most of these lost their lives and that forms part of their remembrance; but the women aforementioned are important figures of their time, and yet sidelined historically.

Toibín’s Eliís, or the late Maureen O’Hara’s Mary Kate Danaher is how Ireland prefers to view its women: feisty, quirky, sanitised for Hollywood consumption. In a way, it is an aspect of Irish womanhood, but not the sum totality. There are also the women who effectively were state-sponsored slaves in the Magdalen laundries; the 12 women a day who travel to the UK to get abortions because somehow their reproductive organs are a matter of national danger and concern. Miss X. Miss Y. Salvia Halapannavar. The clinically dead pregnant woman kept alive last year for over 17 weeks, despite her parents’ wishes. Not to mention the women and children directly abused by the Church, protected by the State. It’s not necessarily been the best 100 years for the women of Ireland and this is not something we can blame on our oppressors as a nation, because these crimes and the attempts at silencing these voices are something that the ‘free’ state of Ireland has done to itself.

The job of any national theatre is to tell the stories of the whole nation, not just those of an overprivileged male cosmopolitan elite. Having read through the official line from the Abbey via its artistic director, I don’t buy that none of the works by female writers were up to par – that comes across as sexist prevaricating. However, if it is the case (and of course that will be hard to judge until the season planned is upon us, and the audience and critics judge the relative merits of that position) then serious questions must be asked of the management of the Abbey Theatre as to why this was allowed to happen. It is not as if they did not know the significance of the centenary in 2016, and that it crept up on them unawares, and could not plan accordingly, surely to be representative of the nation as a whole? And the Abbey is funded largely by public funding, so any under-representation, especially of half the population, should be grounds for public enquiry and concern.

Having been in Ireland the weekend of the Yes Equality vote, I felt it was a turning point in our history, and one that could prove of huge benefit in the campaign to repeal the 8th. What has transpired with the Abbey under Fiach Mac Conghail indicates there is much work to be done before Irish women are seen as equal citizens in our own country. As well as the celebrations that will occur to mark 1916, we also need to be brave enough to face the mistakes of the last 100 years and that dark history. Because until that happens, we will remain in a colonised state. Irishwomen were instrumental in the formation of the Free State – the 1916 proclamation directly acknowledges that. The best way of eulogising those who fought for our freedom would be to honour that. In that sense, it is not just the feminists who need to wake up. To be a nation once again, with the responsibility, the accountability and maturity that involves, every Irish citizen needs to.