Last weekend I was lucky enough to get a sneak preview of the new Ingenious Ireland walking tour. A specially commissioned tour to mark International Women’s Day and the opening of the new Rosie Hackett bridge across the Liffey, Obstreperous Lassies tells the story of just some of the incredible women who came to prominence in the period between 1913 and 1916 here in Ireland.
Now being an unrepentant liberal lefty feminist type the mere idea of the tour was enough to make me smile. I can’t think of a better way to spend an hour or so on a sunny morning but traipsing around Dublin hearing about women who refused to sit down and shut up, who refused to do what was expected on them and who refused to accept the status quo. It was wonderful to hear about Maud Gonne as the woman who had championed free school meals rather than the aloof romantic figure who used to make W.B. Yeats dissolve into sighs every time she wafted past him. Or Ann Jellico, the Quaker mill owner’s daughter who decided that women needed skills to earn themselves a living and set up schools to teach them. Or Kathleen Lynn, often known as “the rebel doctor”, who helped to set up St Ultan’s clinic on Charleville Street and was instrumental in the introduction of the BCG vaccine. The tour is a wonderful catalogue of women judges and politicians, doctors and fighters, women who were suffragists and pacifists and who played their part in the formation of this country.
After the first hour of being pleasantly inspired though something else started to nag at me. While many of the names I was hearing were familiar, it was striking how many of the details weren’t. I was used to hearing the names as footnotes in the sacred history of the land, women who had stood bravely beside fighting men but were largely remembered as the helpmeets, there to tend the sick and take down a note of history as it passed. The honourable exception of course is Constance Markievicz, but that’s a whole other kettle of fish that I’ll get to in a moment. The point that kept coming home during the tour was that the stories of these women, who were all formidable, magnificent, inspiring examples of their sex, the kind of stories I used to latch onto with fangirl adoration as a teenager, much of that stuff was absolute news to me. It felt almost shockingly fresh to be looking at historical events from a woman’s perspective. It was only by focusing on that angle that you realise how unusual it is to hear.
As a child in the 70s and 80s I knew I was lucky to be born into a time when as a girl I no longer had to fight for my education. Growing up in a middle class area I was expected to go on to university, I was expected to have the freedom to follow whatever career path I chose. It never occurred to me that as a girl I was any less able than a boy. I knew women had already fought for the right to vote, the right to an education, the right to own property and to not pass into the ownership of the man they married. I saw all of these as battles that had been won, as rights I now had. Like any child I couldn’t see limitations until they appeared right in front of me. Back then it never occurred to me that the world was anything but equal. I wasn’t short of role models. I saw strong women all around me, in my family, in popular culture and in the books I read. It wasn’t until much later that I began to see that the world was a far from equal place. That’s when you really need your heroines.
The one thing that I really remember about my stint doing the @ireland Twitter account last year was a conversation that took place on my last day. That week there had been a lot of media coverage of the suffragettes. It was the centenary of the death of suffragette Emily Wilding Davison and all the columnists were in a retrospective mood. At the end of a conversation about the various memorials to the suffragettes in the UK I had asked the 15,000 or so followers of the @ireland account to recommend similar Irish memorials to inspirational women down through the years. Several hours later we were still struggling to come up with anyone who wasn’t Constance Markievicz. And that’s my problem with the good countess. While she was undoubtedly a formidable force to be reckoned with and surely a fine role model for any trailblazing young Irish woman (or any other woman – or man for that matter – she really was a hell of a woman), it does appear that Constance has been venerated to the exclusion of almost all other women. When you look at the number of women who have been equally extraordinary and who have been all but wiped out of the history books it almost smacks of tokenism.
It’s taken until 2013 to have a bridge named after a woman. Calls to rename Merrion Square after Oscar Wilde’s extraordinary mother have fallen on deaf ears. Apart from Constance Markievicz there are very few memorials to prominent women in Dublin or anywhere else in Ireland. If you go by public monuments Ireland is a country that was built and maintained purely by men. That’s the thing that get’s me more than anything else with all of this – because Irish women are and have always been ballbreakingly strong. From the Celtic archetypes of the Morrigan or Queen Meabh, to the pirate queen Grace O’Malley who faced down Elizabeth 1, to any of the women who fought for Irish freedom right through to the indomitable Irish Mammy there’s no shortage of Irish heroines – many of whom were actually real people and aren’t simply mythological constructs.
In a world where inequality is rife, where violence against women is endemic, it might seem superficial to talk about statues and wallplaques but it’s all part of the same thing. Public statues are things we walk past on a daily basis, they are part of the fabric of our lives. We might ignore them most of the time but one day we’ll probably ask their story. Their mere existence tells us that there is a story to be told. Women’s history so often slips by, it’s harder find their stories because for so long they didn’t have a voice, they weren’t in a position to make a difference. So when they were we should celebrate them all the more. So to get the ball rolling I’d like to propose a statue Winifred Carney in the GPO. She was there with James Connolly during the 1916 Rising, known as the typist with the Webley. I could see her as a little figure with a typewriter standing in the main hall on the edge of the crowds. They’d bump into her as they queued, especially at Christmas. People would stub their toe against her, apologise absently as they brushed past. They’d ignore her most of the time but every now and then someone would look to see who she was. It doesn’t have to be Winifred Carney, I just like the idea of the statue.
I’m fed up of feeling that jolt of surprise when I hear a woman hosting primetime radio, or when a walking tour for International Women’s Day feels like a novelty, or feeling that it’s something to be applauded when a bridge or a banknote bears a woman’s name or a woman’s face. This stuff shouldn’t matter. I’m fed up of feeling I should be happy that a woman is being represented regardless of whether I have a reason to applaud their achievement. This isn’t a big, earth shaking change though it’s a canary in a coalmine issue. When it’s no big deal if a woman is on the bank notes or even when there are complaints because all the bridges are named after women, or all the voices on prime time are female or all the banknotes have women on them then we’ll have actually got some kind of equality. At the moment that still feels like science fiction and it’s utterly wrong that it should feel that way.
Happy International Women’s Day.