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Tag: International Women’s Day

For International Women’s Day 2015

I have a badge on the bag I carry around every day. It’s brightly coloured enamel flowers growing up through a large number 8 on a yellow metal background. I’m not sure exactly where the badge is from or when but I know what it stands for. It was made somewhere in the Soviet empire to celebrate International Women’s Day on March 8. They were big on badges, the Soviets, and big on causes. I carry it with me not because I agree with everything they stood for but because I think this is one cause that should have a badge. Actually, sod it, it should have a badge and a desert named after it and small children should go to school in costume for it, dressed as their favourite woman like they do for World Book Day. I’d  like to see International Women’s Day as loud and as festive as St Patrick’s Day or Gay Pride – because maybe then things will change, maybe then in a few years we wouldn’t need it any more.

Now I know that, if you’re reading this and you don’t already see why there should be a day dedicated to just one of the sexes, then you probably think there’s already too many women bleating about how hard they have it. They never shut up and they certainly don’t deserve a desert, or even a badge. You may think that the newspapers are already full of the feminist agenda, those pinko liberal rags never stop banging on that particularly over wrought drum. You probably think that I should shut up because I’m a middle class white woman and we already have far more than we should have – what about the men? I should check my privilege and shut up.

If you haven’t already worked it out from those first two paragraphs I’m not in the mood to use sweet persuasion. This year I’m more angry than celebratory. I’m fed up with still talking about this. Yes I was lucky to be born when and where I was but my generation were promised the sun, moon and stars. We were told anything was possible. We were told a battle had been won. And yet we’re still having this conversation.

Researching 19th Century Ireland I’ve come across so many extraordinary women. Not powerful women. The women I am looking at would not be accepted in the grand drawing rooms of the Ascendency. These are the fallen women, those hanging on by their fingernails. They aren’t the nicest people and they aren’t the most charming, but time and time again I’m astonished at their strength and resourcefulness. There’s the wife who was working out how to leave her abusive husband – despite the fact she was living in a time when that would mean walking away from all security and very possibly all respectability. Or there’s the single mother who forced the authorities to provide for her and her children – and the education of her daughters. There’s the prostitute who stood up in court against the man who hit her and spoke so calmly about the realities of her life that the court listened to her in respectful silence. I deal mainly deal with the period between 1830 and 1860 so these women were very much acting without a safety net. The law still had to change in their favour and it would be a very long time before it would change in a way that they would be able to feel.

The harshness of the world they lived in can be shocking but it was the reality of the time. From where I stand, with all my freedoms and protections, context is important. I must maintain a distance from these women – things did change and we have come a long way. I look at them from behind a glass wall, knowing things to be different for me – and that’s how it should be. But I cannot have the same distance when looking at women today who are fighting those same battles. There is no glass wall between me and them. There are no excuses. I am well aware of how easy I may have it, despite there still being a way to go, but how can any of us stop fighting when the world is still as hostile as it is to the female sex.

Take the story of Jyoti Singh, told so brilliantly and harshly in the documentary India’s Daughter. Apart from telling the horrific story of newly graduated doctor Jyoti, who had gone to see a film with a male friend and ended up gang raped and murdered the documentary also looked at the problem in misogyny that is deeply embedded in Indian culture. The rapists came from one of the slums, or semi-slums of Delhi. They had a fairly miserable existence, amounting to nothing, no prospects, no worth – yet they thought that they were superior to Dr Singh. That they could do what they wanted to her. The film was unflinching in it’s description of the rape – and of the widespread grotesque misogyny that seems to infect India. One of the rapists’ defence attorneys was shown saying that if his own daughter dishonoured his family by being raped he himself would burn her alive. We live in a world were women are burned alive or have acid thrown at them to satisfy some warped idea of honour. Where women cannot walk safely after dark. We have come such a long way.

Or take Immaculate Shamalla, a formidable activist, counsellor and women’s educator who deals with misogyny I can’t imagine daily in her work in the West Pokot region of Kenya. Imma works with the victims of rape, of female genital mutilation, of child abuse and she teaches, educating women to give them a voice. I’m in awe of the work Imma has done and is doing for women and children in her region. Her IWD speech, to be delivered in Cheragany Hills as part of the Kenyan government’s celebrations says it all. What follows are her words:

“What would you do if you were told could not vote? Own land? Get a proper education? Would you be upset, furious, frustrated or annoyed? That is how most women felt when they heard this. Do you want that to happen to you and maybe even your daughter? For many years women have been trying to claim their rights while men have many privileges that women do not have. Many countries deny putting women’s rights into action.”

“Everyone is entitled to have freedom – especially women. Women’s rights let women be independent and treated fairly. Some of the most common rights they fight for are the right to vote, equal pay, owning land and getting an education. These types of problems usually occur in Kitale – but there is a ray of hope. Over the years I see more people respecting women’s rights. And therefore during this International Women’s Day I want to re-emphasis that we women are human beings, we are smart, we are equally important in this world and we rebuke in the strongest terms all the violations we suffer – rape, deliberate infection of HIV, disinheritance , undermined, underrepresented in policy positions. We ask the government to adhere to the one third gender rule, and we still feel the one third gender rule is not enough, we want clean hospitals we can give birth in, we want access to anti-retroviral drugs, education, job opportunities, access to information on our rights. Today I join other women in demanding equality in access and opportunities, I hope that today will remind the government that we exist – and will not settle for less. “

So I will argue that International Women’s Day should be shouted from the rooftops. We should have parades and themed deserts and badges and fancy dress. Because we are all in this together and the battle is far from over. And I for one will be here every year until I can say different. I hope that happens in my life time.

In Search of Heroines

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.

In Praise of Women

 

Photo property of Abigail Rieley all rights reserved

When I was a child I never doubted I could fly. I never saw any reason why I couldn’t rule the world one day. I could be a doctor, or a spaceman, or a time traveller. I could be a famous artist or an explorer or have my very own book shop. I never saw being a girl as a help or a hindrance, it was just the thing that occasionally meant I had to wear rather uncomfortable woollen tights. When I was a child I was surrounded by women, women who showed me a world that was waiting to be discovered, women who were the best role models I could ever ask for, women who made me the woman I am today.

After my dad died it was just me and my mum. Despite her own loss my mum was the heart of my childhood. It was she who taught me to love books and music  and who, when she discovered the contraband lipgloss and black eyeliner hidden in my schoolbag, sat me down with a drawer full of makeup with names like Biba and Miners and taught me how to apply it like a pro. My mum was the one who, when I was in the school production of Hiawatha she stayed up all night stitching together scraps of leather to make a costume on a budget. My mum taught me how to make an entrance. She taught me how to be strong in a crisis. She taught me how to create magic out of nothing. I knew she wasn’t happy when I was a child but I knew that she would always be there when I needed her.

My mum was strong but I don’t think she could have coped without the friends and family who surrounded us in those early years. I remember Alison, who’s lifting me up in the picture that accompanies this piece, who came to help after my father’s death and stayed for my early years. Alison was one of the first people I talked to about writing and was the person who told me, after I joined Mensa to vanquish an ex boyfriend’s taunts, that I didn’t have to prove myself in the face of other people’s insecurity.

There was Dee, my mum’s cousin, who was always her rock. Dee was a second mother. I remember having my tea at her house while a malevolent tortoiseshell cat eyed me from the top of a cupboard. Dee taught me not to be afraid. She taught me to face things head on and not to be afraid of speaking up. Her house was always full of life and noise, so different from our solitary quiet. She brought calm practicality into our sometimes chaotic existence and a normality that couldn’t be washed away by moments of panic.

There was Branny, my mum’s best friend, who told me,when I needed to hear it, that my mum was human. Sitting up the night before my audition for the drama school I didn’t really want to go to we sipped tea laced with left over Christmas brandy and I laughed myself some perspective over stories of my mum’s less edifying exploits. Branny confirmed that my mum and I were very different people and much as I loved her I would never be her. Drama school was the dream she had attained. My dreams were somewhere else.

There was Anna my godmother. An actress and broadcaster, she would fly in from visiting  the flat she kept in Paris with fresh-baked croissants and lie in our garden soaking up the paler English rays of sun to top up her French tan. Anna was always impossibly glamorous but still ours. I grew up wanting to have a flat in Paris, to work for the BBC. I grew up wanting her independence and freedom.

When I was about eight my Gran came to live with us. Like her daughter, my grandmother could be an impossible woman but she had the trait that a great many women seem to have in my family – bloody mindedness. When my Gran broke her back in her 60s the doctors told her she would never walk again. She proved them wrong. She would never break any speed records but when she lived with us a year or two later, if the bus was late she would walk home. My Gran told me stories about her life. How she had run a record shop and a hair salon. How she had been offered a scholarship to the Slade school of Art on the recommendation of her art teacher Archibald Knox. My Gran still said her Us the old fashioned way with a hidden i and taught me phrases like “too, too bay window” and “all fur coat and no knickers” – goodness knows what kind of conversations we were having!

Then there was my aunt, my wonderful extraordinary aunt Jill. Jill has always been there for people. She’s been a teacher, a social worker, a missionary and a vicar. My earliest memories of Jill are of her warmth and her quick affection. I’ve always been a little in awe of her but Jill was particularly amazing when my mum died. She made family seem immediate again instead of distant.

These are just a handful of the women who shaped me into the  woman I am today. There are many, many more.  I count myself fortunate to have been surrounded most of my life by a multitude of wise, funny, generous, warm, wonderful women who have enriched my life and given it colour. In previous years I’ve marked International Women’s Day by writing about how much further there is to go. I’ve talked about violence against women, about the pitiful sentences for rapes, but this year I want to celebrate. I want to raise a glass to extraordinary women in my life, in yours, everywhere.

As I sit at my computer and type this post I’m looking into the faces of three more extraordinary women, subjects of my current book. I’ve been privileged to look into their lives, lived so long ago, and get to know their strength. I wouldn’t have found them, might not have listened, if I hadn’t been taught to look.  I stand here at this point in my life because of all the women who’ve known and shaped me. Thank you ladies! Here’s to you!

A few thoughts on International Women’s Day

I’ve been spending most of my time recently lost in the past. At the moment I’m researching crimes from so far back they’re in another world.  If you were accused of a crime back then there was no chance of a retrial and if you were convicted of murder then your fate dangled at the end of a rope, a ghoulish spectacle for day trippers.

Life was brutal, shorter, bleaker.  Cholera and typhoid swept Britain and Ireland and infant mortality was high.  I’m looking at a time when there was no such thing as universal suffrage, to vote in an election you had to have land, and be a man.  Women belonged to their husbands, on the day of their marriage everything they owned passed to him, they could not divorce their husbands if he was unfaithful and on divorce they could lose even the right to their own children.

It’s like looking into another world.  Now we can take for granted the right to vote and the position of the mother, given special protection in Article 41.2, is seen as so inalienable it can be to the detriment of the rights of the father.  In a few short generations, women’s lives have changed utterly.  We have more freedom, more of a voice, more opportunities than our grandmothers did, and even many more than our mothers’ generation.

But while there’s been incredible progress, the world we live in still has a very long way to go before there is true equality for the sexes.  I work in a job where most of my colleagues are women but only to a certain level.  Apart from one or two notable exceptions, the majority of judges in the courts, or editors in the newspapers are men.  Most of the senior barristers are men and most of the senior gardai are men.  It’s changing, of course, but for a large chunk of the rest of my working life that’s the way it’s going to be.

85% of the politicians who pass the laws that govern what goes on in the courts are men, which might possibly have something to do with the fact that sentences for sexual crimes are so pathetically low.  Domestic abuse is still rife and women still die all too often at the hands of their partners.  I still spend most of my time writing about this violence against women as it takes up so much of the courts’ time.

But this is the First World, the civilised bit.  The inequalities I see around me are miniscule compared with those that women have to face in other parts of the globe.  We’ve come a long way in a hundred years or so, but there’s a hell of a long way still to go.  There are plenty of places on earth where women would recognise the strange world I’m finding in my research as pretty close to their own reality.

Yet I meet so many young women who see feminism as a dirty word and would be embarrassed to apply it to themselves.  They see the race as won, the fight as fought, and simply accept the status quo as something that can’t be changed.  For a long time I was more reticent about saying what I thought, not wanting to appear strident, or even, god forbid, unattractive.  I’ve laughed along with sexist jokes for fear of being branded a kill joy.  I’ve fluttered my eyelashes and bitten my tongue, pretending to be one of the lads.  Don’t get me wrong, I’ve not got a problem with men.  This has nothing to do with which gender is better, it’s about equality.  And it’s important to say it.

It would be nice to live in a world where feminism was no longer necessary, where everyone played to their strengths and not their stereotypes.  It would be nice if everyone judged everyone else according to who they actually were, not what they seemed to be.  But that’s the foreign country and far more distant than my world of hangings, cholera and bridal chattels.  That’s why International Women’s Day is still important a hundred years after it was started and why I’ll keep banging on about rape sentencing and women who die at the hands of the men who claim to love them.

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