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.