It’s vital to remember that our current trailblazers stand on the shoulders of the many women who fought at the coalface of sexual inequality, writes Lindsey Earner Byrne.
I love International Women’s Day —why wouldn’t I? I am a woman with two daughters and it’s a day to
honour us. It is also a chance to talk to them about the world, how to live in it as a woman, how to stay safe, be proud, and live well (not easy things to balance). It is a chance to tell them how things have changed, largely due to the efforts of other women. To make them aware that the path was not smooth and it is far from fully travelled.
They know about the big battles for the vote and the right to control our fertility, but I’ve also tried to fill them in on the pervasive nature of the discrimination. They were truly horrified when I told them that my grandmother could not open a bank account without her husband’s permission, but he could disinherit her. It is amusing and heartening to find that they simply could not understand why there had been a marriage bar until the 1970s, which meant many, many talented women ended their careers upon marriage. Why, they ask, would anyone want a woman to stop working when she marries or becomes a mother?
Even when the State has been forced to acknowledge the harm that has been done to vulnerable women who were trapped in the Magdalene system, it does everything it can to drag its proverbial feet before fully and properly compensating these women. What did they do to justify incarceration and forced labour? They disobeyed or they did not conform, or perhaps they were simply inconvenient victims of sexual abuse, pregnant when it did not suit or noisy when they should have been quiet. In short, their crimes were being born a woman in the wrong place, at the wrong time, without the financial means to liberate themselves. Their sexuality, the consequences of their sex, raised too many awkward truths about us as a society and we were willing to lock them away — abuse them further — for the cultural peace of mind we got from masquerading as a morally pure country. They were hidden out of sight, so we could look ourselves in the mirror and see what we wanted to see.
We’ll have no birth control here, please.
We’ll have no divorce here, please.
We’ll have no abortion here, please.
And it was not just the women caught in the net of our moral purity who paid; it was every woman who was condemned to face pregnancy after pregnancy, even if her emotional, physical, or financial health could not support it. It was every woman who had to keep a rape to herself or who gave birth and had to bury her baby quietly in a field.
The rape culture we talk about now is what has always underpinned this most sinister, insidious and harmful type of discrimination. It is sinister because it is deliberate and deceitful; it is insidious because it invades all aspects of sexuality and implies at every juncture that all women are to blame; it is harmful because it justifies horrendous abuse. Is there a mother out there today who would believe, if her daughter were raped, she would receive justice in Ireland? Take a look at some of the Rape Crisis Network Ireland reports, they make chilling reading. The 2013 report notes that 91% of victims know their abusers; the perpetrators were either a family member, friend, or neighbour. Less than half of the adult survivors of sexual abuse availing of the Rape Crisis Network’s services have reported the abuse to a formal authority.
The Rape Crisis Network describes itself accurately as an “agent of cultural and societal change” and it works to bring the “focus back to the survivor”. And I thought about International Women’s Day and our tendency to focus on the ‘trailblazers’, the first women to break male barriers in science, medicine, and art. Yes, it is good and important to celebrate these extraordinary women, but in terms of cultural and societal change, is that where the real struggle happens? Is that where the real battles are fought? I was saddened by a recent interview I read with the first female president of an august institution, who declared she was not a feminist and she did not think gender had anything to do with it. So, it took 300 years to hold that office just because no woman worked as hard as you?
In fact, the trailblazers stand on the shoulders of the many, many women who have fought at the coalface of sexual inequality. These women rarely had any social privilege; they were often the most vulnerable of women, who, as with Ann Lovett in 1984 or Miss X in 1992, were sacrificed on the altar of our hypocrisy. It is the survivors of the Magdalene system who speak truth to history now and refuse to go quietly into the index of our tales of glory that we should honour on International Women’s Day. The Lavinia Kerwicks who would not stay silent about her treatment at the hands of the judicial system and whose bravery has made such a difference to every victim of rape that followed her — and sadly they are countless.
So, I need to tell my daughters. I need to refocus the narrative for them, at least, because the story is still unfolding and they will write the next chapter.
Lindsey Earner Byrne is associate professor, School of History, University College Dublin