With no experience of changing the world, they did it anyway

With no experience of changing the world, they did it anyway
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and his partner Matt Barrett meets US vice president Mike Pence and his sister Anne Pence Poynter at Mr Pence’s official residence in Washington DC. Picture: Brian Lawless/PA

They were certainly disagreeing with each other, but that wasn’t why two of the women spoke louder and with more precise diction than the norm in a half-filled railway carriage.

It was just that the third member of the group seemed slightly hard of hearing.

They were disagreeing about someone they all disapproved of and the hard-of-hearing woman seemed to want that person to be completely silenced.

By diligent and skillful eavesdropping, I worked out the one to be gagged, if she had her way, was the senator, Ronan Mullen.

“Well, free speech,” the woman in denim suggested, in a way that distanced her from the senator while standing for his human rights.

“He’s entitled to hold views damaging to gay people but not to promulgate them,” the woman beside her said.

What she didn’t want Mr Mullen promulgating was the view that, as long as it didn’t do the participants any provable damage, conversion therapy was fine.

Conversion therapy being a form of consensual brainwashing aimed at making gay people less gay, or not gay at all. The other two women advanced arguments against censorship.

With no experience of changing the world, they did it anyway

The woman I couldn’t see listened and then reminded them of the soap episode.

Some company towards the end of the 20th century had, she said, planned to manufacture soap in Ireland for export.

Specifically for export to African countries where a demand existed for skin bleaching cosmetics.

“There was outrage,” the woman said. “Not because the soap would do any harm to people who used it, but because it positioned blackness as bad. Same with conversion therapy.

"Apart from being complete tripe, it’s predicated on the assumption that gayness is bad. That it is not natural. That it is something to be cured. It isn’t.”

The trolley with the tea and coffee arrived and they debated the merits of what was on offer. Choices made, the cart rattled on, leaving a lot of sharing of Splenda and a brief diversion into a discussion of bone density problems.

Then Denim Lady looped back to the earlier theme.

“His sexual orientation is absolutely his own business,” she told her companions. “But I can’t help wishing Leo would be less overt about it.”

“Overt?” the other two asked in unison.

With no experience of changing the world, they did it anyway

I’d have joined in their chorus, except that you have no speaking rights in a conversation on which you’re eavesdropping.

“Come on,” the woman invited them. “He didn’t really have to take up Vice President Pence’s invitation to bring his partner to breakfast. After all, he didn’t take his partner to the White House.”

I snuck a sideways glance across the aisle of the train. All three women were in their late 70s or early 80s.

The woman opposite Denim Lady was looking across the table at her as if Denim Lady had suddenly sprung a social disease of astonishing stench.

Obviously, the invisible one on the other side had the same expression, because Denim Lady reminded the two of them how hard and long all three had soldiered to get homosexuality decriminalised and then to bring in equal marriage.

“Not sure you would attribute ‘overtness’ to accepting such invitations if he were straight and married to a woman,” the hard-of-hearing woman said quietly.

Denim Lady surrendered gracefully, saying something about the other woman making a good point and by implication, withdrawing her criticism of the Taoiseach.

They all began to ready themselves for leaving the train at the next station. Unified once more, nobody defeated, lifelong friends pushing each other to be the best of themselves.

Twenty years ago, the American journalist and broadcaster Tom Brokaw published a mega-selling book on the heroic lives of the Americans brought up during the Depression who subsequently either fought in the Second World War or laboured on the home front during that global conflict.

Brokaw called them The Greatest Generation, because of the courage, resilience, and selflessness of their lives and their demonstrated belief in the values for which that war was fought.

These three old women walking along the station platform were, by their own account, part of the equivalent generation in Ireland.

They came along in the 70s, emerging from homes where the man was generally the earner, or, significantly, as was the common parlance, the “provider”.

No matter how happy the marriage, the provider was in charge of matters, right down to and including whether or not the wife could have a library card.

Until a bunch of women, including the three I overheard, decided they were mad as hell and not going to take it any more.

They weren’t going to take the church deciding, through its political puppets, that contraception was only for properly married couples.

They weren’t going to take RTÉ banning female newsreaders on the claim that viewers would be so distracted by her dress they wouldn’t remember the content of the bulletin.

With no experience of changing the world, they did it anyway

They weren’t going to take any more the idea that you had to be the widow or daughter of a dead TD to get elected to the Oireachtas.

They had no precedents, those women, no role models, precious little money, and no experience of changing the world, but they did it anyway.

Gemma Hussey and National Women’s Council members made newsroom sexism look ridiculous.

Mary Cummins, Mary Maher, Nell McCafferty, Mary Kenny, and Janet Martin changed the women’s pages in newspapers.

Nuala O’Faolain and Betty Purcell did the same for radio and TV programming.

Onward and upward they marched, laying siege to one fortress after another so that, today, Ireland as a country where contraception, divorce, equal marriage, rights for children, and abortion are a given.

Those women, that great generation, believed they were on the right side of history and — as evidenced on that train journey — still work hard to keep from regressing.

Except the path onward and upward no longer seems inevitable and obvious.

With no experience of changing the world, they did it anyway

A man who boasts of grabbing women by their private parts is president of the US and stands a good chance of being re-elected.

His vice president, offered insight by Leo Varadkar, doesn’t acknowledge its validity, probably believing that hosting the two lads exemplified Christian forbearance at its best and that if Leo didn’t bite the extended compassionate hand, he gave it a right good nibble.

The Greatest Generation women believed that if you showed opponents the evidence, they would change their view.

Today, we know that if you show climate change deniers or anti-vaxers the evidence disproving their stance, they get more faithful to that stance.

The Greatest Generation women believed empowering one generation of women would make their daughters more confident and happy.

Today, we’re looking at the daughters of empowered women being treated for anxiety and using alcohol as treatment for different kinds of stress.

We’re seeing our nearest neighbour fall out of a union as if its freedoms were threats to nationhood and identity.

Onward and upward is as difficult now as it was in the 1970s. The difficulties morph into different shapes over time.

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