The women at the forefront of feminist activism in modern-day Ireland

Although their participation has often gone undocumented and unacknowledged, Irish women have always been politically active.

Last year’s, commemorations of the 1916 Rising reminded us of their contribution to the fight for Irish freedom, and next year we celebrate the centenary of the first Irish women casting their votes in a general election. 

There are other political imperatives for Irish women next year — the opportunity to vote in a referendum on repealing the Eighth Amendment, and to update the language in the constitution which places Irish women in the home.

Debate and discourse on these issues have created a fruitful and fervent period for feminist activism in Ireland. Globally, feminism has also become a commodity, both culturally and commercially — where women of the Second Wave received their introduction to feminism in a book by Betty Friedan or an article by Gloria Steinem, now younger women are frequently introduced to activism through a Beyoncé video, an Amy Schumer sketch, a blog post or a tweet. All of these are online — on platforms such as YouTube, Netflix, Facebook or Twitter. 

Attendance at women’s groups or meetings are no longer required to call oneself a feminist; owning a smartphone is enough.

So what are the issues facing Irish women today? While the Eighth Amendment and women’s bodily autonomy is justifiably high on the agenda, there are many other structural inequalities that remain to be addressed, including political under-representation, the gender pay and pensions gap, and the lack of support for carers in the home.

We spoke to some Irish women at the forefront of feminism and activism in Ireland today to get a snapshot of how they are continuing to fight for their rights in society, the home and the workplace.

Success of Waking the Feminists shows the power of social media

FEMINIST activism has entered a new era with the emergence of the internet and, more especially, social media.

Digital innovation has provided many new platforms to women, allowing them to bypass the traditional media gatekeepers and speak out on issues that affect them.

Platforms such as Twitter and Facebook have been a lightning rod for feminist
activism, with campaigns such as #everydaysexism and #repealthe8th allowing women to cite their own potent experiences of gender inequality.

Social media is also a quick and effective forum for organising campaigns relating to women’s rights and gender equality.

Arguably the most successful Irish campaign in this regard was Waking the Feminists, which came about when the Abbey Theatre launched its programme to mark the centenary of the 1916 Rising.

Titled ‘Waking the Nation’, only one out of the 10 plays programmed was written by a woman and three out of 10 were directed by women.

A discussion began on social media, initiated by set designer Lian Bell, under the hashtag #WakingThe Feminists, which began trending almost immediately. 

In the following weeks, there was an avalanche of examples highlighting the disenfranchisement and unequal treatment of women — not just at the Abbey but throughout the Irish theatre and arts sector.

Policy analyst Olwen Dawe has carried out research on Waking the Feminists and is now working with the Abbey to develop a diversity and equality strategy for the national theatre. Why does she think Waking the Feminists had such a huge impact?

“As Lian Bell said, the arts sector was the very last place you’d expect to see a gender inequality issue. That’s what sent a real shock to the system. The Abbey was a lightning rod but the issues didn’t just belong to the Abbey, they were across the sector. Waking the Feminists struck a match that has kept burning and it’s now a case of addressing where we need to go next because there’s still work to be done.”

The Abbey was quick to respond to the issues raised by the WTF campaign, and other organisations followed.

“Since I have started working on this, I see that there’s extraordinary goodwill, which isn’t always the experience when dealing with gender inequality. A lot of people in the sector are getting behind this,” says Dawe.

“There’s a requirement from the Department for all cultural institutions to have a gender equality policy in place by next March, but I think in the wider context most companies, theatre and producers are looking at how they can mirror that themselves, how to make it work.”

Similar to the ‘merit’ argument that is made against quotas for politics, some commentators have argued that work should be staged on the basis of quality, not gender.

“What’s being inferred is that a piece of work by a woman is not as good as a piece of work by a man, and that’s not fair,” says Dawe.

“There are many reasons work by women is not staged. Some of those are structural, some are just norms that have established over time, some are related to the reasons women don’t go into politics, that it’s not seen as a sustainable career for them. You’re not going to change that overnight but with consistent action you can make more progress than you might think in a short space of time. Even in the Abbey programme this year, there’s a clear commitment to airing women’s voices on stage. We’re very keen on
encouraging female theatre makers — not just writers but directors, producers, and performers.”

Dawe believes the arts sector’s response to the Waking the Feminists campaign could be an example to others. “There’s a genuine and heartfelt commitment to the issue, it’s part of the fibre of the community. It’s interesting to look at it having dealt with gender inequality in other sectors, there’s a difference in how theatre and performing arts are dealing with it, and the sector may lead the charge in starting conversations elsewhere.”

The Waking the Feminists campaign also highlighted the issue of diversity in the arts sector across all areas, not just gender.

“The argument on gender equality has — rightly — brought the issue of diversity to the fore,” says Dawe.

“The directors of the Abbey [Graham McLaren and Neil Murray] have come from theatre in Scotland, and diversity and inclusion is part of their DNA. Diversity is now a crucial part of the broader narrative; women are using their voices to achieve equality for people of different backgrounds and orientation.”

Steps made towards equality in politics

THE numbers might not favour women in politics right now but the timing

certainly did when Women for Election launched its crowdfunding campaign on Thursday, June 15.

The organisation’s raison d’être couldn’t have been given a clearer mandate a few days later, when Taoiseach Leo Varadkar announced his junior ministerial line-up. The lack of women in senior political roles was crystallised in the image of a grinning Varadkar flanked by 13 men and only two women.

He might have looked pleased with himself but the reaction from women was quick and fierce. It also resurrected the debate on electoral gender quotas, which were introduced in Ireland in 2012.

According to co-founder of Women for Election, Niamh Gallagher, women are held back from entering politics for many reasons, including the five Cs — cash, candidate selection, culture, childcare and confidence.

The seeds of Women For Election were sown in 2009 when Gallagher and fellow co-founder Michelle O’Connell Keating set up a campaign called Women for Europe in response to the no vote in the Lisbon Treaty Referendum.

“We must have met 5,000 women over the course of the campaign. The conversation always started with the treaty and ended up talking about why there aren’t more women in politics.

“We realised it wasn’t from a lack of ambition or desire but there was a genuine sense of confusion or uncertainty. Women were interested, but unsure about how to go from where they were to getting on the ballot paper in a local or national election.

“Our idea was to provide a practical solution to that problem. We call Women for Election a bridge from interest to action, that any woman who is interested in getting involved in politics at any level, can contact us or come on one of our training programmes, meet other women and consider how she might get involved in politics and learn from the best in terms of the trainers we provide and so on.”

Women for Election was formally set up in 2012 and since then it has had more than 1,000 women through its training programmes. The need for such an organisation quickly became
obvious.

“Of the 194 women who were elected as councillors in 2014, about 100 had been through our programmes, which was great because that was our first real milestone,” says Gallagher.

“When we came to the general election, of the 19 newly elected TDs — there are 35 now in the Dáil, a jump from 25 — 40% had been through our training programmes.”

The introduction of quotas in the last election has had an obvious impact on the participation of women in politics. While such a move initially met with resistance, Gallagher says there has been a softening of attitudes.

“Most people are in favour of what we are trying to achieve. The only time we run into any kind of controversy is coming up to crunch point at selection time.
We do get disgruntled men who feel they are being overlooked because there is a new candidate who is female and she is getting preference because of the quota legislation and the imbalance.

“We don’t have any examples where an under-qualified woman has won out against a qualified man. Everybody who is on the ticket and has been elected is there on merit and we would like to see more women in those positions. The quota is a key mechanism to help us achieve that.”

Gallagher says she was disappointed by the lack of women in Varadkar’s
cabinet.

“He actually diluted the number of women. Taking a step backwards is really
unnecessary and doesn’t send the right message. Also, he did have a large pool of female talent from which he could have chosen.

“He opted not to do it. He is talking about mirroring the behaviours of Trudeau and Macron in taking office. One of the key things they focused on is gender. It was the first opportunity to make his stamp on this issue and he didn’t.”

Varadkar was keen to point out that all his ministers were appointed on merit, which would seem to suggest that women were not qualified to hold such roles.

“Why is it that women don’t seem to have merit and men do?” says Gallagher.

“We are constantly asked about ‘token’ women. First, we haven’t seen any ‘token’ women but what about the man who was chosen because he was from the right side of the constituency or the man who was chosen because he had the right surname?

“Nobody is suggesting that they are not there on merit. It is really opening up that discussion.”

Gallagher says putting more women forward in local elections is key
to getting more women into the Dáil.

“What we would like to see is a situation is where there is absolutely no excuse for not having a larger proportion of women in cabinet. It’s back to the pipeline and women contesting council elections. It’s easy to say ‘well, there’s only 22% of women in the Dáil, so therefore there can only be a 22% women maximum of women in Cabinet’, if you are doing it mathematically. We want to remove that as an excuse.”

Gallagher says the Women for Election campaign is also conscious of getting a mix of women into politics in terms of age, class and diversity.

“When we set up, we were awarded a grant by the
Community Foundation of Ireland, which ultimately led to 50 scholarship places on our programme. We targeted migrant women and groups of women experiencing social and economic disadvantage. That brought more of a mix.”

Women’s lack of confidence is often cited as a factor in their absence in politics. However, Gallagher, believes this is simplistic.

“It did come up in our research but what we’ve seen is that it is a little bit more nuanced than that. We see women who are very experienced in their professional lives, very active in their communities; they are not lacking in confidence more broadly, they simply want more information and facts before they make the decision to jump into public life. When you look at it like that, it is quite a sensible approach and men should do it more.”

Given the successful results of the Women for Election initiative so far, Gallagher is optimistic for the future.

“When we set up Women for Election, we went to meet the general secretaries of all the main political parties and one of them said to us ‘Good luck to you because you’ll never find the women’.

“Four years on, we had trained 1,000 women and the number of women who
contested the last general election increased from 86 to over 160. What that shows you is that the women are there — we just need to support them, get them on the ticket and they will get elected.”

Women For Election has provided training for many of the females who’ve entered politics in recent years

Marie O’Toole : Life made me a feminist

ITS members probably aren’t spending their evenings tweeting or hashtagging about gender equality, but as Ireland’s largest women’s organisation with more than 15,000 members, the Irish Countrywomen’s Association (ICA) wields considerable power.

The organisation is also hugely active at grassroots level in ensuring the wellbeing and rights of members and the community beyond.

Marie O’Toole is the first Dublin-born ICA president — her guild is Portmarnock — and I spoke to her about the role the organisation plays in women’s lives around the country and how it is evolving. Does she consider herself a feminist?

“I do. I remember Mamo McDonald, a former national president, saying she didn’t start out as a feminist, it was life that made her a feminist. I think that would be my mantra too.

“Even though I know things have evolved and changed over the years,
certainly in the workplace, it is much more difficult for a woman to gain promotion than a man and there is certainly a gender pay gap.”

While many of the issues concerning ICA members may not seem to be overt examples of gender inequality, they are ones that affect women disproportionately, says O’Toole.

One of these is the pension gap, with a recent report by Mercer revealing that Irish women typically retire on incomes that are more than 30% lower than their male counterparts. “There are more contributions required for the State contributory pension; the goalposts have been moved,” says O’Toole.

“The pension age has also moved from 65 to 67. It is so unfair, there is an inequality there. They can apply for the State non-contributory pension but it is means-tested.”

The ICA regularly lobbies the Government on such issues. “We send in submissions for the budget every year; all our members are behind us. While we have a lot of young members, many of our members are women of a certain age; as Frankie Byrne used to say, it might not be your problem today, but it could be one day.

“That is why we have to act for our members and for our women. I know that years ago, members had to get out and march on issues like the VAT on children’s shoes, but other organisations took over those roles and we don’t have to go down the marching route anymore.

“Having said that, when the medical card was revoked for the over 70s, a lot of ICA members went out and marched, and rightly so. When you have so many members behind you, it does make you more powerful.”

O’Toole believes that ICA members do not always get the support or recognition they deserve, especially when it comes to volunteering and caring, roles which women traditionally take on.

“All of our members are very involved in their own communities. In every
community, the ICA women are always called on to help out for things like Meals and Wheels, and so on. I was involved in the Citizens Advice Bureau for years as a volunteer. I don’t think we get the recognition we deserve.

“Women in rural areas find it more difficult because, with the closure of post offices and banks, people are terrified in their homes. I am a widow and on my own; there are a lot of women out there like me who are nervous and they don’t get the support they should get.”

The ICA is a member of the National Women’s Council, which supports the
campaign to repeal the Eighth Amendment. However, O’Toole says it is up to each individual member of the ICA to decide their position on the issue.

“I was at the NWCI AGM in 2016 and I abstained from that vote because I didn’t have a mandate from our members. It is a very personal thing. In our
newsletter, I said members should use their conscience if it comes to a vote. It is not a black and white issue; it is a difficult one.”

O’Toole has been an ICA member for 15 years and says she has seen many
positive changes in that time.

“It was perceived as an old person’s organisation. When I go to meetings with our board and national committee now, there are so many young, dynamic women there. We have a lot of young members, we even have a transition year membership in a school in Bridgetown, Co Wexford.

“We have three guilds where we have a mother, daughter, and grand-daughter. A good mix of ages is the lifeblood of any organisation. I can see a whole sea change.”

At its core, the ICA is a community organisation, providing a support network for its members. At a time when we hear a lot about how technology is making us more insular and less engaged in our communities, organisations like the ICA are needed more than ever.

“Without a doubt, it is needed. There are a lot of isolated and lonely people,” says O’Toole. “When I see people coming into my own guild, they are quite shy and then they blossom because it is a confidence-booster, to become part of an organisation that is so vibrant. The ethos is fellowship and friendship. When I was widowed, I don’t think I would have survived without the friendship and support of my fellow ICA members.”

The organisation is also proactive in providing support for mental health.

“We have teamed up with a charity called Nurture to offer a free counselling service for our members. It helps those dealing with bereavement, post-natal depression, family problems, and loneliness.”

How would she describe the organisation’s members?

“They are very feisty and strong, determined to get their own way. Nobody will do them down, I can assure you,” she laughs.

“I think ICA women are the backbone of this country, they are in every county in Ireland. It is continuing to go from strength to strength. We are going since 1910; we did great work in the past when it was needed and we still do.”

With in excess of 15,000 members, the ICA is a force to be reckoned with on issues affecting women’s rights

New wave of feminists fighting a battle begun over 100 years ago

Countess Markievicz

Next year marks the 100-year anniversary of women getting the vote in Ireland. While much has been achieved in terms of gender equality, historian Mary McAuliffe says women are still fighting on many of the same issues that occupied activists such as Constance Markievicz and Hannah Sheehy Skeffington.

“There are still issues that are relevant today that were relevant over 100 years ago, like sexual violence, reproductive rights, equal pay and equal access to certain areas of the workforce,” says McAuliffe.

“Obviously, we have the vote but women are still a minority in government and within ministry at senior and junior level. So that critical mass has not been achieved.

“But in lots of ways, those first-wave feminists knew that the vote wasn’t the be all and end all. What people don’t realise about them is how wide and broad their activism was. It is comparable to our activism today on domestic violence, equal pay, austerity, and access to services.

“They were very aware of women’s unequal pay because a lot of them were trade unionists, they joined the Irish Women’s Workers Union Party when it was set up in 1911. It is important to understand that we didn’t invent the wheel in terms of activism; we are building on what has been achieved.”

McAuliffe, who lectures on gender studies at UCD, says while the current uncertain political climate globally is a concern, it has also resulted in a huge increase in activism among young people.

“The number taking [gender studies] courses is increasing year on year, the number of young women and men who want to learn about feminism, left politics, privilege, oppression and how power operates is extraordinary.

“I see a renaissance of feminism among young women and men. You read below the line on news articles and you could go to bed and cover your head but what I see in the Repeal the 8th movement, and activism around health and homelessness, in so many areas, really fills me with hope.”

McAuliffe has also harnessed the power of social media in highlighting the lack of gender balance on panels at academic conferences. She is one of several academics behind the Twitter account @ManelWatchIre.

“ManelWatch has been very effective on Twitter; such sexist behaviour has to be constantly pointed out,” she says.

McAuliffe says women are often reluctant to enter public life because their appearance and demeanour is scrutinised in a way in which that of men is not.

“I see my own nieces, they are so confident and bright and they feel the world is their oyster. I think it happens in teenage years and also when you engage with the outside world, when the catcalls and sexism starts.

“People say catcalls are innocent — they are not, they are part of that whole culture that makes you aware that you are being judged not on your ability but on how you look, how attractive you are, how you are dressed, your behaviour, your reproductive capabilities — not the content of your brain or your qualifications.

“That chips away at your confidence. If you get up on a platform to speak in public as a woman, not only do you have to make your speech, you also have to make sure you are perfectly groomed and dressed, that you have been to the gym and you have a toned body, all of that.”

Meanwhile, in the workplace, women are encouraged to show equal ambition and hunger for advancement by “leaning in” a la Sheryl Sandberg. Such pernicious phrases represent a “faux feminism”, says McAuliffe.

Have women been sold a pup in being told they can “have it all”?

“Yes and no,” says McAuliffe. “We were sold a dream without the structures in place to support that dream. The guys can have it all because the structures are in place for them to have a home life, including the concept that the domestic will be looked after by AN Other — their wife or partner. Childcare is still presumed to be women’s bailiwick.”

McAuliffe says gender inequality has been exacerbated by austerity policies.

“We used to teach outreach women’s studies programmes in communities, and we saw lots of women who returned to education after leaving school early, gained a qualification and went straight into employment.

“They did it because they had support within the community; childcare and return-to-work programmes. They were all obliterated. That took a whole decade of women who could have been doing these programmes out of the workplace and into dependency and extreme poverty. One of the most awful things our present Taoiseach did as a minister was to demonise those on social welfare. That is very Tory-esque but also a Victorian ideology that is coming back… that of the ‘undeserving poor’.”

What does McAuliffe think Markievicz would make of feminism today? “She would be a thorn in the side of this government, leading marches against austerity and she would also be prominent in the Repeal the Eighth campaign. She would be true to her politics of 100 years ago. I’d imagine she would still be the feminist, socialist and activist that she was then — while wearing very nice hats.”

Teenagers say to us that sexism is part of life’

There is no doubt that there has been a resurgence of interest in feminism in Ireland, according to Orla O’Connor, director of the National Women’s Council.

“We can see that, particularly in movements, for example, around repealing the Eighth Amendment. There are certainly a lot more younger women engaged in it,” she says.

“In the Women’s Council, we frame feminism as about bringing about positive change for women, for everyone’s benefit in society, women and men.

“We have been trying to push an inclusive view of feminism, involving women in all their diversity, as well as men.”

The NWCI has been in existence for over 40 years and while significant gains have been made in that time, much remains to be done in terms of structural inequality.

“The employment equality legislation was really significant and really important for women; the marriage bar being lifted, and changes in terms of women sitting on juries,” says O’Connor.

“In terms of the really fundamental discriminations, the introduction of marital rape was really important. More recently, the introduction only last year of a move towards publicly affordable childcare is very significant, it was something the council has long campaigned for,” says O’Connor.

In the short-term, the NWCI will be concentrating a great deal of its energy and resources on the campaign to repeal the Eighth Amendment.

“There will be a referendum next year, the issue is the wording of the referendum and is it in the best interests of women?

“That is what we will be doing over the next six months, to make sure the Oireachtas committee [on the Eighth Amendment] does what the Citizens Assembly did and put women at the centre of their recommendations.

“It is about abortion but also about how we see women’s place in society, the choices women should be allowed make.”

Does O’Connor believe it is possible to be a feminist and “pro-life”?

“I would have to say no, I don’t. It is so fundamental to be able to choose whether you want to continue with a pregnancy or not. Taking that decision away from women causes such huge trauma, it’s a danger to their lives.

“I think we can disagree about how we should do things as feminists, but there are some fundamentals and to me reproductive rights is absolutely one of those, in the same way as violence against women.”

O’Connor also says that much work remains to be done in supporting women in the workplace in terms of childcare and flexible working.

“Women are progressing up the ladder but they are doing it without having any of the structural supports there in terms of care, not just childcare but also in relation to elder care. It is still within the domain of women and it is not supported by the State.”

As has been seen in the United States, with the Trump administration rollback on women’s rights, O’Connor acknowledges that nothing can be taken for granted.

“We’ve also seen it in Ireland in terms of austerity… the gains for women are fragile.

“Women’s equality can be rolled back, and that is a huge concern. We are doing a lot of work with young women, and their experiences of inequality are different so we need new ways of looking at them.

“A lot of teenagers say to us that sexism and sexual harassment is part of life, they see it as normal, just part of growing up and being a girl in Irish society,” says O’Connor.

“They are facing that to a greater extent than young women did in the past, particularly online.”


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