I can’t recall specific incidents in my life where I’ve been treated ‘less than’ my male counterparts, but like most women, my journey through the world has been marked by countless small but significant gestures designed to put me in my place.
The subtle messaging that begins in childhood that I exist to be looked at, not listened to; the insidious behaviours designed to intimidate and harass; the violations of space and person that every woman learns to navigate, from a depressingly early age, are familiar territory for me too.
As I’ve followed the ‘Me Too’ hashtag in the wake of the Weinstein scandal, I’ve been heartened by the responses of men who have used this as an opportunity to commit to do better by the women in their lives, but I’ve also been consumed by righteous indignation that this has been the accepted norm for so long.
For some people, realising they’re a feminist involves a light bulb moment; an incident or a book that changes their worldview. For me it was less defined, but if I’d gone into 2016 questioning the need for feminism, watching the US election unfold would have been my turning point. I’ve always believed in equality of the sexes (I’m a woman; it would be mad not to) but I don’t remember realising I was a feminist. Instead of ‘becoming a feminist’, I simply became comfortable describing myself as one.
Looking back to my formative years, there were certainly no pop stars posing in front of giant FEMINIST signs, nor were there feminist T-shirts littering the high street, but I still can’t imagine why there was ever a time I didn’t wear the ethos as badge of honour.
But as a recent study of international attitudes towards gender roles reveals, the F word remains problematic for some.
Surveying 12,000 men and women in 32 countries, including Ireland, Havas Creative found conflicting attitudes when it comes to issues around equality. Globally, women make up 23% of national parliaments and hold just 24% of senior management positions, and both men and women are overwhelmingly in favour of advancing equality in these areas.
Yet less than a third of women and just 17% of men consider themselves feminists, so something doesn’t add up. What the findings make clear is that you don’t have to identify as a feminist to support women’s equality, but the question is — why wouldn’t you?
Just about equality
Having just taken over the Newstalk lunchtime slot vacated by George Hook, Dr Ciara Kelly is the first woman to have her own daytime show on the station. A proud feminist herself, as far as she’s concerned, “all those people who are overwhelmingly in favour of women’s equality? They’re feminists too.”
Much as Emma Watson, advocating HeForShe feminism at the UN, referred to the “inadvertent feminists” who had shaped her outlook, Ciara accepts that an increasing proportion of the world’s population is embracing the tenets of feminism without embracing the label.
“I think there’s been a number done on feminism so that even women are willing to disavow it,” she explains.
“But the women who say they don’t need it are standing on the shoulders of generations of feminists, without whom they wouldn’t even be in a position to be asked the question.
“In arguments today, particularly online, people use feminist as a term of abuse, but that’s just an attempt to silence women,” she says.
“The terms feminist and feminazi are now almost interchangeable, because some people believe feminism is about hating men, and of course it’s not. For me it’s just about equality. I don’t have any agenda; I don’t want to see men disadvantaged or chewed up and spat out, or whatever men’s rights activists say modern women want.
“Some of the most important people in my life are male, and I love them dearly, but that’s not at odds with feminism; I simply believe in equality. I have three sons and a daughter. Do you think I want her to be disadvantaged over them? Of course not.”
“As a society,” she says, “we just can’t say we’re there yet in terms of equality, and people who don’t believe we need feminism anymore — give me a break, that’s absolute rubbish.”
Lack of confidence
Broadcaster Bibi Baskin would beg to differ. While the study found that 50% of Irish men and women believe women have rights but no real power, Bibi feels feminism is not the way for women to secure their fair share.
“It could be part of the solution,” she says, “but it’s not the only solution. If women have rights but no power, why don’t they go out and get the power?
“I spent 15 years living in India, where women are second-class citizens, and when I look at Irish women I just think, come on! Not all men are out to get you, you have the ability, so just get a move on.”
Discounting the idea that systemic disadvantages are holding women back, Bibi argues: “For Irish women, it’s a lack of confidence more than any glass ceiling.”
Having moved continents to switch careers, leaving the UK to open a hotel in India, Bibi knows a thing or two about taking risks. She now gives motivational talks at women’s networking events, but recalls the first time she looked at her audience of well-educated, well-heeled businesswomen, she wondered, “What’s wrong with you that you need motivation to get to where you’re going?”
She unequivocally supports equality in the workplace.“For equal work there has to be equal pay. It’s an outrage to think it would be otherwise.” She laughs off suggestions that men have a role to play in securing that. “Including men in feminism?” she exclaims. “No, sorry, that’s pie in the sky!”
A passionate believer in equality who doesn’t consider herself a feminist, she explains her aversion to the term. “Firstly, I believe that getting to where you want to be is based on ability and determination alone.
“But the other reason is that I just don’t like groups that are exclusive — to women or anyone else. I grew up in a small Church of Ireland community in Donegal. I felt very much aware that I was a member of a minority.”
So when it comes to the survey findings highlighting inequality, she is adamant. “I think individual women can correct that; you don’t need to be a member of a group called feminism to do it.
“Find the power within yourself, then create a path where you can bring it to fruition.”
But Ciara believes it’s not that simple.
“Sometimes when I talk about feminism, it’s thrown at me that I’m hardly someone who’s oppressed. And I acknowledge how lucky I am,” she says, “but does that mean I should pull up the ladder and say feck the women who never had the opportunities I had? Should I just pretend I’m not allied to them through gender? No. I’m just luckier, and therefore it’s even more important that I’m a feminist.
“Feminism is just a form of egalitarianism, but we shouldn’t be afraid to call ourselves feminists. If women specifically are disadvantaged, then I think we need to name that.”
“Acutely aware” she’s the first woman on Newstalk’s daytime schedule, she says “once we smash those glass ceilings, they’re broken for the women who’ll come behind us.”
“The Royal College of Surgeons just elected their first female president, Professor Mary Horgan,” she continues. “When asked was she a feminist, she said no, and I was so disappointed. You’re the first woman in 323 years to hold that position — does that not tell you we need feminism? 323 years before a woman got the job and you’re disavowing feminism? Sorry, professor, but give me a break!”