Ahead of International Women's Day, and as we settle into a new decade, our columnists reflect on life as a woman in Ireland as we settle into a new decade.
I read Nuala O’ Faolain’s memoir, Are You Somebody?, for the first time this week. It’s been on our bookshelves at home for as long as I can remember; so long that I almost assumed I’d already read it. It’s a masterful book, beautifully written, and her struggle to assert herself as a woman in a patriarchal society is one that will be far too familiar for many female readers today.
I wondered at what O’ Faolain would have thought of Ireland in 2020; what her reaction to the Repeal Movement would have been, the #IBelieveHer marches, the #MeToo movement. We have seen seismic changes here over the last decade, shifts in our society that have been long over-due, but it’s essential we don’t become complacent. There is still so much work that needs to be done, and it’s urgent.
Figures released last month show that the number of sex crimes reported to the Garda increased for the six-year in a row, reaching a new record in the State.
Some believe the #MeToo movement may have encouraged more victims to come forward and disclose, but other senior officers warn that it is likely the number of sex crimes may be increasing. I am also deeply concerned about rates of domestic violence in this country. #MeToo has shone a spotlight on the prevalence of harassment and sexual assault in women’s lives – where is the movement to highlight how common domestic violence is?
I’m often struck by how often women will share their stories of sexual violence with me – they will tell me about being raped, assaulted, touched without consent –and I am humbled that they would do so, but no one has ever told me about domestic violence. If the figures hold true, and one in three women in Ireland is experiencing some sort of abuse, then I must know someone – a friend, a family member, a neighbour – who is trapped in an abusive relationship and yet ostensibly, I do not.
There is still such a culture of silence around this issue, perhaps due to the fact we have slapped the word ‘domestic’ in front of it and have, in effect, dismissed it as a ‘private, family matter’. It’s nothing to do with us, we tell ourselves.
When I contemplate the horrors of the Magdalene Laundries and the Mother & Baby homes, it is natural that our ire is directed at the Church and the State who allowed such things to happen – but what, then, of the people of Ireland themselves? What about the parents who allowed their daughters to be put in such institutions, refused to allow them home because they had ‘shamed’ the family? What of the society at large? Surely, they were also complicit in permitting such a system to exist?
So too in 2020, are we complicit in a culture of violence, shame, and silence, if we pretend that this abuse is not an epidemic in Ireland today. We ask, well, why don’t these women just leave? rather than ask why their partners are terrorising them in the first place. We don’t want to consider the factors that might make it next to impossible for a woman to ‘just leave’ – money, fear, their children’s safety – because it’s easier to imagine that such a fate would never befall us.
We must remember that domestic violence excludes no age, no socio-economic background, no race nor religion. It is found in every stratum of society and it cannot be tolerated any longer. We need to break the cycle of violence, starting with proper education and exponentially increasing the level of funding given to services who are working with women on the front line.
Today, on International Women’s Day, I urge you to stand with me as we demand that it’s time the government takes a proactive approach to eradicate this issue for good. Let’s fight together to make Ireland the safest country in the world for women and children.
How did I get to be 71!
The decades have slipped past at remarkable speed, for years I didn’t seem to get any older but suddenly one realises that even though I still feel 18, I’m occasionally offered a seat on a crowded bus or an OAP rate for entry to an event – a dilemma, I don’t know whether to be sad or sorry…..!
So much has changed for women since I was a child, I remember desperately wanting black laced-up boots like my brothers so I could kick the football as far as they could and resenting the fact that were no altar girls only altar boys!
Right up to the late 1970’s, only fathers could collect the children’s allowance and women in the civil service had to give up their jobs when they married. I was acutely aware that this was unfair but didn’t feel radicalised because my father was a deeply loving, liberated man who treated my mother with the utmost respect.
Then I married into a Quaker family where men and women have always been equal and encouraged to follow their dreams. I was educated by the visionary Dominican Sisters in DCW in Wicklow, who in 1960’s encouraged ‘their girls’ to have a proper career – do Medicine, Architecture, Law, the Sciences….but I just wanted to cook or garden.
It was years before the term ‘celebrity chef’ was coined. Women cooked behind the scenes, cooks and chefs in general had no status…..one didn’t talk about food although Daddy was always appreciative and regularly told Mummy how good her meals were. Consequently, she loved to cook both Daddy’s and our favourite dishes.
Somehow it didn’t occur to me that I couldn’t do what I wanted to do – the Dominican Sisters encouraged me to do either Hotel Management or a degree in Horticulture. I choose the former but still understood that I couldn’t get into the kitchen of a top restaurant because, ‘men were chefs’…..
Fortunately one of the senior lecturers at Cathal Brugha Street, Mór Mournaghan told me about a woman who with no formal training had just opened a restaurant in her own home on a farm in East Cork – her name was Myrtle Allen. She was happy to employ a girl in her non-hierarchal kitchen as well as/or alongside many local girls and boys whom she thought how to cook her simple dishes with the beautiful produce from the farm and gardens and the little fishing village of Ballycotton closeby.
I’ve been fortunate to never encounter a ‘glass ceiling’. Much has changed, during the past couple of decades, there are many more women in kitchens now and many top women chefs. However restaurant kitchens are now always happy places for women but the ‘Me To’ Movement which started in the US has helped shine a light on unacceptable ‘kitchen culture’, so women don’t need to ‘suck it up’ any longer or try to be one of the lads. However there’s been another – unintended consequence from women’s liberation.
Ever since the 60’s, both men and women have been encouraged to concentrate on academic rather than practical skills. The subliminal message that learning, how to grow, cook or housekeep was of lesser value, demeaning work to be avoided at all costs. Hence, several generations have been increasingly deskilled and have become totally dependent on others to provide the food that keeps them healthy and gives them energy, vitality and the ability to achieve. They have also been denied the joy of being able to cook delicious food for family and friends.
First my advice to my sons and grandsons, choose a partner who can cook….and to my daughters and granddaughters, you too need to make time to learn how to cook Follow your dream, it’s your one and only life, choose a career you are passionate about so everyday is an exciting adventure. Learn as many skills as possible – ‘Skills are Freedom’.
Choose a career that is unlikely to be replaced by robots in a few years’ time.
Be kind – what goes around, comes around…..
Don’t take NO for an answer, contribute to your local community and speak up when you encounter injustice.
In 1852, a young woman named Lizzie Siddal lay in a bathtub of ice water while John Everett Millais painted her as Ophelia. You know the painting I’m talking about. A red-haired woman lies listlessly in a river, her hands and face just barely breaking the water’s surface.
She is breathlessly fragile, and being swept along in the most exquisite rendition of drowning that art has ever known.
It’s 2020, and I’m beginning to worry that we’re still a little too captivated by exquisite renditions of drowning.
In the past few weeks, I’ve watched the media paw over the details of Taylor Swift’s eating disorder, Jameela Jamil’s medical conditions, Caroline Flack’s mental health. After Mel C appeared on Desert Island Discs recently, every headline about the episode began with details of how she “divulged” her experience of depression on air.
In every case, the more detail, the better. Exactly how little a woman was eating, exactly how much she despised herself, exactly how close she was to slipping under the water. This is not an objection to increased dialogue around mental or physical health, nor a plea for women in the public eye to stop opening up about their personal traumas. This is about a full-scale conversation flip: one that began with “it’s important to hear the gnarly truth of people’s lives” to “women must ceaselessly bleed so that we can extend the smallest bit of empathy towards them”.
This is not just a celebrity thing, either. Having worked in the media for several years, I’ve had innumerable drinks with some of the sturdiest, most red-blooded women I know, all of whom have carefully cultivated a presence of professional fragility in order to make a living.
Women who bang back straight whisky, ordered another round, and then said “don’t worry lads, this one’s on Grazia”. “What have you stuck them for this time?” we ask.
Some shit about my dad leaving us.
To be clear, it’s not that these women don’t have complex emotions about whatever personal difficulty they have been asked to write about. It’s just that there’s an implicit expectation that, when she writes about it for the media, she must heighten every wound, and darken every night sky so that every light is blotted out until the solo, hopeful star at the end of the closing paragraph. “No one is ever slightly upset,” an editor told me once, underlining my tendency to temper emotions in print with a “somewhat” or a “slightly”.
“You’re either upset, or very upset.” I would feel bad ratting my friends out if I weren’t so ready to confess to doing it myself. For years, I worked at an online magazine where we were expected to rinse our personal lives for clickable copy. There, my questionable ex-boyfriends became “toxic” ex-boyfriends. My moments of mental unrest became my “struggles” with mental health. The more my online writing became popular, the more I would heighten every experience until it could be summed up to a single statement: poor me. Poor me!!
For years, the language around female humanity has become an obsession with female vulnerability. We have become breakable in print in a way that is absolutely at odds with our real lives, our piss and vinegar reduced down to a lukewarm solution of bath salt and tap water. “What happened to fabulousness?” a friend screams down the phone at me. I’m not sure. It seems to be floating down the river with Lizzie Siddal.
There are a lot of admirable things to hope for on International Women’s Day: a fairer, less violent world for women, pay equity, no more thrush. But my small hope on this one is that our lives in print start to resemble the ones I know we’re leading in real life. The women I know who have the hardest lives are also the ones who are the most willing to laugh at it, and Christ, we need the laughs.
I was born, grew up, and have spent most of my life here in Ireland. I used to think that one day I will jet off to another land and start my life anew, but the realisation hit me quite a few years ago that this may never happen. And, when I sit and think about it, it is not such a bad thing. I have my family here; I enjoy my work and I have a group of lifelong and loyal friends. These things are rare, and I count myself very lucky.
Another thing I am grateful for in Irish life is the choices I am afforded as a woman. I have had a choice in my career, in my relationship and my family formation and also a choice in how I voice my opinion. I am keenly aware there are millions of women across the world who are prohibited from making these decisions.
One of the greatest privileges is the choices and the opportunities that access to education has granted me. Biases against women and girls run deep in education systems worldwide, whether in terms of attitude or participation and I often think about how fortunate I am to live in a society where I can pursue my wishes.
Do not get me wrong there are things to be disparaged in the society which we have built for ourselves. The balance of domination in the workplace, making the bulk of decisions in business and politics, as well as media, tips greatly towards men. Alarmingly the European Union has reported that 14% of women in Ireland have experienced physical violence by a partner. For too long women’s pains have been dismissed, finally there is a burgeoning realisation within the medical establishment in relation to this.
Today a greater number of women are writing for film, inciting discussions and making female-led stories more visible than ever before. On top of this young women seem less embarrassed when talking about periods or other issues relating to the female body, and there is a feeling that if harassment is called out someone will listen. But even still it can be a struggle to get through the day.
One of the difficulties for many women I know is a lack of time. When people are working constantly to meet the mortgage, to pay for crèche fees, to pay insurance companies, to pay for the car repairs so they can travel distances to their job, they have less time for family and for themselves. I would welcome a government that puts family, community and civic amenities at the heart of building Ireland’s future.
As much as there are difficulties – and they are there, and they are numerous – we as Irish women are privileged in comparison to many others around the globe. But it is a shame that in 2020 I consider choices in life or in education a privilege rather than a fundamental and universal right.
After decades of social and economic advancement many of these things are increasingly under threat. It is a time of unsettled politics and changing environmental circumstances and our smart phones can make us distractible, but it is also a time to stay vigilant and aware.
In Ireland we are doing well, but we can do better. We are a small country and have the ability to be a leading light. We have shown over the past five years of change that we can be decisive and bold. I look at the strength and confidence in younger Irish women and am very hopeful for the country they will shape and create.