There are no bitches, only sophisticated bad girls. That’s what we learned at the Irish Examiner’s ‘Choose To Challenge’ live event for International Women’s Day.
Special guest, Vicky Phelan, encouraged women to embrace being seen as a bitch and lean into being strong women, a quality she said she shares with an iconic Irish woman.
“I met Mary Robinson a couple of years ago at an event and I was totally shell-shocked, I didn’t know what to say and of course I said the wrong thing,” Phelan said.
“She was saying how she was absolutely honoured to meet me and she said ‘I admire your strength, you know exactly what you want’ and I just said ‘sure Mary, you know I’m just a stubborn bitch’. The words were out of my mouth and I thought I can’t believe I said that to Mary Robinson. She started laughing and she said to me ‘Vicky, you’re exactly like me but I prefer the term “sophisticated bad girl”.’ I just loved that.”
The campaigner spoke about the challenges she has faced, often in the public eye. She looked back on difficult pregnancies, her struggle with postnatal depression, her terminal cervical cancer diagnosis and her historic court case, which, she said, included a moment she is quite proud of when she refused to sign a non-disclosure agreement about the misdiagnosis of her cervical cancer.
“I knew there were other women in the same position as me and I could not accept that this was being asked of me. I chose to challenge that and refused to sign that agreement,” she said.
She added she knows women who would fight for their children but wondered why they are reluctant to fight for their own health and interests.
“I often think if women channelled that fierce maternal drive that we have to protect our children into advocating for themselves, my god we’d be powerful. If your child is sick and you think your child is not getting the care that they need, none of us would think twice about challenging that care, would we? Why do we not do it for ourselves?”
It was a sentiment echoed by columnist Derval O’Rourke, one of the panellists who spoke to host Esther N. McCarthy. O’Rourke said the pandemic has seen many women struggle to juggle work and family life.
“Minding yourself is one of the hardest things we’ll do as women,” O’Rourke said.
“You’ll say yes to your boss, you’ll say yes to the kids, you’ll say yes to what your other half wants you to do but to say yes to yourself and carve out that time for yourself, for some reason, we all find it quite hard. It’s empowering yourself to mind yourself. You’re better for everyone else if you’re minding yourself.”
O’Rourke said she felt the strain of lockdown life and was “burning the candle at both ends with family and with work.”
“I'm my own boss, which means I can be flexible when it comes to the kids but when you’re the one who is flexible with the kids you get landed with most of the caring when you’re in the middle of a pandemic. I did have to have a word with myself and once I did that I took the pressure off myself and it became easier to mind myself.”
Alison O’Connor, too, said she noticed the “shadow pandemic” of women taking on more than their fair share of responsibilities.
“Almost overnight with the pandemic it was like everything reverted back to the male hunter-gatherer instinct and the woman turned into almost a 1950s housewife, except in many cases the woman had a job outside the home as well and was trying to balance it off. You can see it as a shadow pandemic, if you like, the extra burdens that women have had throughout the last year,” she said.
“My concern after all of this is over is women getting their confidence back to go back out into the world.”
Political Correspondent Aoife Moore described what it was like breaking the story of the year in 2020 after she was sent a copy of a seating chart for an event in Co Galway last August.
“An email came in from someone and it was the seating chart for the Oireachtas Golfing Society dinner in Clifden. I texted my colleague Paul Hosford and said ‘will we take a look?’,” Moore said.
“We had the guestlist and Paul and myself hit the phones all day. We dropped everything we were supposed to do that day and phoned every person that was on the list. It became pretty clear early on that something was wrong because they, the men - it was mostly men, I didn’t speak to one woman that day about it - started lying to us about who was there, what the room looked like, how many people were there.
“It was when they started lying and we were getting conflicting stories from politicians that we realised we were on to something. It was posted online at 7pm and by 7.15pm my phone was on fire.”
Columnist and author Clodagh Finn spoke of how women had been written out of history and called for everyone to write down their own family’s personal history, particularly the achievements of their female relatives.
“It’s no accident that I have an interest in history because I had such a journey to find out my own. I was born in St Patrick’s Mother and Baby Home and I was 26 years old before I knew who I was,” she said, and highlighted the many years it took for her to be put in contact with her birth mother.
“People talk about it being in the past. It is not. This issue affects about 10,000 people directly and about 100,000 people if you take the extended family into account. I just hope that it ends with us. That’s why I’m choosing to challenge the structures and the legislation that are in place so this doesn’t ricochet down the generations.”