There is a very long tradition of silencing women in public. Professor Mary Beard makes that point wonderfully when she traces the origins of telling women to shut up, as she bluntly puts it, right back to the 'Odyssey', Homer’s epic poem of antiquity.
The shushing of a woman — or, at the very least, an early example of mansplaining — is right there at the start of Western literature as the hero’s loyal wife is firmly put back in her place.
You might remember the 'Odyssey' for the swashbuckling adventures of its hero, Odysseus, who spends years making the long, treacherous journey home after the Trojan War. Less well remembered is his long-suffering wife, Penelope, who faithfully bats off hordes of suitors as she awaits his return. At one point, she comes down from her chambers to ask the bards not to sing of the difficulties Greek heroes have in reaching home, as it touches a nerve. Sing a happier song, she entreats them.
But her son, the bould Telemachus, is having none of it. He steps in quickly and tells her to go back to her quarters and her women’s work at the loom because (and here’s the mansplaining bit) “speech will be the business of men, all men, and of me most of all; for mine is the power in this household”.
How far we have come since then, you might think, as you smile smugly at the misguided chauvinism of our Greek literary forebears.
Yoshiro Mori complained that meetings with lots of women on the board of directors took an annoyingly long time because, well, women think it’s their business to speak. One of them raises a hand, then another thinks they need to speak up as well, he protested. And on and on the talking goes. Maddening.
The backlash was swift and Mr Mori had the grace to try to eat his own words but the issue of silencing women’s voices remains. And not just when they talk.
Of the top 20 most-played songs by Irish artists on Irish radio between June and December 2020, a staggering 85% were male artists, according to the updated report on gender disparity compiled by the delightfully forthright Linda Coogan Byrne. The music publicist and activist got so tired of being told what women weren’t supposed to do that she founded Why Not Her?, a campaign to amplify the voices of women on radio — and beyond.
The response has been phenomenal. This week, the report clocked up 2 million views.
While Linda Coogan Byrne says she is heartened by that, she says it is still frustrating to see the lack of change from many in Irish radio.
What this report has shown is that people can now understand women’s frustration at the Government’s lack of ability to implement legislation for women’s rights and equality, she says. “The positives of the campaign are that we are witnessing this huge insurgence of people coming together and looking at the data, and proof that women were not imagining how much they are silenced by radio. We call for legislative changes. And we call for them now.”
She is not alone in that. Social Democrats TD Holly Cairns marked the anniversary of the 2020 general election earlier this week by observing the fact that there are 18 TDs for Cork, but only one of them — herself — is a woman.
She noted: “There are six times more men named Michael representing Cork in the Dáil than there are women.”
For the record, the Cork Michaels are Taoiseach Micheál Martin, Mick Barry TD, Michael Collins TD, Michael Creed TD, Michael McGrath TD.
Are ye right there Michael, are ye right?
Do ye think that we’ll have more women at the decision-making table before it’s light?
It is, perhaps, just a symptom of a much wider malaise that the recorded testimony of those who gave evidence to the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes was deleted before transcripts were made. That testimony — much of it from women — had already been downgraded by the Commission’s authors who decided that it did not constitute ‘evidence’.
That highlights the need to think about how we classify words; those lofty ones spoken in the public sphere, often by men, and those that come from the private sphere which are often spoken by women.
How easy it is to elevate some statements and give them the status of ‘debate’ or ‘public discourse’ while denigrating others by labelling them as ‘gossip’ or mere ‘chat’. The former is seen as fact while the latter is considered hearsay.
Add gender into the equation and the situation becomes more complicated — and more disputed — but any studies that touch on the subject repeatedly reveal that female voices are muted.
The arrival of Covid-19 has further silenced women. A recent report found that female voices are being “drowned out” in the reporting of the pandemic, particularly in the UK and the US.
Only 19% of experts quoted in highly ranked coronavirus stories were women, compared with 77% of men, according to a report commissioned by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation that looked at coverage in the UK, US, Kenya, South Africa, Nigeria and India.
The third lockdown has, says the group, thrown into stark relief the inequalities (including structural) and social and economic barriers still faced by women.
Tomorrow is International Day of Women and Girls in Science. It is a good time to look at those barriers and also to see how we might break them down. The Women on Walls project, which has been putting a series of portraits of women on walls since 2016, is a great way to highlight women’s often-overlooked achievements.
At Dublin City University, a series of portraits will be unveiled later this year to celebrate the work of outstanding women in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
One of them, Kathleen Lonsdale (1903-1971), a pioneering X-ray crystallographer born in Kildare, did all she could to encourage women and girls to study science. She once made a note to herself: “Never refuse an opportunity to speak in schools.”
She knew only too well that women must not only be seen, but heard.