LOUISE O'NEILL: Mná na hÉireann, I am proud to be one of you

International Women’s Day is next Wednesday and I’m already wondering who will be the first person to ask me, ‘Well, when is International Men’s Day?’ 

The temptation to answer that every goddamn day is International Men’s Day is overwhelming but for the more pedantic among you, its official date is November 19. 

Following this witty repartee (oh, the trolls are so clever! I bet they ask about ‘White History Month’ every February as well), I will, no doubt be reminded of how easy Irish women have it in comparison to women living in Saudi Arabia. 

Be glad we allow you to drive cars, the implicit message seems to be, and you’ve had the votes for years now. What else do you want, you demanding harlots?

Quite a lot, actually. 

As I’ve said many times before, it is possible to be simultaneously repulsed by the horrors that women and girls are facing all over the world, when domestic violence is an epidemic affecting over a billion women and rape is used as a weapon of torture in war-torn zones, and still desire to enact necessary change in a country as relatively safe for women as Ireland. 

There are many issues that impact our lives that need to be addressed, from the gender pay gap to the dismally low rates of conviction in cases of sexual violence. 

Women are still predominantly seen as the parent who should be the primary care-giver, and paternity leave and affordable childcare options need to be improved to offer more support to mothers wishing to return to work. 

Domestic violence is said to affect one in three women in this country and yet we see vital shelters being closed down due to lack of funding.

We seem to be stuck in an endless conversation about the ethics surrounding sex-work, ignoring those voices on the ground who are telling us that we need to make the reduction of harm and the protection of the workers involved our priority if we wish to move forward. 

And, of course, Irish women continue to be forced to travel abroad to access safe, legal abortion services, perhaps the most visible indication of the inherent misogyny in our culture. 

There is no (often life-saving) surgery that would require a man to travel abroad. What can the eighth amendment signify but an attempt to police women’s sexuality and control our bodies, reducing us to wombs and incubators? 

Irish women grow up knowing our lives would be gladly sacrificed in order to protect a cluster of insentient cells — we’re expected to smile politely and say thank you for the honour. 

When we refuse to do so, when we take to the streets and demand our rights, we are told to calm down. You’re so angry, we’re told, as if anger is the most shameful emotion a woman could express.

Good, I say. We need to be angry. 

We are still treated as if we are second-class citizens and denied bodily autonomy on a daily basis. 

Why wouldn’t we angry? Anger is a powerful force. It can be cleansing, transformative, but it must be tempered by a belief that real change is possible and within our reach. 

It is easy to become disillusioned, yet it’s utterly essential that we stay hopeful. 

While the election of a man who boasted about sexual assault (grab ‘em by the pussy) as US president was a devastating blow and an undeniable victory for misogyny and sexism — made all the more incomprehensible by the revelation that over 50% of white women voted for him, more concerned with maintaining their white privilege above all else — the reaction since has been heartening.

While it can not negate the fear that many women, people of colour, and members of the LGBTQ community in the US must be feeling right now, the election of Trump has appeared to radicalise entire generations of women, women who previously assumed there was no need for feminism, women who assumed we were living in a kind of post-feminist utopia. 

We are awake now. We are aware of all the work that needs to be done and we are ready to begin. Here in Ireland, I believe we can work together to create a society that fulfils the promises of the 1916 Proclamation. 

“Every Irishman and Irish woman” were guaranteed “religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities... cherishing all the children of the nation equally”. 

It’s basically a feminist manifesto.

For International Women’s Day in 2016, I was asked to speak at a panel compromised of seven ‘individuals who have broken barriers and consistently advocated for the status of women’, all of us subsequently honoured with a Praeses Elit Award from Trinity College Dublin. 

The discussion was varied but to sum up, the panel was asked what we like about being a woman. 

It’s a difficult question to answer when you believe, as I do, that gender is a social construct and behaviour that conforms to traditional ideas of masculinity and femininity is learned through cultural cues. 

But I do love being a woman. I love the solidarity and support I receive from my female friends, the pride we enjoy when one of our own is succeeding. 

A rising tide lifts all boats, my friends and I tell each other, truly believing that another woman’s success is something we can be empowered by rather than seeing it as a threat. 

I derive a sense of great comfort from talking to other women about shared experience, even if they are negative ones such as street harassment or unwanted groping in a nightclub.

Through my work, I meet many teenage girls and their ability to discuss issues such as intersectional feminism and the deeply problematic exclusion of trans-women from the movement with nuance and complexity gives me such faith that our world is safe in the hands of the next generation of feminists. 

I want to use International Women’s Day to thank them for the work they continue to do and to honour all of those women who came before me.

Mná na hÉireann, I am proud to be one of you. Onwards. Onwards.


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