Sunday, March 8, 2015

For International Women's Day 2015

I wrote the following feature article for the May 2012 issue of Galway Now magazine, where it was first published

Would you call yourself a feminist? 

The popular press image of suffragettes, Miller and Lang, circa 1909

Emily Cullen asks why the ‘F word’ is such a loaded term

On the 8th March this year, five separate friends wished me a ‘happy International Women’s Day’. Apart from the pleasant exchange of greetings, I wasn’t quite sure how I should be marking the occasion. Never one to pass up a chance to celebrate, I wondered if I should have expected flowers or choccies? Had I missed an excuse for my husband to take me out for dinner? My greedy curiosity about this international day got me thinking about the struggles of women worldwide, but more specifically, in Ireland. I wondered how many of my peers would call themselves feminists.
‘Strengthen the female mind by enlarging it, and there will be an end to blind obedience.’ Mary Wollstonecraft made such powerful statements as this in her pioneering work of 1792, A Vindication of the Rights of Women. A remarkable woman for her time, she is often seen as the founder of the Western feminist movement. Though her language may be archaic now, her goal of seeking equity for women still resonates. Or so one might imagine. In recent years, whenever I taught female undergraduate students about her work, I wondered why they were so indifferent to feminism. Each time I asked if they identified with feminism, their answer was a resounding ‘no’. I wondered why they would choose not to align themselves with the movement which helped to win their liberties? After all, it wasn’t until the late-nineteenth century that women were even allowed to enroll in Irish Universities. In Wollstonecraft’s era, women were forbidden to attend because it was believed that it would distract them from their primary purpose: motherhood. Many medical experts at the time claimed that too much education might cause the womb to shrivel up! I wondered whether my students were even aware of this history, or of the feminist movement that fought for their basic rights? How exactly do Irish women feel about feminism in the 21st century?
Undoubtedly, many women feel the same way as journalist Colette Fitzpatrick, who bemoaned in her Evening Herald column recently that: ‘juggling everything’ is ‘where feminism has led us’. The dreaded ‘superwoman complex’ – where society expects women to excel at all things in addition to being the perfect mother - is not something we should blame entirely on the feminist’s campaign for equality. A quick survey among my peers indicated that many would choose not to identify themselves as a feminist. The main reason lay in an understandable dilemma: uncertainty about what the term means. Like most social movements, there are multiple different approaches to feminism as well as different phases in its evolution. Repelling many women from embracing the ‘F word’ are the negative assumptions that feminists are: 1) man-haters, 2) bra-burners (bras are expensive – who would do that?!); 3) anti-make-up, angry hippies; and 4) even, heaven forbid, women-loving lesbians! Then there is that perpetual question: how do feminists reconcile clear biological and gender differences between men and women in the fight for equality? It is only natural that some women enjoy it when men open doors for them, and don’t want chivalry to be slayed by the double-bladed axe of feminism. My research revealed that feminism has certainly evolved and changed since its earliest days in the late eighteenth century. When the Suffragettes helped to secure the vote for women in 1918, their goal was not only access to the ballot box, but also the right to speak out against issues of social injustice, such as colonial exploitation, human trafficking, and sweatshops. It is difficult to believe that the 1918 ‘Representation of the People Act’ only gave ‘women of property’ over the age of thirty the right to vote. It was a step towards progress, though, and this was the beginning of feminism in its first wave.
The 1960s-1990s produced the second-wave feminist movement called ‘Women's Liberation’. It broadened debates and focused on raising women’s consciousness of their oppression in a male-dominated society. While the language of ‘liberation’ and ‘domination’ might seem outdated today, the feminist movements of the 1960s also concentrated on achieving goals such as affordable childcare, contraception, greater attention to women’s health and economic equality. The establishment of rape crisis centres and women's shelters were also important demands. In Ireland, in 1971, feminists travelled from Dublin to Belfast on the famous ‘Contraceptive Train’ to buy condoms, highlighting the fact that they were illegal in the Republic. Among Irish feminist debates through the decades, about matters such as the role of women as enshrined in the Irish constitution, the marriage bar in effect in the civil service, the forgotten women of the Magdalen laundries, and the controversy surrounding Noel Browne’s Mother and Child Scheme, the tragic 1984 case of 15-year old Anne Lovett still resonates powerfully in our collective memory. While it opened up an important national conversation about the support for women giving birth outside marriage, the Ireland of the early ‘80s now seems like a distant, faraway place. ‘Women’s issues’ are not as exotic to the general public as they once were. Does this mean that feminism is no longer relevant, or simply changing with the times?
Since the 1990s, we are living through feminism in its third wave, and this is trickier to define. Third-wave initially grew out of a response to racial issues, as second-wave was perceived as being too focused on the needs of white, middle-class women. In its favour, internationalizing the issue has offered a much broader understanding of feminism. Critics, however, believe third-wave lacks the directed vision of first and second-waves as it does not have a clear goal, such as the vote. What exactly does contemporary feminism want then? In her humorous memoir, How to be a Woman, Caitlin Moran argues that, in our current, hypersexualised culture, we need feminism ‘more than ever’. She is one of the first to highlight that certain fashion mores and pressures on young women originate, not in the couture fashion houses, but in the pornography industry. The pressure for women to look like porn stars, and to be completely hairless, is everywhere. By infusing personal comedy into a very readable discussion of feminism, Moran has managed to make her readers sit up and take notice.
Pornography itself has long been a thorny issue for feminists. In the 1970s Hugh Hefner regularly donated large amounts of money to support women’s organisations and feminists debated whether or not they should take accept such funds from an industry that they believed exploited women. But that was then. Today people wear t-shirts proudly proclaiming ‘Porn Star’ in glittery script, and glamour celebrities such as Jordan, have become role models for little girls – something Moran and other feminists, like Natasha Walter and Kat Banyard, urge us to reconsider. These are not easy questions for women to sort out. A new blog with a feminist angle, The Vagenda ( is worth checking out for its critique of the often anti-feminist language of certain womens’ publications and the pressures they bring to bear on young women in relation to an ideal body image.
While the media has tended to highlight the more extreme antics of militant feminists, we shouldn’t fall into the trap of tarring all feminists with the same brush. Feminism is not anti-men - feminism needs men… to speak out on issues such as domestic violence and say “not in my name!”. Neither should we underestimate what sustained lobbying by feminists has managed to achieve through the decades. While the international debates have certainly broadened, one thing every feminist has in common is the goal of equity for women. Concerns about parity of pay in the workplace and the glass ceiling for women are still hot topics and should help us to dispel any remaining doubts we may have about whether we are feminists or not. In fact, since contemporary feminism is much more inclusive of different issues, I imagine that, at some point in our lives, everyone will be a feminist. How come? Well, women or men may easily find themselves arguing against inequality, whether questioning the discriminatory rules that make it difficult for their daughter to progress in the practices of engineering, or whether they are blowing the whistle if their sister is sexually harassed in the workplace. In fact, instead of worrying about the intricacies of its full meaning, every time you see the word 'feminism', why not, instead, think 'anti-sexism', or better yet, 'pro-equality'? 
        Love it or hate it, one day a year is set aside for women - while all the rest of the days are potentially wide open for an endless list of things to celebrate: International Good Hair Day and International Mullet Day, International Bin Man-Appreciation Day, International Plasma Screen TV Day... In the meantime, I’m telling my husband that it’s ‘International Women’s Year’ and will let him know that roses and choccies are expected each week.

Suffragettes - colour cartoon published by Millar & Lang, circa 1909