Ireland: Celebrating Sisterhood - A lot done, a lot more to do Print E-mail
 Dublin ~ Wednesday, May 26, 2010


Celebrating sisterhood

THE MOVEMENT towards equality for women has generated some of the most radical changes ever made in the nature of human societies. It has touched almost every aspect of life, from the bedroom to the boardroom, from the most intimate aspects of our lives to the most public. For both women and men it has shifted the very foundations of identity, forcing all of us to rethink basic assumptions about who we are.

Modern feminism has been around for at least two centuries now, but its “second wave” began to gather force 40 years ago in 1970. In Ireland, the vigour of women’s organisations and their role in the creation of the State had been suppressed for many decades. Two events in 1970 made key contributions to the process of putting women back on the map. The establishment of the first Commission on the Status of Women began what was often a slow and tough struggle to remove the legal provisions that essentially defined women as second-class citizens. And the first meetings of what was to become the short-lived but highly effective Irish Women’s Liberation Movement began, not just a process of institutional change, but a redefinition of the public image of womanhood. Between them, these two forces – one official and relatively cautious, the other unofficial and decidedly flamboyant – accounted for the robustness of Irish feminism. There would not be a Madam Editor without them.

Our Sisters supplement today may be equally thought-provoking for younger and older readers. As well as marking the contributions of a tiny sample of the many thousands of women who created change in so many different areas of Irish life, we have tried to reflect both the challenges that faced the movement in 1970 and those that present themselves in 2010. Younger readers may be shocked to discover the sheer extent of institutionalised sexism that feminists had to confront, from the obligation to give up a job in the public service on marriage to the inability to order a pint in many pubs. But women who lived through those struggles may also be unsettled by the sense that, for all the victories won, full equality is still a work in progress.

There is pride in remembering the courage of those who fought for basic equality. There is also perhaps a degree of dismay and discouragement in reflecting on the reality that legal change has not in itself swept away all of the inequalities. Legislating for equal pay, for example, has only partly closed the gender pay gap: so long as women have to take on a disproportionate commitment to domestic work and childcare, notional equality will not be translated into reality.

Nor has the large-scale movement of women into the paid workforce been an unqualified triumph. Women often find themselves having to juggle both the new expectations and the old ones. With male unemployment having risen so sharply, many women find that they have to be both breadwinners and traditional mothers. And young girls face pressures to conform to stereotypes and physical ideals that are at least as heavy as those faced by their mothers. Yet, in the long view afforded by a 40th anniversary, the progress towards equality is genuinely remarkable.
Dublin ~ Wednesday, May 26, 2010
Sisters - 40 years of change in the lives of Irish women

Video: Changing times

Five Irish women from different generations discuss the changes of the past 40 years, where we are now and what the future holds


The panel : who they are from left to right
Patricia King is regional secretary of the country's biggest trade union, Siptu, and vice-president of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions.

Mary Robinson, the first woman President of Ireland (1990 to 1997) and United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (1997 to 2002).

Geraldine Kennedy is the editor of The Irish Times

Linda Kelly is equality officer of the Union of Students in Ireland. From Cork, she qualified as a speech and language therapist at University College Cork before taking up her position.

Mamo McDonald, honorary president of Age and Opportunity and former president of the Irish Countrywomen's Association, as well as being the driving force behind the Older Women's Network.

Changing times A round-table discussion involving four generations gets to the heart of changes for Irish women over the past 40 years

Hosted by Irish Times editor GERALDINE KENNEDY

Geraldine Kennedy: What was life like for women in rural Ireland 40 or more years ago?

Mamo McDonald: For women like myself one didn’t go for a job without the imprimatur of one’s parents. I had the opportunity of going to Spain as an au pair, but my parents thought, after a couple of years I would come home with Spanish, and where would I be? And then, the opportunity of becoming an air hostess with Pan American Airways...and every plane that would fly over they would imagine it was going to fall out of the skies.

They thought the bank might be a nice job for me, and I finished up in the bank. As one did, and then I met the love of my life and when I talked of leaving to get married it was the done thing that one retired from one’s job. So I had to send in a letter of resignation after 14 months of a career.

I started on the career then of motherhood – very usual for its time – and I finished up with 11 children. My nephew, any time it was mentioned, would say “ah, but that’s nothing, the Cassidys have 17”.

GK: Mary Robinson, you worked in your early life on legal and constitutional matters. What was the position of women in the 1970s?

Mary Robinson: I was very conscious when I came back to Ireland, having studied law at Harvard following a law degree in Trinity and King’s Inns, that there were a lot of issues, and I was elected to the Senate in 1969 on a kind of platform. Part of it was to change the law on family planning, and I introduced a Bill, with the support of men like John Horgan, but we didn’t even get a first reading and I was denounced from pulpits.

There were so many other laws: women couldn’t serve on juries, we had no equality legislation . . .

Eavan Boland, my good friend the poet, was a member of the Women’s Liberation Movement, and she rang me up one day and said, “Mary, could you give me seven laws that discriminate against women”. And I said, “why seven, Eavan, I can give you nine or even 10?” She said “no, no, no, seven’s a good number, and I want to go in today and we will try and fight these seven points”. I didn’t have difficulty identifying seven laws . . .

GK: Patricia King, what about the position of women in the workforce at that time?

Patricia King: I joined the workforce in the mid-70s. I’d grown up, gone to school in the 1960s, and, from my background, third level education was never going to be available.

I was going to secondary school – free education was introduced around that time. The girls and boys that I went to national school with, their destiny mostly was to leave school after primary and go into a local factory. I was from a small village in Wicklow and the nearest one was Bray, so you either worked in Industrial Yarns or Solas . . .

My parents took the view that education was going to be the key to your independence, and would do whatever they could do to try to put you through education and some of my siblings took that very seriously. I was, I suppose, a little bit more resistant and I took a summer job and stayed in it, much to their grief. I went into the car industry which was very male-dominated. In the mid 1970s it was going through huge turmoil and that was my first introduction to trade unionism. I took to it like a duck to water. At that time Ireland had just gone into the EU, and we were starting to develop things like the anti-discrimination act. You had the first maternity leave in 1981, so this stuff was at its infancy.

You had the Commission on the Status of Women first report in 1972, but even the Discrimination Act didn’t mention pregnancy . . . you could be sacked up to 1977 for being pregnant. Then you had the Unfair Dismissals Act, and so on. And the difference in hourly rates of pay at that time in Ireland was about 56 per cent. But if you looked at France, 72 per cent was the difference.

It is a relatively short period when you look back, and my own girls would say, “I can’t conceive of that being for real.”

GK: Linda, a lot of change has happened in 40 years. Would you be conscious of it?

Linda Kelly: I think I am now, given that I’ve worked with USI for two years and have got quite involved in women’s issues, but before that I would never have said I was a feminist or would never really have been conscious of these social issues facing women because I went to an all-girls primary school and an all-girls secondary school. And my college course was all-girls. And not once in my four years of college did we ever have a discussion as a class about feminism or women’s rights. And that’s a female-only space where you would think it might have happened.

GK: It that because you feel you have women’s rights?

LK: I think it is. People on a very personal level, young women when they are succeeding, don’t see the level of discrimination and sexism. And if somebody were to say “you have to give up your job because you are getting married”, well I would say I am not getting married. It would be as simple as that. When you actually delve into it and discuss the issues with people, then it’s like a lightbulb goes off and you see the discrimination everywhere.

GK: What invention changed any of your lives most?

MMcD: The washing machine.

GK: With 11 children? You would have had lots of nappies going.

MMcD: I had three children before I had a washing machine.

MR: One of the things I used a lot was a small dictating machine... I was lucky enough to have a secretary always there to do notes. And now the world has changed and we have all become more self-sufficient in that regard. I think that’s something that I used every day to do the notes, prepare for court...

PK: In my house, until I was 16, there wasn’t a television, a washing machine, or a telephone. Maybe some of my siblings would be appalled at me saying this but I remember the water to the house was in a tap out in the yard. And that was regarded as normal. I well recall my mother – we lived on the side of the Sugarloaf – describing many times having to walk up there with buckets to get water.

But when I then make the comparison with my two will see one of them any night in my husband’s office at home and she has the landline going, she has a mobile phone going, she is texting, she is telephoning, she’s MSMing, she’s emailing, all at the one time. This is all part of how she communicates.

MMcD: On the water question, you can thank the Irish Countrywomen’s Association (ICA), because they carried out a campaign for water in the home and urged rural women not to marry a farmer unless he installed water in his house as well as his byre. He thought it a fine idea to put it into his byre, but “why would you be bothered putting it into the kitchen, wasn’t she well fit to carry a few buckets”, sort of attitude.

They were the kinds of issues we tackled at that time and still we are not regarded as part of the women’s movement. It is something that irks me because I feel that in all the countries where women are coming to the fore and beginning to work for women’s rights, the first thing they tackle are those ordinary domestic things that make life easier. And that’s exactly what the United Irishwomen did, and followed by the Irish Countrywomen.

MR: I agree very much with that, and I think the ICA did a fantastic job all over the country with incredible organisation. I made a specific reference [on the night of the presidential

count], in thanking Mná na hÉireann, the women of Ireland, and that was precisely to address the fact that that was a kind of pejorative term. You know, "ah they are only Mná na hÉireann", and they are only dealing, as you say, with domestic issues.

PK: I would agree with you, my mother was a member of the ICA. It was the one evening that broke the isolation, whether they went to do embroidery or compare the making of cakes, or whatever . . .

On the trade union side too. In the earlier days, in the 1960s and 70s, when women walked into branch meetings full of men who had higher pay, and who saw women trying to achieve some form of equality as a threat, they were talked down to.

Conferences could have 258 delegates, 16 of them would be women. That's a big task for anybody to get up against the tide and argue.

When you look back on it, I think we underestimate what those women in the women's movement did and what they had to take on. We take a lot of that for granted now.

MR: You describe yourself as a feminist, Linda. What triggered it and, in your generation do you think they say, "I am a feminist" or do they say, "no I don't need to do that any more?"

LK: I know both. My very, very best friend always starts with, "I believe in equality for women but I'm not a feminist". I think it's such a paradox, but then I equally know people who would shout out from the rooftops, "I'm a feminist, so what!"

GK: What are the feminist issues today for your generation?

LK: I don't necessarily think they are all that different. I work in a very male-dominated office - there hasn't been a female president of USI in 16 years. That's an issue and a lot of people would argue that there isn't a problem with female representation in the union, and I am, like, "two full-time female officers out of 10!"

But even getting people to acknowledge there is a problem, and I think that's probably the biggest issue we are facing.

PK: In the workplace there are still issues. It has moved on, and work-life balance is very prominent in people's heads. And those who go on job-sharing are automatically seen as saying something about their careers.

GK: I would think that the changes in attitude to sexuality and the Catholic Church played a major role over the last four decades. Would any of you agree?

MR: Certainly I learned, I think, an important lesson from the contraceptive debate because it was a very logical thing to amend the law in 1970-71 when we introduced the first Bill. Because the law was an ass. Married women could only have the contraceptive pill if they had cycle regulation problems, and it must have been the weather or something, but there were an awful lot of women with cycle regulation problems.

And it wasn't against the criminal law to use a condom but it was against criminal law to either buy or sell a condom. We drafted a fairly simple Bill to amend the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1935 and tabled it. And I was completely unprepared for the depth of the revulsion against the idea of talking about contraceptives. There were terrible jokes, I got garden gloves sent to me in the post and letters condemning me as evil.

PK: But also, a lot of what you could call the "hidden Ireland" was going on in those decades as well. When you read some of the stuff that has come out in the Ryan report. To go to school in those days and be verbally abused, physically abused... I witnessed it many, many times in national school and indeed I can still see the face in secondary school, in quite a prominent school in Ballsbridge, of a nun berating people beyond any acceptability, a room full of young girls who were at a stage in their lives, 13, 14, 15 years of age, where their confidence is supposed to be boosted rather than put down...

I think one of the things too that is noticeable now is that younger people growing up - and I think it is a very good thing - have a great demonstration of love from their parents. Parents are not afraid to say...a mother is not afraid to openly say to her child, "I love you". They are not unhappy or uncomfortable about hugging their children. My children, I hope, would never have experienced anything like that sort of coldness.

MMcD: The change in living that I most welcome, and which has created such an enormous change, is the presence of men at the birth of their children. I think that has been a wonderful change because it has created a bond between father and child and it has given fathers a realisation of what women go through in giving birth.

GK: Would you have seen a great change in the attitude to the Catholic Church by women?

MMcD: Oh yes, I think that most of my generation of women feel horribly let down. They believed the Church was the great rock that they clung to, and now they find that there were such horrible things going on that it was a sham.

LK: The church is just so oblivious of women because it's run by men. I would have been raised Catholic and would have gone to Mass until I was 19/20, but fundamentally I don't think it's an organisation that mirrors anything I believe in. I don't see how they can guide me when at every step they hinder an openness about talking about something. I think what is interesting about the sexuality and contraceptive debate is that I know my generation is extremely grateful for the legislation you put through.

GK: Women's attitudes to themselves have changed an awful lot.

MMcD: Yes, absolutely. I think it is wonderful. I take great pleasure in seeing the confidence of the young women we have nowadays. I have 32 grandchildren, 16 of them granddaughters, and they are such a bunch, so confident, compared with our lack of it.

MR: I think it was all those elements that we were talking about. It was a kind of puritanical, very male-dominated church with the priest in a very special position in the community and unquestioned. So whatever was happening, nobody questioned, and there were not just harsh words but also caning. I remember the school I went to in Ballina, the teacher caned the legs, and my mother would bring in boxes of chocolates in the hope that we might be skipped.

PK: The social partnership model that we had for 20 years comes in for a lot of criticism, in some cases rightly, but when you look back now, in the 1990s and the decade we are just coming out of, a lot of hard work was done by groups of women in the trade union movement, employer groups and in government, in terms of amending pieces of legislation to bring about implementation of good stuff in the workplace and socially.

I know it honed in mainly on the workplace but the evidence is there that men did have to, and have made (willingly or unwillingly) changes. Even in our own lives, even for me in the work I do, I wouldn't have been able to do that without a partner/husband who had to make fairly seismic decisions about his own career. It was not going to be possible to rear two children and do that with two full-blown careers working at full speed. So, in our case, he made the decision and took the foot off the pedal careerwise - but he was happy to do it.

GK: Have women's attitudes to men changed? Do men take a different place in liberated women's lives?

MR: Men have also been adapting and changing. There are a lot of supportive men, including my own long-suffering supportive spouse. We are in our 40th year together actually. We don't have as many grandchildren yet, we won't have a hope, but we have some.

MMcD: I started from a broad base.

MR: The situation, as Linda was saying, is much more subtle now. Women have many more opportunities and yet still the main responsibilities for child-rearing, for homemaking, do fall on women and the work-life balance is more difficult unless you have understanding men. And I often feel that women are role models for their sons as well as their daughters.

PK: The role model issue is going to become a very important point into the future. I know my two children are going to have a very different view based on the role model they have had from their father rather than their mother. And they don't have or don't see any issue about their father cooking the dinner or doing the most basic things.

I have to say, we are still, in my judgment, in the territory in the workplace where men still see it as their prerogative to decide. They are more conscious, for instance, about appointments to boards of companies, but still only 8 per cent in public companies are women. They might say things like "well, we better put a woman on it", but we are still in that territory rather than women commanding that space on their own.

GK: I wouldn't agree entirely. I would see a lot of women here in their 30s who, unlike in my time, make quite a conscious decision that, "I am not going to the next rung of the ladder on the career path. I want the work-life balance, I want to know I am working in day time and have time with my children". Whereas, I had to rush ahead, and you'd be afraid to say you were staying at home to mind a sick child, or you'd be rushing back after you were pregnant in case it was held against you. But now women are much more confident about what sort of life they are choosing for themselves.

LK: I think that women shouldn't have to choose "I want this work-life balance" over "I want a career". And the problem is that we are trying to fit everything into a system and the system fundamentally doesn't work.

GK: Is life for women better today than it was 40 years ago?

MMcD: I think so, in general. I am involved a lot with older women nowadays, and they find life is good.

They can do things that they never would have dreamed of doing, nor their mothers or grandmothers. That is, unless they get caught in the tender trap of having to rear another generation.

I find that there is a high proportion of grandmothers now bringing up their grandchildren, many of them beyond their physical capacity to do so. It is for economic reasons, and because it is expected of them by their daughters, sometimes to give them the freedom to go to work. And it holds the women back from enjoying the fruit of their labours at this stage.

GK: Mamo, maybe you'd like the last word?

MMcD: Well I think it's like the government slogan, "a lot done, a lot more to do".

 Dublin ~ Wednesday, May 26, 2010
Sisters - 40 years of change in the lives of Irish women

Violence against women: the movement's constant refrain

The one issue that has been central to the women's movement and remains a constant concern


A photograph from a Women's Aid campaign day to highlight violence against women

'THE STREETS are ours. We are not looking for jail for men, we are not looking for castration for men, we are not looking for men at all," Nell McCafferty, journalist and a leading light in the Irish Women's Liberation Movement, told the crowd of several thousand women and a handful of men.

Women were simply insisting on their right to walk the streets safely, she said, and she excoriated a minister who had suggested that they contributed to their own vulnerability.

It was October 15th, 1978 and the dramatic torch-lit march was the first of its kind It weaved through the streets of Dublin behind the banner of Women Against Violence Against Women to protest against rape and demand greater protection for women in the face of complacency by the state and even what appeared state legal complicity. How else could one describe the legal protection of marital rape, the hostility faced in the witness box by the few women willing to charge their abusers, and Garda unwillingness to intervene in domestic violence settings?

When McCafferty and the late Nuala Fennell attended a women's rights tribunal in Brussels in 1976 (600 women from 30 countries), they brought with them someone who epitomised what the fight in Ireland was about. She would describe her experience of brutalisation in the family home, escape, then seizure from a train by gardaí, and incarceration in a mental hospital at her husband's order. Her case was not unique.

In 1974 Fennell been involved in establishing Women's Aid to campaign against domestic abuse and provide refuges for abused women, and the 1978 march would be marked by the announcement of the imminent opening of Dublin's first rape crisis centre.

From the earliest days of the women's movement in Ireland a critical strand of the work of activists has been to highlight and campaign over violence against women. The movement saw such violence, whether rape or domestic abuse, child abuse or incest, as things not distinct from the legal and social oppression of women but part of a continuum, the most extreme expression of it. Rape, the movement has argued, is not primarily a sexual act but a demonstration of power and inequality.

It was an analysis accepted importantly by the UN General Assembly in its 1993 Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women, recognising that: "violence against women is a manifestation of historically unequal power relations between men and women . . . and that violence against women is one of the crucial mechanisms by which women are forced into a subordinate position compared with men".

Over the years the campaigning has encompassed a wide range of related causes from trafficking into prostitution, bullying at work, child pornography, forced marriage, rape as a weapon of war and a basis for asylum, genital mutilation, and the plight of women who underwent symphysiotomies.

In recent years surveys reported by Women's Aid record that one in seven women in Ireland have experienced severe abuse, defined as "a pattern of physical, emotional or sexual behaviours between partners in an intimate relationship", and more than four in 10 (42 per cent), some form of sexual abuse or assault in their lifetime. Almost a quarter (23.6 per cent) of perpetrators of sexual violence against women as adults are intimate partners or ex-partners.

In 2007, the group's national helpline responded to 11,733 calls detailing a range of abuse including 245 rapes, while the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre alone carried out 10,155 counselling calls.

A 2002 World Health Organisation report found that only 20 per cent of physically abused women in Ireland even contacted the police, but in 2007 there were 11,374 applications in the courts for protective orders, 3,335 barring orders were applied for and 1,420 were granted.

Legislatively and socially, we have travelled a huge distance since the 1970s. New legislation on rape was enacted in May 1981, and marital rape become an offence in 1990. Since then, however, there has only been one successful conviction under this law. In the 1990s, however, Ireland's policy and law underwent substantial development. Funding of voluntary agencies began to increase, and they were afforded a greater role in influencing the national agenda. In 1997, the Report of the Task Force on Violence Against Women, contained proposals for a co-ordinated, coherent and integrated response to violence against women, through the development of services and preventative strategies, and the improvement of legislation and law enforcement.

In 1997, a Minister of State was also appointed and given special responsibility for equality issues, including violence against women. Among key reforms were the Domestic Violence Act, 1996 (amended in 2002), the establishment of the Garda Domestic Violence Sexual Assault Investigation Unit in 1993, and the 1994 Garda Síochána Policy on Domestic Violence Intervention, amended in 1997. The rape crisis centres network expanded.

Today , however, the fight goes on. A recent survey by Cosc, the National Office for the Prevention of Domestic, Sexual and Gender-based Violence, finds 44 per cent of people say they know somebody who personally had been a victim of domestic abuse while 96 per cent agree that abuse in the domestic context is a criminal offence.

In February the office saw its plan for the next five years endorsed by the Government. But Cosc will have to do so with a budget reduced by 13 per cent to €2.7 million.

 Dublin ~ Wednesday, May 26, 2010
Sisters - 40 years of change in the lives of Irish women

Ladies drink Babycham

Maeve Binchy reminds us what it was like before all this started

The way we were: Dublin Horse Show attendees take a break from the RDS at Sandymount in 1962.(Elliott erwitt/Magnum Press)

Now it all seems like a costume drama played out many years ago. A world of posturing, and pretending, and anxiety. A game played by rules which had been in place for ever.

A job was simply something to fill in the time between leaving school and getting married. A career? It didnt really exist apart from those few who fought for it.

They were called “career women”, with a sniff of disapproval and pity, women who had failed to get a husband, and therefore had to sublimate their lives as teachers, librarians, nurses.

These were the years when girls were watched carefully by parents, elder sisters, and relatives in case they might Go Too Far, and become Damaged Goods.

A girl had huge responsibility in those days, she had to make herself look good in order to attract a husband, but not too good for fear of attracting too much of the wrong sort of attention.

Women wore modesty vests then. This is true, not an imagined relic from the bad old days. The sight of a cleavage might inflame men, so a triangle of material was placed in the vee neck to avoid any accidental sighting.

And if such inflamation were to occur?

Whose fault was it? The girl’s of course. Men were born with a longing and eagerness to continue the species, it was the job of women to ensure that such continuance was contained within the bonds of Holy Matrimony. It seemed perfectly reasonable back then . . .

The 1950s and and 1960s were crowded with grateful wives, women whose men had Stood By Them when the unfortunate matter of pregnancy occurred, men who did not disappear.

Weddings were arranged hastily with bad temper by the bride’s family and the premature babies arrived two months early. These women were for ever in debt to husbands, who called in the favour long and often by keeping erratic hours and questionable company . . . but hey, they had been there on the day that counted, so they were entitled. If these marriages, strained to the limit, were about to end the woman had few sources of help.

Officially there was of course the Married Women’s Status Act of 1957, hailed at the time as a huge step forward for women. But in fact it didnt help women who wanted to make financial arrangememnts, take out or cash, insurance, or have a credit card without a husband’s consent. Small wonder that so many of them went to illegal money lenders.

People today don’t really believe that a woman’s domicile used to be where her husband lived.

If her husband was working on the lump in London under a series of different names what access did she have to him?

She couldn’t sue him for maintenance in this country since her domicile was, by law, Britain.

Women had much lower expectations in those days. They assumed that the boys in the family would get the university education if there was any going. After all, these were men who were going to have to earn money and look after a family of their own. Women would be subsumed into a husband’s care. A university education was a waste really.

There were a million irritating things, like a woman couldnt drink a pint in a bar. If ordered it came as two halves. Perfectly normal, sound men shook their heads and said it was unnatural to see a woman raising a pint glass.

In office canteens there were two kinds of meal. A gent’s lunch with two potatoes, a lady’s lunch with one.

Anyone coming to a house for any purpose asked the woman if he could speak to the man of the house.

People genuinely feared the notion of a woman bus driver, a woman surgeon, a woman president, a woman luggage handler. Being women they would have so much on their minds already, like crying children, and dishes about to burn in ovens . . . how could they keep their eye on the ball?

Of course they survived, this generation, and grew up to walk into the sunshine of what the Sisters had fought for.

For some it was too late.

They still felt safe in a world where a man doled out the housekeeping money note by note yet did not reveal his pay packet.

There were some who thought that supporting feminism might mean turning their backs on their own femininity which had served them so well over the years. They were happy to keep the old order.

There was no point in dragging them out kicking and screaming, women who had been brought up to be what they thought of as “ladies”, women who drank Babycham because the ads suggested that it was more feminine than belting back a gin, a whiskey, or, God forbid, a pint.

But still it was hard to see the lack of self-esteem. The women who apologised for being “just a housewife”.

In vain, you could tell them that they didn’t marry a house, they were people afraid to give their opinions and views in case it seemed pushy, timid about showing any area of expertise lest it look like ball-breaking.

But that was long ago.

Today’s women know that they can keep their names and keep their jobs after marriage without diminishing an equal relationship. Their husbands or partners share with them the business of looking after a family. It’s not tidied away as womans work.

There is no job or position too high for them to aspire to. The church, of course, has been slower than the State to realise this. But it will.

And we owe all this to the brave people who said it wasn’t enough to think equal we had to be equal and went out and fought for it. Forty years ago.
 Dublin ~ Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Sisters - 40 years of change in the lives of Irish women

Legislation the real way to celebrate difference

Many early feminists dreamed of a world entirely independent of men. But what's important now is that respect for difference is upheld by the law

By Ann Louise Gilligan and Katherine Zappone

 Dr Ann Louise Gilligan and Dr Katherine Zappone in 2006 when they began their High Court action

TO REFLECT on what has and has not changed for lesbians in Ireland, as we celebrate the 40th anniversary of the women's movement, is a complex and challenging task. Although aware that this movement has not always been attentive to advancing freedom for lesbians and also that not all lesbians are feminists, we are equally attentive to the rich diversity of views among those who do name themselves lesbian feminists.

Reflecting from our own experience as lesbian feminists, active in the deconstruction of patriarchal systems, philosophies and laws, confirms that the intellectual and political dynamism of the movement has created change for lesbians in Ireland, though it is not enough to set us free.

Marking 40 years of any social movement raises some key questions: how do we adjudicate its successes and failures? How do we ascertain if all the myriad forms of cultural, political, educational and mobilising activities have enabled social change with substantive impact, that is, change with a cascading effect throughout the lives of many, many diverse individuals?

We suggest that for this to happen, change must occur at three levels simultaneously - there must be a shift in a country's laws, its policies and in the attitudes and behaviours of its people. If this doesn't happen, the protections of the law will not be heeded, or the resources needed to implement policies will not flow, or people at an individual level will continue to meet prejudice and discrimination in their everyday lives.

While a comprehensive analysis of such three-pronged change is not possible within the scope of this article, we can sketch some of the key dynamics that continue to call for our attention. We do so now with the awareness of and appreciation for the many courageous lesbians in the earlier years of the women's movement who lived their belief that if all women are not free, then no woman is free.

We do so also, informed by the knowledge of our own experience of coming out publicly about our sexual identity and life-long partnership in 2003, when we requested the Courts to recognise our marriage. Even in the third millennium, with all the social changes Ireland had gone through, it was an enormous challenge for us both. What is the root of that fear?

Martha Nussbaum, who teaches law and ethics in Chicago, offers a deeply insightful answer to that question in her recent writings. Her latest book, From Disgust to Humanity: Sexual Orientation and Constitutional Law, expands on a theme from her earlier work on the "politics of disgust" and clearly argues that opposition to lesbian and gay equality is not rooted in rational legal arguments but rather in a failure of imagination and empathy, in an ability to reflect on and act for a "politics of humanity" for those who are different to oneself. Where personal aversion, even disgust, informs how public policy is decided, the well-being of civic society is diminished. The challenge not to pander to prejudice for political gain is indeed an ethical issue for all politicians.

Some of the "politics of disgust" shifted in this country when the law changed in 1993 to decriminalise homosexuality, and when new equality legislation was enacted in 1998 and 2000 to outlaw discrimination based on sexual orientation in employment and in the provision of goods and services. Several lesbians and feminists mobilised, advocated, wrote poetry and plays and published political and philosophical theory to lead this change, along with women's studies departments, NGO's, unions and community groups.

These legislative changes further informed and influenced policy shifts to disseminate anti-discriminatory guidelines in education, health and justice and to support the establishment of funding lines for community development and national organisations that were supporting lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered people.

Attention to language is integral to the analysis of change in any social movement because language doesn't simply describe reality, it shapes reality. The word lesbian was often silenced in both public and private discourse, it was the word that dared not speak its name, even when the word "gay" bridged the gap and attempted to describe generically all homosexuals, both men and women. Today lesbian women have less difficulty in describing themselves as lesbian.

Girls, as was evidenced in the recent TV programme on young lesbians' lives, make it plain that "We prefer girls". These public expressions of self-identity are evidence of a new era. This freeing of language further represents a radical act in a society built on the presumption of patriarchal complementarity - where women and men are supposed to represent half of their being and be complemented by their "better" half in sexual intimacy or life-long relationships.

This leads us right to the heart of the ethics of marriage for same-sex couples, and to the resistance of opening this institution to lesbians and gay men. If society believes that marriage is a good and contributes to its stability, why then would some be included and others excluded? To date, the response of the Oireachtas is to put forward a version of the separate and discriminatory institution of civil partnership for lesbians and gays. Research surveys carried out for Marriage Equality show that there has been a steady shift in public opinion, with 62% of Irish people in 2009 supporting marriage for same-sex couples. The same percentage said they would vote in favour of it if a referendum were held. The attitudes and social consciousness of Irish people appear to be ahead of the lawmakers.

But what about the other 38%? Are they perhaps being influenced by the Roman Catholic teachings about sexuality? Over the past forty years while the Church/State marriage in Ireland has somewhat dissolved, the fact that the Catholic Church continues to control the majority of our schools at primary and post-primary level remains a persistent problem, and a key barrier to the freedom of lesbians and gay people.

This September, a young woman decided that she would like to do her transition year project on "Equal Marriage for Lesbian and Gays". She submitted her outline and, to her amazement and that of her entire class, the teacher returned her proposal saying that to do research on this topic would be against the ethos of their Catholic school. To copperfasten her position, the teacher could have gone on to quote Pope Benedict, who states, "those who would move from tolerance to the legitimisation of specific rights for cohabiting homosexual persons need to be reminded that the approval or legalisation of evil is something far different from the toleration of evil."

The Church's teaching on homosexuality acts as a mind clamp on the consciousness and subconsciousness of those who remain under its influence. How can Catholic schools who presumably agree with the current pope in his letter on Unions Between Homosexual Persons that "homosexual inclination" is "objectively disordered" and homosexual practices are "sins gravely contrary to chastity", enable the young lesbian and gay youth to grow up with a positive, modern sense of their identity? While the Department of Education may counsel schools to be proactive in dealing with homosexual bullying, these are lame words as long as the Catholic Church controls these schools.

These are some of the things, then, that have changed and have not changed for lesbians in Ireland today. Freedom is still on the horizon. When social consciouness meets law and policy, that horizon will lean forward and freedom will dawn.

Ann Louise Gilligan and Katherine Zappone are co-directors of The Centre for Progressive Change Ltd and are joint authors of "Our Lives Out Loud: In Pursuit of Justice and Equality" (Dublin: O'Brien Press, 2008). In 2003, they began an unsuccessful action in the Irish courts to have their marriage recognised.


 Dublin ~ Wednesday, May 26, 2010
sisters - 40 years of change in the lives of Irish women

Smoke and mirrors: the equality illusion

Everyone will benefit from a world where men and women live equally. But if we think we've got there yet, we're kidding ourselves
By Kat Banyard

Graffiti in Richmond Street, Dublin, earlier this year (Aidan Crawley)

LOOK AROUND YOU. Do today's women and men appear to live as equal citizens from where you are? Apparently, if you happen to be standing at the head of the boardroom at Marks and Spencer's headquarters the situation looks rather rosy. Sir Stuart Rose, chairman of the retail giant, recently surveyed the societal landscape and concluded: "there really are no glass ceilings despite the fact that some of you moan about it all the time ... You've got a woman fighter pilot who went on to join the Red Arrows ... I mean what else do you want, for God's sake? Women astronauts. Women miners. Women dentists. Women doctors. Women managing directors. What is it you haven't got?" Sir Stuart isn't alone in wondering this. Today it is widely believed that women and men have achieved equality. And feminism - the social movement designed to bring about that end - is frequently written off as outdated and even rather embarrassing, having been well and truly tarred and feathered over recent decades, and paraded around in popular culture like some strange little fad. Indeed, unlike their predecessors, women today can vote, they can own property, seek a divorce, go to university, work in all professions; the list goes on. The law no longer formally designates them as second class citizens.

But the colours start to run in this picture of post-feminist harmony when you consider the following realities:

Women in Ireland are paid 17 per cent less than men.

Women do two-thirds of the world's work, yet receive 10 per cent of the world's income and own 1 per cent of the means of production

At least 100,000 women are raped each year in the UK and the rape conviction rate is 6.5 per cent. In Ireland it's 7 per cent.

Only 18.3 per cent of the world's members of parliament are women. In the Dáil, it is 16 per cent.

1.5 million people in the UK have an eating disorder - 90 per cent of them female.

The equality we see around us today is, quite simply, an illusion. While massive strides have been made over the past four decades, we are still very early on in the process of unpicking from our society the cultures and attitudes that have accumulated over millennia to enshrine women's secondary status. Many legal victories, such as the right to equal pay won in 1974, remain abstract pledges that are yet to translate into reality. Hard-fought gains, such as the right of women in the UK to seek a legal, safe abortion, are under continual attack. The constantly evolving economic and political world order means the ground we are working on for gender equality is constantly shifting, and new technological developments present challenges unique to this age.

Insidiously, though, the problems that remain seem to have become an accepted part of the landscape of our everyday lives - normal and inevitable. "Rape happens; women hate their bodies; and world leaders are usually male - that's just the way it is." The links between these problems and women's inequality have been hidden in the equality illusion. It is high-time to expose them.

The experiences of over 100 women and girls I interviewed recently for The Equality Illusion: The Truth About Women and Men Today put paid to any notion that we are "there" yet, that equality has been achieved. From the time they get up to the moment they go to bed, women's lives bear the stamp of inequality.

“I hate the fatness, the flesh, the excess. I can’t see myself ever liking it” – Ellen

When Ellen wakes up in the morning the first thing she thinks about is what she has eaten the day before. She is always cold and her limbs ache just getting out of bed. She has suffered from anorexia since she was 10 years old, and is just one of the 1.5 million people – 90 per cent of them female – who wake each morning in UK to an eating disorder. At the time I interviewed Ellen she weighed just 6 stone, 10 pounds.

What Ellen is experiencing is not the result of some random, unique set of circumstances. Today women’s bodies are denigrated as inanimate objects to be publicly scrutinised, maintained and manipulated for the benefit of others on a scale like never before. The result? An epidemic of body hatred, eating disorders, and a meteoric rise in the number of women turning to cosmetic surgery.

“On one occasion I fainted in class because I was so terrified of going to the next lesson which he shared with me” – Jena

Jena’s journey to school each morning has become increasingly stressful of late, and a few days ago she actually hyperventilated whilst in her mum’s car. The reason? She is being sexually harassed on a daily basis by Alec – a boy at her school. Yet when she told her head of year what had been going on the teacher’s response was . . . “boys will be boys”.

While the common perception is that it is boys being failed by schools, if we look behind the headlines we see a more complex picture. We find girls being taught a hidden curriculum of stereotyped behaviours, discouraged from maths and science, steered away from physical education, and subjected to sexual harassment. In fact, the World Health Organisation reports that school is the most common setting for sexual harassment and coercion.

“It is only a 40p [an hour] difference to the day shift, but I try and do the night shift so I can do the school runs. I cant make alternative arrangements or pay someone to take the kids to school” – Elizabeth

Elizabeth currently works as a cleaner in the City of London, working nights to juggle her responsibilities as a single mum, and earning just £7.60 an hour. She currently attends courses during the day so she can try and get into a better paid field, but this is proving extremely difficult to fit in, and on average she gets around four hours sleep each day. Unsurprisingly, Elizabeth is struggling to meet all her household bills.

Despite discrimination against women in the workplace having been outlawed nearly 40 years ago, 30,000 women lose their jobs every year simply for being pregnant, just 12 per cent of FTSE 100 company directors are women, and many women – like Elizabeth – are trapped by the sticky floor of low paid part-time work because those are the only jobs they can fit around their caring responsibilities. And it’s no coincidence that the work Elizabeth is paid so little for has traditionally been seen as “women’s work”.

Jobs traditionally done by women are still paid significantly less than those traditionally performed by men. This is part of the reason that poverty has a female face in the UK: two-thirds of low-paid workers are women.

“He strangled me for real, with both hands. I knew it was for real because the more I struggled the tighter he squeezed” – Amy

Amy is usually filled with dread on her way home from work each day because of the physical, sexual and psychological abuse her boyfriend regularly subjects her to. But she hasn’t been able to tell family or friends about what’s been going on and feels like she has nowhere else to go. Amy described to me how she feels utterly isolated at the moment and frequently contemplates suicide.

Yet despite her feelings of isolation, one in four women will, like Amy, be subjected to domestic violence at the hands of a current or former partner. It is just one of many forms of violence against women driven by sexist attitudes and cultures. Yet all too often, the victims are blamed and the perpetrators escape justice, leaving the conviction rate for rape in the UK standing at just 6.5 per cent.

“Lap dancing is one of the hardest things Ive ever done. Ive found it tough, soul destroying” – Lucy

Lucy started working nights in a lap dancing club shortly after being fired from her secretarial job. But it wasn’t only because she was desperate for money that Lucy decided to start working at the club. Lucy had also been raped as a teenager, and saw lap dancing as a way of potentially regaining her “sexual power” – because lap dancing is so often portrayed as empowering and liberating for women. But the reality has proved very different. Lucy described to me how each time she goes to work she feels less and less like a human being.

Never before has the sex industry been as profitable as it is today, with prostitution, pornography and stripping taking place on an unprecedented scale and influencing the very heart of mainstream western culture. Yet behind the industry’s rhetoric of “choice” and “empowerment”, women involved reveal that exploitation and abuse are intrinsic to these practices. The sex industry transports its consumers to a land that feminism forgot, where the women are biddable and are there to sexually service men. And everyone is paying the price.

“He can have his own life, but Im stuck with that child for the rest of my life. I know that sounds really horrible, but Im stuck”– Latisha

Whilst her boyfriend and most of her mates usually spend their evenings at the pub, Latisha is invariably exhausted and curled up in front of the TV. She hadn’t wanted to have child as teenager, but describes sex education at school as being “non-existent” and had felt pressurised into having sex before she was ready.

Latisha was fully aware that her friends and family disapproved of abortion, so when she found out she was pregnant going ahead with it seemed like the only option. And now, like Elizabeth, Latisha is struggling to pay the bills because she is paying the poverty penalty for having a child.

Despite the much vaunted sexual revolution of the 1960s and 70s, women and girls today are still subject to a sexual double standard, frequently pressurised into sex, and hampered in their efforts to seek a free, safe abortion – whether by social stigma, practical road blocks, or the law. Unequal power relations between women and men remain present in every sphere – and that includes in the bedroom.

TODAY, GENDER equality is an illusion. But it can be made a reality. Body hatred, violence, sexual exploitation – these are things that can be prevented. And a burgeoning movement of women and men are stepping forward to do just that.

As an activist based in the UK, I have been extremely heartened to witness increasing numbers of feminist conferences, marches, blogs and websites springing up over recent years. British campaigning gender equality body The Fawcett Society reports a threefold increase in membership over the last three years and most recently thousands of women marched through central London on March 6th demanding an end to violence against women as part of the annual Million Women Rise march.

From changing the law on how lap dancing clubs are licensed to stopping a branch of Hooters opening, the achievements being racked up by these activists testify to the power individuals have to bring about change. That’s why I’m involved in setting up UK Feminista – a unique new organisation seeking to reclaim feminism for the 21st century and support everyone to get active in the struggle against sexism. Because only when feminism is recognised for what it is (one of the most important movements for social justice of our age), and with everyone engaged in the process of change, will we see an end to the injustices suffered by women and girls like Ellen, Jena, Elizabeth, Amy, Lucy, and Latisha.

Everyone will benefit from a world in which women and men live equally. What will you do to help create it?

Kat Banyard is author of The Equality Illusion: The Truth About Women and Men Today, published by Faber and Faber. She is director of UK Feminista.