We would not know of the horrific extent of male violence against women and children. We would not have this year’s Electoral Amendment Bill. Feminists have confronted the shame which was used to oppress earlier generations of women, in, for example, Magdalene laundries. They have played a central role in the modernising of Irish society.
However, feminism has never become popular. Many women in Ireland who assert their rights and show solidarity with, and compassion for, other women, insist they are not feminists. The Irish women’s movement has been riven by quarrels and splits, notably over the national question. There has been a dearth of new ideas on questions of class, an intolerance of dissent.
The contribution men can make remains uneasily undefined. Having, in Michael D Higgins, a male president who is avowedly a feminist, and has a record of activism to prove it, should help.
Structures have been problematic. Feminist organisations have struggled with tensions between respectability and the radical, subversive nature of their political analysis. The withdrawal of state funding has been used to silence protest.
Irish feminism has often seemed strangely uncomfortable with powerful women, and has a troubled tradition of only begrudgingly handing over the mantle to the next generation. The late June Levine described feminists of the mid 1970s as “young, brilliant, bursting with energy and commitment”. They were ready to toss the old guard of feminism aside to make way for the new. One of the most brilliant of that generation, journalist Nell McCafferty, went on to chart the fierce “wars of the womb” of the 1980s, when feminists were pitted against the “unborn”.
In 2011 McCafferty said on radio that Irish feminism had gone. It hadn’t survived that onslaught. It might rise again some time in the future, but for now, it had disappeared.
It hadn’t, of course. It had just changed. Flamboyant gestures like the Contraceptive Train had yielded to the hard graft of running services, raising funds, lobbying European and international bodies. A new generation was rising – as Ivana Bacik has pointed out, it was student feminists (among whom she was prominent), who went on to lead the struggle for abortion rights in the aftermath of the X rape case in 1992. That campaign continues, with the Irish Family Planning Association working alongside feminist activists including Choice Ireland and the new Action X group, as well as supporting women who took cases to the European Court of Human Rights.
Those who fought so hard and selflessly for our suffrage would be appalled by the current gender balance in the Houses of the Oireachtas. Just 15 per cent of TDs are women. Bacik, in her role as a Senator, has made a huge contribution to our understanding of why this democratic deficit persists. The new law, which penalises parties which do not apply candidate selection quotas, will certainly bring some degree of change. However, it does not apply to local elections, where many politicians cut their teeth, and currently just 17 per cent of councillors are women.