What did feminism have to do with me?

Fiftysomething: In my youth, it felt like the choices on offer to us knee-socked convent girls were desperately limited


A couple of weeks ago, on the morning the Leaving Certificate results came out, I received a text from a young friend of mine. It read: “I got 555! So delighted aggghh!!!!!”

My friend is a lovely, funny, diligent young woman; she worked hard and consistently. Unsurprisingly, she has been offered the course she wants at the university she wants; she has aspirations, plans, great hopes for her future. She is standing on the cusp of a silver moon.

My teenage son once saw the
well-crafted notes she had for each of her subjects, filed in poly pockets and ring binders, underlined, colour-coded, legible. “Cool,” he said. “Amazing.” Then shook his head in gentle disbelief and loped off back to the PlayStation.

Once again, this year girls have
outperformed boys in the Leaving Cert. They have even begun to outpace
boys in subjects that were traditionally seen as male, subjects such as physics
and technology.

There are a couple of exceptions, however: apparently boys are better at Arabic and applied maths. They are also better at losing their keys, their phones, their bus tickets and their winter jackets; sometimes even finding their shoes can be a little taxing.

On the cusp of their own dreams
Anyway, later that evening I was sitting outside a bar with a friend, a woman who is almost exactly my age. Her bicycle was chained to the lamp post, her helmet was on the table next to our two glasses of red wine, and, while I was inside getting us a refill, she had hopped up on her rothar, raced down the funky road and bought us a packet of cigarettes, although neither of us really smokes any more.

But it was one of those nights: we hadn’t seen each other for a long time, we had news to exchange and, rightly or wrongly, we were behaving like a couple of
wrinkled schoolgirls at the back of the Zimmer-frame shed.

Since we’d last met, we’d both turned 50. She had entered into a civil partnership with her girlfriend and continued on with her extremely successful career; I’d done quite a lot of ironing.

As we sat outside the bar, the conversation turned to the young women we
know, and how good it is to see them achieving a kind of equality that neither
of us felt fully existed when we were in their shoes, and standing on the cusp of our own dreams.

Remembering my own youth, through
a smoky haze and a beaker full of plonk,
it felt like the choices on offer to us knee-socked convent girls were desperately limited. There was the secretarial course, the bank, or, if you were committed and capable enough, nursing (and indeed many of my contemporaries built extraordinary careers from the same).

A select few joined Aer Lingus, albeit in support tights and pencil skirts, not with wings on their lapels. My own education continued on restaurant floors and in various pungent sluice rooms. In 1979
a mere handful of my classmates from
my middle-class Dublin suburb went on
to university.

Kicking back against paternalism
As the night deepened, my friend talked about her sexuality, about how living in London in the early 1980s, cutting her hair, scrubbing off her make-up and sleeping with other women felt like political as well as personal acts, a way of ensuring that she could pursue her work while also kicking back against paternalism and more traditional paths.

She said that everything now has changed for young women coming into her industry; that it is no longer necessary for them to neutralise their femininity in order to be taken seriously.

I told her that I still feel a bit shaky if I go out without my make-up on, that I still find it hard to present my naked face to the world, that something had been ingrained way, way back, something fundamental about presenting a palatable face to the world and tucking your anger and ambition away underneath your hairband.

I told her that, to my shame, it wasn’t until I found myself in a relationship with a man whose former girlfriend had worked for a feminist publisher, and whose shelves were full of books from the Women’s Press, that I even began to consider that the word “feminism” had anything to do with me.

In truth, I told her, I feel a kind of envy for my young Leaving Cert friend. I want to stand again on the cusp of adulthood, feeling equal to the world and entitled to pursue an education.

I’m delighted that girls are coming through our system with flying colours; I’m delighted that our daughters are conquering their worlds. And I’m
cautiously grateful that it wouldn’t even occur to our sons, as they search under the bed for their football socks, to view their fellow female students as anything but entirely equal.

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