We need bolshie women journalists as role models
We need more women in high-ranking positions in journalism so the public can see itself reflected
From left: ‘Irish Times’ journalists Maeve Donnellan, Nell McCafferty, Mary Maher, Geraldine Kennedy, Gabrielle Williams, Renagh Holohan (seated), Christina Murphy, Mary Cummins and Caroline Walsh.
Just before Christmas, on one of several aborted gift-shopping expeditions, I found myself sheltering from torrential rain in Chapters bookshop on Dublin’s Parnell Street.
I hate shopping. It’s boring and stressful and makes me dehydrated. But being alone in a bookshop is different because it’s like hiding in silence. In the charmingly disorganised discount section, I stumbled across Changing the Times, for €2.99, a collection of work from Irish Times women journalists between 1969 and 1981.
In the 1970s, the imported New Journalism style made its way on to the Women First pages of the newspaper. Assembled by Elgy Gillespie, the collection includes pieces by Nell McCafferty, Maeve Binchy, Geraldine Kennedy, Caroline Walsh, Mary Leland and others. McCafferty meets the family of a girl in New York who was tarred and feathered in Derry. Binchy interviews Samuel Beckett. Mary Cummins talks to Bernadette Devlin about her first child. Sexuality, war, fashion, religion and feminism fizz from the pages.
My favourite article in the collection is by McCafferty from January 14th, 1974, 40 years ago, headlined “What Will the Well-Dressed Man Wear during 1974?”.
“The well-dressed man should wear clothes this year because if he does not he will be very cold. One of the reasons why he will be very cold is that we are suffering a fuel shortage. One of the reasons why we are suffering from a fuel shortage is that the miners who get their clothes dirty while digging underground are not being paid enough for the work they are doing, and are certainly not being paid for removing their dirty clothes, and washing themselves in the interests of hygiene. If the miners were paid more, we would have more fuel, the miners could afford clean clothes themselves, and men in general wouldn’t have to wear so many clothes throughout the year. That is all I have to say about men’s fashions.” That’s the entire article, start to finish. Genius.
The book has a couple of photographs of the women, positioned almost as a long-haired rebel football team behind their typewriters, a couple wearing the kind of oversized spectacles you’d now pay a fair whack for in Urban Outfitters. The only one smiling is Mary Maher. The expressions of the rest can only be described as staring with intent.
Discussions about freewheeling journalism in Ireland sometimes point to later in the 1970s, with the pseudo-hippy boyos of Hot Press canonising lads in bands and asking politicians “far out, man” questions about smoking weed. But what struck me while reading Changing the Times was how truly radical these women were, and how pertinent and exciting their take-us-or-leave-us attitude feels now, four decades later. I wasn’t even born in 1981, when the book’s contributions stop, and any social or cultural history of women in Ireland was conspicuously absent from my education.