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

Mon, Feb 10, 2014, 06:00

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.

Men’s fashions
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.

Reading Changing the Times was like a haze lifting, but the fog falls again when one wonders why we don’t have more radical female voices in journalism today. Georgina Henry died last week, aged 53. Henry was a former deputy editor of the Guardian and launched Comment is Free, a democratic and pioneering platform that gives access to voices and views that much of the media routinely excludes.

In Britain, as part of and thanks to Feminism 4.0, there is a solid tier of bolshie and brilliant women journalists and commentators. The importance of these women is not just about how entertaining and informative their voices are, it’s about them being role models. The impact of not having strong female voices does not just deny mouthy women journalists space, it denies young aspiring journalists role models.

In 2012, when hundreds of women journalists in Germany wrote a letter to media outlets suggesting at least 30 per cent of leadership positions in Germany’s print media should be occupied by women within the next five years (only 2 per cent of these jobs are held by women in Germany), the international commentary ranged from “How curious!” to “What an awful idea!”. But what is so outrageous about suggesting women should be represented even by a paltry 30 per cent?

Gender equality in the media is often misinterpreted as an exercise in bumping women up the ranks for the sake of a ratio. But the journalists themselves are almost incidental. We need more women in high-ranking positions in journalism not so media organisations can high-five each other about how right-on they are but so the readers and viewers and listeners can see themselves reflected. It is about the audience, not the actors.

Those who oppose gender quotas in an arena such as politics, for example, sell a parallel universe where, all things being equal, the best person should get the job. That’s fantastic, and I look forward to journeying with them to Narnia where we can snack on snozberries and ride around on unicorns all day. Because all things aren’t equal. Gender equality progressing “organically” is a slow boat, and I want a jet pack.

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