Una Mullally: Why women have risen to the top in 1916 lore

‘In a country with a lot of barrier-breaking to be done for women, a female narrative is a welcome one’

Author and historian Liz Gillis talks about the role of women and a few of the key female players in the 1916 rising. Video: Kathleen Harris

 

It’s Easter Monday, and the pinnacle of the centenary celebrations, although like a good little pedant, I’m saving marking the occasion properly until late April.

Say what you like about the various hooplas that have surrounded the hows and whys of commemorating the Easter Rising, one thing the tone of remembrance has got right is the “whos”.

The feminist, journalist, activist and author Gloria Steinem who turned 82 last week was speaking to the Observer recently upon the publication of her autobiography My Life On The Road: “Research on young male and female achievers showed that a woman’s intellectual self-esteem diminishes with every year of higher education she undertakes, because she increasingly studies women’s absence from history.” That statement is simultaneously chilling and revelatory.

Men have so many role models across so many disciplines. Award ceremonies are cluttered with male film directors. Boardrooms are oversubscribed with men. Male tech company billionaires grin from magazine covers.

News bulletins end with rich young men playing football. Sportsmen are lionised as heroes. Most leaders of countries are men. Male rappers grimace in videos, tossing money around. Famous male authors are treated with reverential respect.

And so men have this brilliant, exciting menu of role models to choose from who are front and centre, doing their thing successfully and being given all of the plaudits they deserve.

No matter what a young man wants to achieve, there is pretty much a role model to fit his dreams and aspirations.

People ridicule the trend of women seeking “inspiration”, but I can see why we need it. Our challenges are larger, our role models fewer, our negative feedback louder.

Fragments

Sometimes I resent being presented with fewer female writers and artists and female figures in general as a child and a teenager, because you then spend your life playing catch-up, finding out about people you surely should have known already.

Women trying to find out about what women did before them become like archeologists, searching for fragments of female participation in history.

They’re there, of course, but maybe they weren’t let achieve their dreams or crow about them.

Our archaeological dig has been on a narrow field for quite some time and with each layer of history unearthed and each wave of new female participation in society, the world of women to discover and look up to expands.

But even when women do achieve greatness, there can often be a wink and a nudge about the patriarchal context, as if they could have only done so with a bloke in their sphere, perhaps one who was more brilliant, and maybe as a result even owns a little of their sparkle.

Next to Frida Kahlo there’s Diego Rivera, next to Eileen Gray it’s Le Corbusier, next to Harper Lee there’s Truman Capote, next to Sylvia Plath it’s Ted Hughes, next to Courtney Love there’s Kurt Cobain.

Defiant

Last weekend, the Dublin graffiti artist Emma Blake stood next to a 10ft Countess she had just finished in the yard of the Bernard Shaw pub in Dublin.

On the rest of the wall, female artists were busy creating a mural that spelled out ‘Minaw’, the name of their collective, and a phonetic play on “mná”.

The scrolls between the letters that pulled the mural together were inspired by the typography on those iconic Cumann na mBan badges.

The Countess stood defiant, painted with a can of spray paint in her hand, as if she was the one spraying the mural to life.

A couple of weeks previously, the artist Gearóid O’Dea installed a paste-up of Markievicz, Margaret Pearse and Grace Gifford-Plunkett called ‘Le Chéile i nGruaig’ on a gable wall at the end of George’s Street in Dublin.

Our art reflects us, but it is street artists and spoken word artists who respond the most rapidly to social and cultural sentiment.

These are instantaneous forms compared to the more laborious process of theatre-making and presenting, songwriting and recording, visual art and its exhibiting, and certainly filmmaking.

On walls and makeshift stages, the street art and poetry fizzing around the country is reflecting a female narrative of revolution.

The “whos” of the Rising that are having the most impact are women.

The stories that are being pushed and pulled to the fore are of women, and very often by women – thanks to some of our great female historians who have been banging this drum for some time.

It’s probably no accident either, that women are to the fore in the centenary when the two ministers who oversaw the centenary planning, Heather Humphreys and Aodhán Ó Riordáin, are both feminists.

In a country that still has a lot of barrier-breaking to be done for women, especially in terms of bodily autonomy, a female narrative is a welcome one.

I’m sure some people might feel that the role of women in the Rising is being overstated.

But men’s roles in history are overstated all the time. We’re just catching up – and isn’t it sad that many women’s stories didn’t get the attention they deserved until now?

Hopefully, when the centenary itself is dissected in years to come, and the new stories we have learned about 1916 and its inciters are reflected upon, there will be far fewer women absent. Come on, na mBan.

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