‘Am I a Feminist? Are You?’ review: Essays to amuse and enrage
Mary Kenny’s brand of feminism pleads for tolerance and open-mindedness
Women on the platform of Connolly Station, Dublin, in 1971 prior to boarding the Belfast train to buy contraceptives, which were illegal in the Republic in the 1970s and 1980s. Photograph: The Irish Times
Am I a feminist? Are you?
These 83 short essays by one of the pioneers of the Irish women’s liberation movement are arranged as an A-to-Z trot through a wide-ranging alphabet of topics. Some of these are serious – rape, prostitution, pornography – but many are of a more light-hearted nature: “equal toilets”, “manspreading”, the historical horrors of the Irish dance floor.
Thanks to the brevity of the chapters and the magpie nature of the material, Am I a Feminist? is a chocolate box crammed with tiny, crunchy bites that serve as an introduction to a feminist view of the world. There are quotes from Camille Paglia, Gloria Steinem, Germaine Greer and Simone de Beauvoir as well as a new generation of internet and social media commentators such as Laura Bates and Laura Freeman.
Kenny likes to make mischief. She begins her piece on “Patriarchy” by acknowledging that the patriarchal attitudes that have been endemic to public institutions in the past, “are the recognised culprits of women’s oppression through the centuries”.
But, she argues, most men are not patriarchal. “I’ve known men who were hopeless, feckless, penniless, faithless and useless,” she writes, continuing her litany with “abandoning fathers, bigamist husbands, cadgers, bounders, blubbers, soaks, hen-pecked weaklings, maladroit adulterers, two-timing love-rats, narcissistic popinjays, unreliable gigolos, chancers, bores … ”
Kenny keeps her chronicle of male ineptitude going for another 14 lines. It’s the sort of flamboyant overstatement that – as she knows very well – will either amuse or enrage her readers. Nor does she hesitate to make jokes about, for example, the subject of sexual harassment, which may set off alarm bells with anyone who has found themselves outraged by the recent revelations from within the arts community in Ireland and farther afield.
But perhaps it’s unfair to take issue with individual points in this way, because Am I a feminist? Are You? is not intended as a carefully argued theory of anything. Throughout the book Kenny sets out contradictory arguments and, as the title of the book suggests, leaves the readers to decide for themselves.
Diversity of opinion
Her aim is to show that within the broader feminist movement there is room for a great diversity of opinion. “Feminism is not a tightly-organised society like the Freemasons, or a club where you must obey the rules to get elected,” she writes in her epilogue. “I believe the most vital aspect of being a feminist is just this: think for yourself.”
Over five decades of activism and commentary, Kenny has encountered the great and the good of feminist history and while this is not a conventional memoir, among its most appealing aspects are the occasional celebrity anecdotes – including a pen portrait of Betty Friedan, whose book The Feminine Mystique was hugely influential for Kenny herself.
She met the great woman at an Oxford Union debate in the 1980s. “She bore a striking resemblance, I thought, to Indira Gandhi, and also to the comedian Les Dawson”. As they walked in the garden together, Friedan vomited into the plants, announced “It’s the medication” and carried on the conversation, completely unabashed – leaving Kenny to admire Friedan’s confidence, although, not surprisingly, she admits to being able to remember little else that was said.
Overall, this is an entertaining little book, which would make an easygoing and accessible starting point for anyone seeking to embark on an exploratory journey into areas of debate, which will, almost certainly, become ever more difficult, divisive and devoid of either humour or tolerance as we approach the Eighth Amendment referendum next year.