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‘Doors are closed on girls and women because we are not boys’

International Women’s Day: Five writers on what it means to be a ‘bold girl’

Celine Kiernan: behaviour rewarded in our brothers – outspokenness, assertiveness, self-confidence and physicality – is disapproved of in us, dismissed as bossy, opinionated, pushy, selfish
Yasmeen Ismail. Photograph: Jake Green

Yasmeen Ismail
The mid-1980s in north Dublin was an independent time for me. I was given keys to the house and was told to ‘go out’ for a time whilst my parents got on with parental things, or whatever it is grown-ups do (don’t ask me – I have no idea). I would cycle around on my inherited blue BMX bike. I would turn left out of my drive and ride up and down the empty estate, passing the same row of houses back and forth with nowhere in particular to go. Occasionally my sister would join me, or during the summer holidays there would be other kids about, playing in small groups in the front gardens of strangers. Towards the end of the day, when everyone else had been called in for their tea, I would cycle up to our back gate in the fading light and deposit my bike in the back yard. On one such evening the sun was setting and bright gold filled the sky. Tired and hungry from an afternoon of nothing and nowhere in particular I arrived home and propped my bicycle against the wall. A boy from the house down the road watched me as I did this. As I lifted the latch on the gate he opened his trap.

Yasmeen Ismail

‘THAT’S A BOY’S BIKE,’ he yelled. He was mocking me.

Delighted with himself for outing me, he moved on to his respective home on his own boy’s bike where, undoubtedly, he would eat his fish fingers with chips and peas, revelling in the fact that he had righted a wrong. Like Batman. Or God.

Enraged, I wasted no time and cycled to where he lived. I calmly approached his front door and rang the bell. His mother answered. ‘Yes?’ she said. She seemed normal (of course she was) and looked upon me with little to no prejudice (this Asian child, possibly the first of my kind she had ever met), her son hanging out in the background, barely visible despite his enormous gut and ruddy-red cheeks.

‘He said my bike was a boy’s bike!’ I declared loudly (in fairness I was very loud, so this is not exceptional).

She looked kindly on me (like the Jesus hanging in her hallway) and sweetly replied, ‘Well then’, she paused, ‘I don’t think he will get his Kinder Surprise this week.’

I watched as his horrified face disappeared behind the closing door.

I wheeled my BMX back home, not as triumphant as I should have felt. There was a much greater injustice afoot.

He gets a Kinder Surprise every week?
Yasmeen Ismail is an Irish-born author-illustrator living in Bristol. Her award-winning picturebooks are published worldwide. She loves to experiment with her work and is always trying new ways to improve her writing and drawing.

Marita Conlon McKenna

Marita Conlon McKenna
In school, I would never have been considered a particularly bold or brave girl, as I was a dreamy bookworm, but somehow or other I sometimes found myself in trouble with the nuns and my teachers. It was strange but usually it was because I thought something was unfair or wrong and I was not prepared to stay quiet about it.

Now I am grown up and I guess I’m still the same, as I’m not prepared to stay quiet about things, and I love to create characters in my books that are bold and brave.

Being strong and brave when you are a girl or woman can be hard, but I learned a huge amount about being bold and unafraid to do or say things from my wonderful aunt Eleanor Murphy. She was my mum’s older sister and almost like a second mum to me.

She came to Dublin from Skibbereen in West Cork and was considered wild and unconventional. In 1956 Eleanor opened her small shop on Dublin’s South Anne Street selling hand-knitted Aran jumpers and Irish tweeds and kilts and beautiful crochet and linen blouses.

She was a remarkable woman and probably the first person to set up a mail-order catalogue to sell her hand knits into America. I spent so much of my childhood and life in that wonderful shop, as my mother worked part-time there too.

Marita Conlon McKenna

My aunt Eleanor brought me my first ever proper book – an illustrated copy of Hans Christian Andersen’s stories – filling my head with fairy tales and stories of her childhood, warning me about the banshee and the fairies, and telling me of the terrible famine times in Skibbereen.

My aunt could sew and design and make anything, even outfits for my Sindy doll, running them up on her old Singer sewing machine.

One time a hairdresser burned her head giving her a perm and she had to buy a wig and wear it for a few months. My sister and I loved that brown wig and used to take it out and wear it or tease my dad and uncles by putting it on their heads when they dozed off.

She lived in a big flat in a Georgian house on Hatch Street and had a wonderful boyfriend, Seamus, who drove a Morris Minor. She loved him dearly but would not marry him for she would have been expected to look after his old family home, which was nearby, and not her own business. When Seamus died Eleanor came to live permanently with our family.

Eleanor was full of life, every morning doing her keep-fit stretches. I remember her as always being optimistic and in good spirits. She refused to retire, working actively in the shop until she reached her late eighties.

When I began to write, my aunt Eleanor encouraged me to keep going and not give up and, most of important of all, to keep writing and telling stories if that was the thing that made me happy.
Marita Conlon McKenna has written thirteen children’s books, including the much-loved novel Under the Hawthorn Tree. Her awards include the International Reading Association Award USA and the Bisto Book of the Year Award.

Celine Kiernan. Photograph: Grace Kiernan

Celine Kiernan
For some people the word bold means naughty, a character trait to be punished and curbed. For some the word means brave, a character trait to be encouraged and praised.

When we are young, if we’re lucky, girls get to be bold in all the same ways boys do: we splash and mess and shout and run and hang upside-down from the monkey bars. We get the best of both worlds with our tutus and our tea parties and our karate and our science. But then something happens and suddenly the same behaviour that is rewarded in our brothers – outspokenness, assertiveness, self-confidence and physicality – is disapproved of in us. We find ourselves dismissed as bossy, opinionated, pushy, selfish.

One after another, doors start closing on us. Some are closed so quietly that they’re shut before we even know they exist – we may never fully understand what those doors have excluded us from. Some are slammed violently at the very last moment, shocking us, as until then we’d believed we’d as much right to walk through them as our brothers. Throughout our lives these doors will be many and varied, but they will all have one thing in common: they will be closed on us because we are not boys.

Let me tell you a true story. I wrote a book once, featuring a brash, outspoken, assertive, no-nonsense little character who takes no guff from anyone. I wrote two versions. In one version the character was a boy. In the other, the character was a girl. The two stories were exactly the same in every single way. The only thing I changed were the pronouns involved (‘he’ became ‘she’, ‘his’ became ‘hers’ and so on).

Readers loved the character as a boy.

Readers thoroughly disliked the same character as a girl.

The same actions, the same dialogue, the same thought processes that made readers love the boy made them uncomfortable and disapproving of the girl. The discomfort was not prompted by anything that was said or done, but by whether or not it was said and done by a girl.

It was a shock to me to discover this prejudice not only in my normally open-minded readers, but also in myself. I realised that I’d had to force myself to think of a character as a boy before I could get them to behave the way I wanted.

I learned something from that. I learned that brave is brave, strong is strong, determined is determined. But sometimes the world refuses to see these things in a girl. Sometimes it refuses to allow these things. If that’s going to be the case, we bold girls must see these things in each other. We must witness each other’s boldness. We must support it. If doors are closed to us, we must open them for ourselves and for all the bold girls to come. We must acknowledge our own greatness and be unafraid and unashamed to say,

‘I am bold. I am a bold girl! Make of that what you will, world, because I’m not changing just to please you.’
Celine Kiernan was born and raised in Dublin. Her books combine fantasy with political, humanitarian and philosophical themes. They’ve won the RAI Best Book Award twice, the CBI Book of the Year Award and Children’s Choice Award, and have been included in The Irish Times best children’s books of the past 25 years.

Sarah and Rosie Webb

Sarah Webb
The world is full of remarkable women. I grew up in Dalkey, Co Dublin, and as a teenager there was one woman who impressed me more than anyone else, my godmother, June Jackson, a woman who always wore fuchsia tweed cloaks and jackets and, as an older woman, had the most wonderful pale-pink hair.

‘You can do anything you want to, Sarah,’ she’d tell me. ‘Anything. As long as you set your mind to it and work hard.’ She’d been a ballet dancer in her own youth, then a harpist and later an award-winning gardener. She’d turn up on my doorstep out of the blue with her arms full of pink roses, just because. I knew I was her favourite and that meant the world to me.

I’ve never been prouder than at the launch of my first book when she handed me a cheque to buy something nice with and said, ‘You did it, now write another one.’ I kept going because of June’s encouragement. And I still keep going.

June died several years ago and I still miss her. I keep a carefully sealed bag in the bottom of my wardrobe with one of her pink jackets in it. Now and then I take it out and breathe in her essence. Essence of hope, essence of love. I was also inspired to write by Maeve Binchy, who lived just down the road from our house. I’d see her in the village from time to time and she was always so kind, so encouraging. ‘How’s the writing going?’ she’d ask with a big smile. ‘Well, I hope. Keep at it.’

Sarah Webb

My second proudest moment was having a short story in the same anthology as one of Maeve’s. At the launch of the book The Irish Times photographer took our picture together. ‘Two Dalkey writers,’ he said. She laughed. ‘Young and young at heart,’ she added.

When Mary Robinson became the first woman president of Ireland, I took great heart from this. No one believed she’d win, but win she did, and I was cheering for her all the way. She was a strong, intelligent woman and it was time that people started taking notice of Ireland’s female leaders. I admire her to this day for fighting injustice and doing her best to change things for future generations.

There are many women in the arts whom I admire, but three writers in particular have not only been an inspiration to me, they have also become close friends: Marita Conlon McKenna, Judi Curtin and Martina Devlin. Creative, intelligent and wise, when I have writing dramas they are always my first ports of call. I’m not sure I could finish a book without them. I don’t often thank them but I’d like to now - thank you for helping me write, for being my sounding boards, for nurturing my creativity and believing in me. Thank you for supporting my dreams.
Sarah Webb is an award-winning champion of children’s books, a writer and a creative-writing teacher. Her book about remarkable Irish women who changed the world, Blazing a Trail, is published in 2018.

Lucinda Jacob

Lucinda Jacob
‘You only regret the things you don’t do.’ I’m not sure where or when I first came across this notion, but in the past few years it has become my mantra, one I repeat to myself, my daughters and anyone else who needs encouragement to take a risk and to get out into our wonderful, wild world. And we do all need encouragement. Courage!

I am so proud to be counted a BOLD GIRL, but it is kind of hilarious, as I was always a ‘good girl’, cautious, anxious even, occasionally ebullient, but really not a ‘bold girl’ at all!

It is pretty amazing to think that when I was growing up, more than half a century after the first women got the vote, being a ‘good girl’, being kind and considerate, always putting others first, was still seen as more important than being confident and reaching one’s full potential. In fairness, I wanted the praise that came with being ‘good’ - a good reader, good at drawing, good at writing poems, good at spelling and comprehension (hopeless at ball games), a good girl. We seemed to be endlessly told not to run and definitely not to shout or whistle or take two stairs at once – a good thing they didn’t know the dare on the way to school was to jump off the back of the bus while it was still moving. OMG, that was bold!

But then again, I did get wonderful encouragement from not just one, but several really great teachers, and gradually over the years I learned the pleasure and thrill of achieving things that had seemed ‘not for me’. It may seem odd but writing stories was one of the things that I felt I couldn’t do. My teachers usually let me write poems or extra comprehension instead and later I ‘did’ English at university. But it was the encouragement I got from CLAI (now CBI) when I started reviewing for them that really got me going - that and the birth of my girls, as I wanted to show them that writing is just telling people stuff and there’s nothing to fear.

All this encouragement stayed with me, and now a lot of what I do as a writer has to do with encouraging the confidence and creativity of the girls - and boys - that I meet in school or library visits and workshops. Encouraging them to be bold and take risks is wonderfully invigorating for us all and I love it.

Lucinda Jacob

I believe being a BOLD GIRL must mean being true to yourself, finding and fulfilling your potential, and there are so many, many ways to be in the world, so here’s to all the assertive girls, shy girls, brave girls, quiet girls, fearful girls, kind girls, adventurous girls, clever girls, thoughtful girls, confused girls, exuberant girls, tentative girls, polite girls, watchful girls, joyful girls, loud girls, cautious girls, rude girls, playful girls, generous, courageous and BOLD GIRLS - so many possibilities. Get out there girl - you only regret the things you don’t do!
Lucinda Jacob is a poet, illustrator, author of fiction for young people and creative-writing facilitator. Her most recent book is Hopscotch in the Sky (Little Island Books/Poetry Ireland), a collection of seasonal poems for children. @lucindajwriter

These short essays are part of Bold Girls, a Children’s Books Ireland project that includes an 88-page Reading Guide, school resource pack, events, and bookshop campaigns, launching on March 8th, International Women’s Day, with an exhibition in the old library at Trinity College Dublin