Fresh from walking the pink carpet at the Met Gala this week, Saoirse Ronan and Sinéad Burke were back in Dublin on Thursday to take part in Feminists Don't Wear Pink, the podcast in which the writer and activist Scarlett Curtis talks to women about what feminism means to them.
The episode was recorded at the O’Reilly Theatre, in the traditionally male domain of Belvedere College, where hundreds of young women (and, yes, a handful of men) were treated to a wide-ranging discussion that touched on everything from fashion to intersectional feminism.
Grace Campbell, a young British comedian, warmed up the crowd with a ribald routine that included jokes on everything from "fanny farts" to masturbation – although the line that elicited the most gaps was the one in which she revealed who her father is.
“I’ve been trying to work out why I’m such a jealous person, and I realised it’s because from birth I’ve been competing with other people for my dad’s attention,” she said. “Most specifically, I’ve been competing with Tony Blair, because my dad is a man named Alastair Campbell.”
Then it was time for the main event.
Curtis, who also has a well-known father, the comedy writer and film director Richard Curtis, began by asking Ronan and Burke about their trip to New York. “Both of you are quite literally just off the pink carpet and probably still a bit hung-over,” Curtis said. “I am,” Ronan joked, pouring herself a glass of water.
“What I like about the Met Gala is that men and women both equally look mental,” the actor said. “Everybody pushes themselves out of their comfort zone. There are so many events where, as a girl, you feel like you’re going into the lion’s den a little bit, when you know your outfit is going to be compared to other people’s. Whereas with the Met everyone sort of looks equally outrageous.”
Burke made history on Monday night as the first little person to attend the gala. Having first written about the event for her blog six years ago, she described her journey from blogger to attendee as surreal.
Later, she discussed her work as a disability-rights activist and encouraging the fashion world to be more inclusive and considerate when it comes to design.
“You know a dress is designed by a man because a woman can get neither get in or out of it,” she joked, noting how difficult it is to pull up a zip at the back. “It was designed in a time when women had husbands or domestic help. What would work for me as a disabled woman is having a zip on the side or no zip at all.”
The conversation then shifted to feminism. In a world where politicians, pop stars and clothing brands are quick to cash in on the issue of women’s rights, it’s hard to fathom that until relatively recently it was almost taboo to identify as a feminist.
“I went to an all-girls school, but I don’t tangibly remember the rhetoric of feminism being around the corridors or something that we prized or cherished,” Burke said.
Ronan, who was also one of the contributors to Feminists Don't Wear Pink (and Other Lies), a book that Curtis curated, said she was always a feminist but only gained the vocabulary to be able to identify as one a few years ago. Feminism, she said, had helped inform her career choices. "I don't just want to play the girlfriend to someone else, or the sister to someone else, or even the daughter, if there's nothing interesting to do in that role," she said. "I realised later on that was a sort of feminist way of thinking."
Fashion and film are two industries synonymous with gender inequality. Curtis wondered how society could address the imbalance. Burke replied that there were structural issues holding women back that needed to be tackled. But she added that women also often hold themselves back because they lack confidence.
“I think there are so many opportunities for leadership, or opportunities for growth, that we deny ourselves as people because we think we’re not deserving or not good enough or not smart enough,” she said.
“I don’t know about you, but my best and worst quality is that I’m fiercely ambitious. A year ago I was asked in an interview what was my dream and what did I want to do. I said in that interview that I wanted to go to the Met Gala.
“So often we are afraid to dream and then we are afraid to realise that dream,” she said. “Try. What is the worst that could happen? That it doesn’t work out? That you fail? Whatever the results, you are going to learn something from it, and it’s going to be a part of you and who you become. My biggest advice would be, think you’re the shit – because everybody else does.”
Burke and Ronan both campaigned for a Yes vote in last year’s referendum to repeal the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution, in order to allow abortion. Ronan credited the success of the campaign to the Irish people.
“I think we’ve got this fire in us,” she said. “There’s this spirit we have that has not gone away, no matter how many times bigger bullies in the schoolyard have come along and tried to knock it out of us. I think people just got fed up of being told by the church, basically, that you have to be and live in a certain way. We got bored of it and we got sick of it.”
Burke agreed. “I was born in 1990, when Mary Robinson became president, and she said that the women didn’t just rock the cradle, they rocked the system,” she said. “I think it was an echo of that.”
Then came a cry from the crowd about legalising abortion in Northern Ireland, which was applauded by both the audience and the three women on stage. “I hope you’ll continue to fight for the six counties,” Burke said.