Irish women continue to fight, 100 years after 1918

Vote 100: A century on from 1918, the Eighth Amendment referendum was most momentous vote for Irish women

11- and 12-year-old students at Gaelscoil Bharra in Cabra, Dublin 7 talk to their principal Sean O Donaile about women's equality and female heroes.

 

One hundred years after women over the age of 30 voted in Ireland for the first time, it was women under 30 who turned out in landmark numbers to repeal the Eighth Amendment, perhaps the most significant vote women in Ireland ever cast, besides their first one a century ago. The increase in turnout among women aged 18 to 24 in the Repeal referendum compared to the 2016 generation election was 94 per cent. 

The dominance of feminism in contemporary Irish discourse has to be seen in a global context, where the popularity and mainstreaming of a new wave of feminist politics has occurred, particularly since the late 1990s. A type of multifaceted open-source feminism that champions “tools not rules”, has seeped into thought, art, design, comedy, and ideals in tandem with the era of self-publishing and global connectivity the internet heralded. 

“From 1918 to 2018, we are talking about different planets,” says Ailbhe Smyth, the feminist campaigner who inspired a new generation of Irish women, given her prominence in both the marriage equality referendum of 2015 and the abortion referendum of 2018.

She cites technology as a very contemporary feminist conundrum. “I do think that over my lifetime, which is roughly four generations or something, my generation is very different to my mother’s and grandmother’s, and looking at my daughter and granddaughter, the sense that I have is there are huge differences and opportunities in their lives that I didn’t even think about for myself . . .

“Technology has such an impact on all our lives and we haven’t even begun to grasp what it means in terms of gender. Technology, like everything else, gets gendered because we live in gendered societies, and that’s true across the world. We tend to think of tech as something hard, therefore it’s neutral, therefore it’s not about the social, but of course not only things like Silicon Valley and #MeToo demonstrate how social technology is in so many ways. I think that’s the big challenge that’s coming up to understand that.”

Action is being taken in employment too, where in June, Cabinet approved legislation that compels companies with more than 250 employees to report gender pay gaps. Many countries have pay transparency legislation, including Britain, France, Germany and Australia. In academia, Minister for Higher Education Mary Mitchell-O’Connor is leading a Government plan to introduce 45 female-only senior academic roles. Enterprise Ireland has female-only entrepreneur “start funds”. 

Waking the Feminists movement, which began in reaction to the Abbey Theatre’s male-dominated 2016 programme. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill / The Irish Times
Waking the Feminists movement, which began in reaction to the Abbey Theatre’s male-dominated 2016 programme. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill / The Irish Times

Waking the Feminists

In the arts, the Waking the Feminists movement, which began in reaction to the Abbey Theatre’s male-dominated 2016 programme, put the sector on watch, along with instigating remarkable work in awareness-raising, creating policy changes within the industry, and mobilising female arts practitioners. The idea of gender-proofing programmes and being mindful about inclusion and representation has become a default setting for many arts festival organisers and venues, a shift that is seismic. Fís Éireann/Screen Ireland’s five-year gender and diversity strategy includes female-only funding and mentorship schemes, such as POV. 

The conversation started by #MeToo was perhaps not as loud or continuous in Ireland as elsewhere, and the reasons for that need to be unpicked. The theatre-maker Grace Dyas brought allegations against former Gate Theatre artistic director Michael Colgan into the public sphere, but many women are left wondering what the consequences really are for men who abuse power. 

One industry that struggles with addressing representation at senior levels is the media. In print media, there is a dearth of female editors, and in some newsrooms, business and sports journalism remain male-dominated. RTÉ has also been tackling its gender pay gap.

‘Freedom re-defined...’

Eavan Boland’s poem marking 100 years of votes for women READ NOW
Photograph: Artur Widak/NurPhoto via Getty Images
Photograph: Artur Widak/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Outside of the top-down initiatives that attempt to reconfigure the bottom-up landscape, there is a multitude of activism happening both as a parallel and an underground. This is typified by the do-it-yourself grassroots attitude that found energy with the campaign to repeal the Eighth Amendment. The feminist revolution that happened while the media was largely focused on party politics and personalities, was made up of largely “ordinary” people who were invested in the issue and brought their skills to self-initiated projects.

These people, mostly women, took it upon themselves to organise with a creative energy – initiating fundraising campaigns, collating and broadcasting personal stories online, designing platforms and protest apparel, jewellery and art, tackling the theme of reproductive rights in literature, marching, and so on. The Repeal movement captured how grassroots feminist activism can be seen as a quilt, where the often eclectic individual patchwork is gathered to create not just something that is more than the sum of its parts, but within which the parts can also function autonomously yet are implicitly connected. 

Messages were left at a memorial to Savita Halappanavar in Dublin after the Eighth Amendment was repealed by popular vote in May 2018. Photograph: Tom Honan.
Messages were left at a memorial to Savita Halappanavar in Dublin after the Eighth Amendment was repealed by popular vote in May 2018. Photograph: Tom Honan.

Many aspects of this, including the Abortion Rights Campaign, Repeal Project, In Her Shoes, the X-ile Project, the Hunreal Issues, the Artists’ Campaign to Repeal the Eighth Amendment, and the countless number of fundraising events and products, art pieces, videos, the funding of diaspora returning to vote, demonstrated an intergenerational collective spirit that continues to exude energy. 

Rosaleen McDonagh. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill / The Irish Times
Rosaleen McDonagh. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill / The Irish Times

It’s this less-structured feminism that resonates with Rosaleen McDonagh, a Traveller woman with a disability, a playwright and writer, “informal feminism [that is] community-based [is] always being vibrant”, she says, something that is not necessarily “recognised by academics”. McDonagh’s point is a crucial one, as Irish feminism has expanded far beyond the often overly middle-class confines of university campuses and lecture halls, into an intersectional grassroots, a space where working-class women have always led the charge.

Contemporary opposition

What is also significant is the contemporary opposition a new wave of feminism faces – the drip-down politics coming from several quarters, including the online men’s rights movement, the “alt-right”, and figures such as Jordan B Peterson. This rhetoric and standpoint is a visceral one, coopting the language and tactics of the oppressed to recalibrate those at the top of the food chain in terms of opportunities in society as somehow being victimised by the pursuit of gender equality. This contemporary opposition looks a lot like the type of historical opposition that never really went away.

It can be difficult to appease and frustrating to encounter the fears of men who feel threatened by feminism. The framing of feminism as something unfair to men, the rebranding of civil rights as a derogatory or patronising take on “identity politics” mostly by those who perceive identities outside of their own as “other”, the defensiveness that often women-only initiatives or gender quotas are met with, and the desire to view societies as meritocracies without acknowledging the structural obstacles women face that deny them an equal footing “on merit”, is a standpoint that exposes the need for men to be invested in and educated on gender equality. Women’s equality requires a buy-in from everyone.

While much has been achieved, the cruel, unacceptable and traumatising obstacles to women’s equality remain in the form of physical and sexual violence against women, epidemics that populate newspapers and news bulletins day in, day out.

Belfast Feminist Network activists protesting outside Kingspan Stadium in Belfast in April, after two players were acquitted of rape. Photograph: Liam McBurney/PA Wire
Belfast Feminist Network activists protesting outside Kingspan Stadium in Belfast in April, after two players were acquitted of rape. Photograph: Liam McBurney/PA Wire

The solidarity protests that occurred in reaction to the Ulster Rugby rape trial earlier this year, and discussions about consent spurred by significant conversation-starters such as Louise O’Neill’s novel Asking For It, speak to a broader desire to tackle the age-old problem. 

The feminist bucket list is long, but it is not linear, with achievements and activism influencing each other and happening all at once. Equal pay, equal conditions at work, access to childcare, dismantling Direct Provision, and addressing the discrimination faced by minorities within women, including racism and discrimination against people with disabilities, as well as the brunt of poverty being shouldered by working-class women, particularly around child poverty, need to be addressed urgently. As Ailbhe Smyth says, “The bit is between our teeth and we are not going to desist”.

Solidarity People Before Profit TD Ruth Coppinger holds a thong during a protest in support of victims of sexual violence on O’Connell Street in November. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire
Solidarity People Before Profit TD Ruth Coppinger holds a thong during a protest in support of victims of sexual violence on O’Connell Street in November. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire

New feminist initiatives in Ireland

From politics to music to climate change, these organisations are run by women for women

Women For Election

Established in 2012, WFE has trained more than 1,000 women seeking to enter politics. Their training programmes include the INSPIRE scheme, masterclasses, and residential political campaign schools. The impact of quotas is being felt in electoral politics, but more women need to be encouraged to run, and Women For Election has been there to support those who are. In the 2014 local elections, there was a 30 per cent increase in the number of women who ran, and of the 196 women who were elected, half had been trained by Women for Election. Almost 40 per cent of newly elected female TDs in 2016 had been through Women For Election training.

Ciarin de Buis of Women For Election. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill / The Irish Times
Ciarin de Buis of Women For Election. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill / The Irish Times

Women in Film and Television Ireland

A branch of Women in Film and Television International made up of female professionals working in film and television in or from Ireland. WFTI organises masterclasses, networking events, screenings, public interviews, and aims to promote equal employment opportunities and lobby for industry improvements for women.

Sounding the Feminists

A collective of musicians, performers, composers, sound artists and others seeking to address gender balance issues across music sectors. Successes so far include a scheme in conjunction with the National Concert Hall and supported by the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht to offer €20,000 funding annually for five years to promote work by female musicians and composers.

MotsBox

A new project launching in 2019 from four women including Repeal Project founder Anna Cosgrave. MotsBox plays on the Irish slang for girlfriend, and also stands for March On the Streets. Still in development, it will be an online media outlet and community focusing on activism and issues with a strong intersectional feminist slant.

Ellie Kisyombe, founder of Our Table, a pop-up cafe aimed at highlighting the need to end Direct Provision, with the actor Stephen Rea. Photograph: Eric Luke / The Irish Times
Ellie Kisyombe, founder of Our Table, a pop-up cafe aimed at highlighting the need to end Direct Provision, with the actor Stephen Rea. Photograph: Eric Luke / The Irish Times

Our Table

Established by Michelle Darmody and Ellie Kisyombe, Our Table began a conversation about Direct Provision through food and the lack of scope asylum seekers had to cook in residential centres. While not strictly a feminist project, Our Table has a strong empowerment philosophy and has made huge ground in lobbying for cooking rights. From pop-up cafes to now selling their own hot sauce and hummus products, Our Table has been central to the growing awareness of the Direct Provision system.

Former president of Ireland Mary Robinson with comedian Maeve Higgins have collaborated on the Mothers of Invention climate change podcast. Photograph: Ruth Medjber
Former president of Ireland Mary Robinson with comedian Maeve Higgins have collaborated on the Mothers of Invention climate change podcast. Photograph: Ruth Medjber

Mothers of Invention

Mary Robinson and Maeve Higgins’ climate change podcast pithily pivoted a usually overwhelming topic with the great tagline that climate change is a manmade problem with a feminist solution. By highlighting women at the forefront of climate-change solutions, the podcast and its philosophy has drawn attention to work being done by women, and opportunities for light at a very dark time for the planet.

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