Marian Finucane: A feminist trailblazer, vital to the women’s movement

This was new type of ‘talk radio’ – and no issue was taboo

As word of the untimely death of Marian Finucane broke this week, many looked back on an over 40-year career in broadcasting in Ireland.

A constant presence on the airwaves since the mid-1970s, Finucane’s more recent years helming her eponymous weekend radio show is the one perhaps best known to her listeners.

However, before that there was Liveline and “talk to Marian”, and before that again were her vital contributions to women’s issues through her involvement in radio and TV programmes, Women Today and the Women’s Programme, and though her short but important involvement as editor of Status magazine (1981), a sister publication to Magill, which was “a news magazine for women by women”.

And this idea of programmes, and publications, for women by women, defined Finucane’s early career, and will be counted, by historians, as vital to the development of the second wave women’s movement in Ireland.

The context in which Finucane became a presenter with Women Today, was the 1970s ferment of second wave feminism and a new generation of activist women, many of whom were carving out careers in print and broadcast media. From the early 1970s groups such as the Irish Women’s Liberation Movement and Irish Women United had been campaigning for women’s rights. Among the burning issues they drove were access to contraceptives, concern about women’s safety and inadequate societal and legal protections against rape and sexual violence, demands for self-determined sexuality, as well as equal pay, and equal access to the workplace.

As a workplace, RTÉ had, by 1979, accepted some of the criticisms of its gender imbalance and perhaps it also realised that there was a large listenership out there whose needs and interests were not being met?

The answer was to look to the young women broadcasters, researchers and producers, a new generation who came to maturity in a society in a process of transformation in large part because of feminist activism. These women were eager to deliver quality programming, which was different, challenging and engaging directly with this changing society. And deliver they did, beginning in 1979, with the Radio 1 show, Women Today – put together by producers Clare Duignan and Betty Purcell, reporter Hilary Orpen and presenter Marian Finucane.

Women Today was undoubtedly feminist in concept, produced by women, presented by women, giving space to women’s issues, allowing women’s voices to echo over the airwaves. Women speaking about such taboo subjects as prostitution, contraception, abortion, rape, women’s employment as well as issues such women in the arts, sports and media. The programme was “a liberation and an education, not to mention a solace. Women Today encouraged women to talk . . . and talk they did”. This was new type of “talk radio”, ordinary women talking about the ordinary issues of their lives – and no issue was taboo. Women Today helped normalise the conversations about women’s lives, women’s bodies, women’s health, women’s sexuality, women’s choices and women’s voices that we are still having today, and Marian Finucane was at the centre of that.

Much has been said about her abilities as an interviewer; empathetic, sensitive and direct questioning, an ability to listen and get the most from an interview combined with a non-judgmental stance served her well in Women Today and in the 1980s TV programme The Women’s Programme. Women trusted her because she saw them and understood what their issues were. Radio documentaries, in 1979 alone, which she presented, included a journey with a young woman travelling to England for an abortion (for which Finucane won the Prix Italia in 1980) and an interview broadcast with the women working in the newly opened, against much opposition, Rape Crisis Centre.

Finucane and the others involved faced down criticism from within and outside of RTÉ. Women Today was a challenge for the station as it was “broadcasting in peak time radio about aspects of women’s sexuality . . . which had been talked about out loud. And they were being discussed on the open air and everybody could hear it. Men could hear it! On being criticised “from the altar”, Finucane later said, “What bothered them [the clergy] was that we were uppity women ... and a threat to (their) moral authority’.

The skill, courage and tenacity shown by Finucane in her early career would continue – her iconic 2008 interview with her friend, Nuala O’Faolain, on coming to terms with her (O’Faolain’s) terminal cancer diagnoses, later demonstrated this bravery as a broadcaster, and skill as an interviewer. Others will look at the later end of her career, but those who study of Irish second wave feminism there can be no doubt that Marian Finucane was a feminist trail blazer, a presenter and interviewer whose commitment to women’s rights, equalities and voices contributed to the ongoing normalisation of women’s and gender issues as important and central to Irish life, politics and society.

Dr Mary McAuliffe is an historian and Assistant Professor in Gender Studies at UCD