The most marginalised women remain excluded from the mainstream “feminist agenda”, a conference on women’s rights heard yesterday.
Independent Senator Lynn Ruane, who grew up in Tallaght, Dublin, spoke at a National Women's Council of Ireland annual meeting.
She had never heard of feminism until she went to Trinity College, aged 27, she said.
“Growing up, I never had a conversation about bodily autonomy or women’s rights.
“It didn’t mean my friends weren’t having abortions. It didn’t mean we weren’t feminists. It didn’t mean we weren’t the foundations of our communities. My community is full of amazing matriarchs.”
Ms Ruane described one woman, in her 80s, who died in recent years.
“She buried six children since the 1980s who died from heroin addiction.
“She still got up every morning and put the flowers in her shopping trolley, to go into town to sell her flowers – so that she could feed the grandchildren left behind and continue to care for her family on a very small amount of money.
“I didn’t need to think about feminism before I was 27. I got my strength from her and she is my feminist agenda.”
She recalled a friend who “after her father killed her mother, became the sole carer for six younger siblings, at the age of 18. She made sure they were dressed, fed, went to school, never complained, never talked about women’s rights. She is my feminist agenda”.
Ms Ruane said she struggles to talk about gender pay gaps and promotions, explaining: “Until these women are talking with me and I’m not in some tent at a festival talking about them, until they are beside me, talking with me, it’s only then that the feminist agenda has been realised.”
Tánaiste and Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald said "a feminist lens is more vital than ever in our decision making".
She said the Government’s forthcoming national women’s strategy, expected to run from 2017 to 2020, will address domestic violence, care work, pension provision, the gender pay gap and greater access to decision-making.
She said she knew many would want it to include a strategy on repealing the Eighth Amendment.
“We have to recognise that we are dealing with an issue on which there continues to be strongly divided views.”
People who are nervous about an agenda to repeal the Eighth Amendment need to be brought into the debate and listened to, she said.