The feminist fight is far from over


PRESENT TENSE:FEMINISM, ACCORDING to Merriam Webster's online dictionary, is a term used to describe "the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes". Just a theory, then, writes Fiona McCann 

The same dictionary, though, also give us the term post-feminist - as if feminism were an event like the second World War or 9/11 - and defines it thus: "of, relating to, occurring in, or being the period following widespread advocacy and acceptance of feminism".

Which should, theoretically, apply to Ireland, given that we're 37 years on from the contraceptive train, 18 years on from the election of our first female president and it has been 13 years since divorce was legalised. You can even get a prescription for the contraceptive pill without having to pretend it is for "cycle regulation", and can buy condoms in vending machines - though worryingly, according to new research from the Crisis Pregnancy Agency, young women are reluctant to carry them, lest it should "damage their reputation".

Post-feminist? Not by a long shot. Which is why it was so easy to see the irony in the first few lines of a flyer that reached me this week: "Post-feminist era. No need for feminism any more." The flyer was in fact sent out to inform people - that is women and men, people - about the creation of a new forum for the discussion of the political and social issues affecting women, a gathering planned as a regular occurrence to be known as the Feminist Open Forum.

I can already see some of my self-described liberal friends and colleagues rolling their eyes when I tell them I plan to attend. In fact, those who believe that feminism has been and gone, and that, what with the vote and the pill, we can all just get on with things now, are by far in the majority among my peers. Clearly this Government agrees, with the recent budget slashing the allocation for the Equality Authority by 43 per cent.

Yet just because my mother was forced to leave her job when she got married and I am kindly allowed to retain my own should I ever choose to do the same, does not make feminism redundant. A country where women are still paid on average 15 per cent less than their male counterparts for the same jobs cannot be considered post-feminist. A country that ranks last of 20 European countries when it comes to reporting sexual crime, with one of the reasons cited being a court system perceived to "revictimise" those who have been sexually assaulted, is not post-feminist. A country where one in four people still believes women are in some way responsible for being sexually attacked, according to a recent survey, and where a convicted rapist can join his victim on the train home from the court case, is not post-feminist.

In fact, in a global context, where three teenage girls can be buried alive in Pakistan for attempting to choose their own husbands, or where genital mutilation is still widely practised in many parts of the world, or where human trafficking is a global industry with growing numbers of women being trafficked into Ireland for sexual exploitation, feminism - the fight to see that women aren't punished for being women - is as necessary as it ever was.

Which is why I'll be attending the Feminist Open Forum next Thursday in Wynn's Hotel. I also want to hear what Ivana Bacik, Grainne Healy, Ailbhe Smyth and many of the established voices in the Irish women's movement have to say about how far forward or backwards we have moved on a domestic and global scale towards equality of the sexes. And I hope to hear some new voices, concerned as I am with the revelation that women are still afraid to take charge of their own sexual health and expression for fear of being viewed as "easy".

Why aren't they disavowing a word that seeks to denigrate women for enjoying sex? Why are almost 90 percent of our elected representatives still men? And when did feminism become something people want to get over?

These are all questions to be raised at the Feminist Open Forum, which will hopefully help remind people that feminism is something to be celebrated rather than derided or disavowed. I have heard too many sentences begin with "I'm not a feminist, but . . . " - as if to admit to a belief in the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes were in any way an embarrassing or shameful thing, when clearly the shame belongs to those who refuse to call themselves feminists.

Post-feminist? I'll stick with feminist for now. As Ailbhe Smyth points out: "I'll be a post-feminist in a post-patriarchy." Which is something to look forward to.

Shane Hegarty is on leave