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Waking the Feminists: The year women awoke and dared to dream

Centenary commemoration was missing one crucial ingredient – an act of rebellion

Supporters of the Waking the Feminists movement demonstrating outside the Abbey Theatre, to highlight the lack of gender equality in the theatre’s programme of events for 2016. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

Supporters of the Waking the Feminists movement demonstrating outside the Abbey Theatre, to highlight the lack of gender equality in the theatre’s programme of events for 2016. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons


The carefully planned and stage-managed year of commemoration was a balancing act well achieved.

Arguments about who got to celebrate what, and how, were diffused over time with dialogue and caution and making sure all bases were covered – with countless parties satisfied, or at least placated.

What the commemoration was missing, however, was an act of rebellion. That’s something that could never have been planned.

In highlighting gender inequality, the simple act of counting as a way of showing bias or exclusion is often the most powerful.

When the Abbey Theatre announced its Waking The Nation programme in October 2015, many people did a quick tot up – out of ten plays programmed, just one was written by a woman.

Gender auditing festival line-ups, programmes, boards, parliaments and panels – by pointing out what’s lacking – directly challenges the bias of those who are responsible for it.

The Abbey’s programme particularly stung. It did so because it was a product of the national theatre, because it was such a significant programme, and also because the programme occurred in a context where there had already been much conversation about the role of women in the Rising. (One female historian cracked a joke at an event I was at wondering whether there were any men involved in 1916 at all.)

Yet, here we were, in 2016 – with women being made invisible in the national theatre.

When the Abbey’s director Fiach Mac Conghail made the misguided choice to answer questions about the controversy off the cuff on Twitter, Lian Bell, Belinda McKeon and others were quick to interrogate him about about the gender disparity in the Abbey’s programme, to which he tweeted the very poorly thought out comment “them’s the breaks”.

Waking the Feminists gained momentum for a number of reasons, but initially because women who work in theatre refused to stop having the conversation online.

While some people were trying to figure out whether or not it was worth sticking their necks out, others just did – day after day.

Personal testimonies

And every time someone stood up to be counted, figuratively, in a Facebook post or a tweet, it added to a sense of solidarity that let women know if they too shared their story, they would be protected. Strength in numbers.

The power of personal testimonies of those who work in theatre detailing sexism or inequality, made public what was very often a private or internal conversation.

On November 12th, 2015, a public meeting at the Abbey saw personal testimonies flood the stage in an electric atmosphere. This wasn’t going to be another Twitter spat; it was turning into a movement.

Over a dozen Waking the Feminists events and gatherings were held nationwide on Nollaig na mBan, January 6th, 2016. There was a public meeting at Liberty Hall on International Women’s Day, March 8th, and midsummer gatherings in June.

Waking the Feminists was given an international award at the Lilly Awards in New York, which honours women in American theatre. Lian Bell was awarded the Judges’ Special Award at The Irish Times Irish Theatre Awards.

Last month, the Abbey Theatre published eight guiding principles on gender equality. Earlier this month, Waking the Feminists was awarded €20,000, by the Arts Council, to conduct research on gender diversity in theatre.

Waking the Feminists changed things not just in theatre, but across the arts in Ireland and beyond.

One of the simplest things that it did was create a space – both online and offline – where women could speak up about their experiences in theatre and in the arts.

Like most workplaces, women in this sector feel the impact of gender inequality. Perhaps the reason the conversation took off in the arts, is that it’s a sector that likes to think of itself as inclusive and progressive – so the idea that it was being as exclusionary as the external society it likes to interrogate shamed and rushed the sector into action.

Interrogating the status quo

Beyond theatre, other organisations stepped up. The Irish Film Board published a six-point gender equality plan in December of 2015, with the intention of achieving 50/50 gender parity funding over the next three years. These are very real changes that Waking the Feminists has affected.

A more abstract impact is the “cautionary tale” one.

It would be a very foolish arts organisation that wouldn’t do even a cursory gender breakdown of its programming or output in the wake of Waking the Feminists.

No organisation wants to get it in the neck as much as the Abbey (deservedly) did. Things have certainly shifted.

As the aftermath continues, a documentary on the movement and its impact, Them’s The Breaks, produced by Blinder, will finish shooting next month.

Selina Cartmell will take over from Michael Colgan as director of the Gate Theatre – a theatre that has a woeful record of showcasing and supporting female theatre-makers.

Mac Conghail’s scheduled departure from the Abbey in December inevitably ushers in a new era there, with Neil Murray and Graham McLaren, both formerly of the National Theatre of Scotland, taking charge.

There is no turning back the clock on Waking the Feminists. It was a conversation ready to happen, and there was no better time for it to have occurred.

Interrogating the status quo is an important part of being an active citizen. The movement achieved real change, but it also had an impact in more subtle, but just as important, ways – an added confidence among women in the arts, a feeling that women aren’t going to put up and shut up anymore, and an atmosphere of solidarity throughout the sector.

It was something nobody could have choreographed, yet amongst all the planning, is perhaps the embodiment of what remembering revolutionary acts should be about: having more of them.