Since the beginning of June, Project Arts Centre’s Space Upstairs has been occupied by Jesse Jones: Tremble Tremble. This visual arts piece was Ireland’s entry into last year’s Venice Biennale. I wasn’t aware of the Venice Biennale before last year, but I became more and more intrigued by Tremble Tremble, the more I heard about it. It was produced by Project Arts Centre, which I always forget is a visual arts centre as well as a theatre. It’s about feminism and women’s issues. It features Olwen Fouéré. I was delighted that we would get a chance to see it in Dublin. (It has already traveled to LASALLE College of the Arts in Singapore and will be going to Talbot Rice Gallery in Edinburgh after Project.)
I was looking forward to seeing it but I also didn’t know what to expect. I don’t know that much about visual arts. Was it an installation where I’d go in and look at various objects? Would it be more like a promenade performance piece that I would be led through? Or would I just go in a watch a video? Even when I went into Project to see it, I stopped at the front desk to ask if there was anything I needed to know beforehand. There wasn’t. You just head upstairs and walk straight into it.
And I think that’s really the best way to do it. I’m reluctant to write too much more about the piece because I think it’s better to go see it without knowing too much and just see what it invokes in you. That said, if you are someone who feels anxious about weird art pieces, I can tell you that there is no audience interaction, you’re won’t be asked to do anything. You can move around if you want or you can stay in one spot. When I was there, there was someone sitting on the floor and I think I saw a bench along the wall as well. It is pretty dark in the space but you get used to that pretty quickly.
If you don’t want to know any more about the piece before you go see it, stop reading after this paragraph and come back after you’ve seen it. Please go and see it. It’s strange and interesting and anything I write here won’t be able to invoke the weird magic of experiencing it first-hand in the space. You have until Wednesday July 18th and it’s open 10am – 6pm most days, and until 8pm today Friday 13th. It’s closed on Sundays.
Here’s a little bit about my experience of the piece.
It is a little bit disorientating walking into the Space Upstairs in the dark . It’s a space I know well, but it still felt very unfamiliar and I spent the first couple of minutes getting my bearings. The unmissable thing are the two giant screens, where Olwen Fouéré is projected as a huge, witchy presence. She’s a grumpy witch, threatening chaos. She’s also curious and there’s something mischievous about her as well. She reminded me of Granny Weatherwax, one of Pratchett’s Discworld witches.
I was very taken with the feeling in the space. It feels ancient. It reminded me of the tomb in Newgrange. The sound made by the moving curtains sounds like wind or rain, but heard from somewhere safe and dry.
The piece lasts about 20 minutes . It’s short but I felt very full afterwards. There are lots of interesting images and ideas in it. There are snippets of songs that sound like strange nursery rhymes and the spoken and written text also leaves you with a lot to think about. After half an hour I felt like I needed to go away and think about it all, but at the same time, I want to go back again. It’s a space that tempts you back. It feels like going back in time, being in conversation with an ancient giant, but it’s also hopeful and forward looking. If you can, go see it before it moves on.
Tremble Tremble is on in Project Arts Centre until Wednesday 18th of July, 10am – 6pm most days. It’s open until 8pm today, Friday 13 July. Closed Sundays.
(The referendum happened over four weeks ago and I have spent almost that long writing this blog post. When I started writing about this, I discovered that I had a lot to say on the issue and it took some time to wrangle all those words and feelings into something interesting and coherent and not 5,000 words long, but it felt worth doing.)
There has been so much written about the results of the referendum on May 25th and the work that was done in the lead-up to it, much of it incredibly heartfelt and very moving. There was also some sniping about how the (incredibly successful) campaign was run and how “inappropriate” and “disrespectful” it was to celebrate that glorious, surprising victory on May 25. I find it incredible that something thinks they can tell people not to celebrate after years of hard work, of time and energy dedicated to removing something that has caused so much hurt to so many people. It takes a certain type of personality to dictate to anyone what an “appropriate” reaction looks like, and I believe if the photos taken in Dublin Castle on May 26th were not predominately of young women, those articles would not have been written.
In her essay I Wish Ann Lovett Were Out Buying a Swimsuit for Lanzarote, Emer O’Toole writes beautifully about the Ireland that existed when the Eighth Amendment went in to the Constitution and the journey the country has taken since then. I’m not going to go back that far. For a long time the changes in Ireland they were hard fought and incremental but also slow and gradual. It feels like they started to pick up speed in 2012.
In February 2012, recently elected TD Clare Daly brought a bill to the Dail to legislate on the X case and allow for abortions in limited circumstances. There was little interest from the rest of the government and the bill went nowhere. Six months later in September 2012, the first March for Choice was organised by the newly formed Abortion Rights Campaign. It was pretty small. We lined up at the Spire, in the middle of O’Connell Street, and heard a few speeches before marching to the Dail. It was a warm, sunny day and a good-spirited march. It couldn’t have been more different to the protests held in response to the death of Savita Hallpanaver later that year.
I remember standing in my kitchen, hearing for the first time how Savita died. I remember feeling both heart-broken and furious that this had been allowed to happen to her. There was also the question of how many other women had this happened to? I walked into work that morning feeling furious. That fury didn’t go away and after work I went down to the Dail with a couple of friends, joining the many who had gathered there already, in the cold and the dark. A hastily organised gathering; we didn’t know what to do but knew we had to do something. It was the first of many protests that winter, the numbers growing week by week as we stood in the dark, holding candles, feeling the cold damp through our shoes, chanting Never Again.
The death of Savita and the public outcry that followed forced the government’s hand on abortion. Twenty years later, they would finally legislate on the X Case. It was not something that would have saved Savita or any other woman in her situation, but as we learnt over the next five years, very little could be done through legislation while the Eighth Amendment was in the constitution.
The debate around that legislation meant more protests outside the Dail the following summer and resulted in the woefully inadequate Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act. This made abortion possible if the woman’s life was at risk due to suicide, as a result of the pregnancy. It came with a number of restrictions, and also stuck in the fourteen year jail sentence for anyone who has an abortion in the State if their life was not at risk, and seven years for anyone who helped them.
There was also the distraction of “Lapgate“; the incident in the Dáil when a female TD as pulled into a lap of a male colleague, he described it as “horseplay”. That this happened in a work place, during a debate about female health that was being broadcast live on tv (the incident took place at 3am but a sharp-eyed viewer caught it and shared it online) gives an insight into how the Irish state and members of government viewed women at the time. The night of the debate was also one of the most profitable nights for the Dáil bar that year.
A few months after the bill passed, the devastatingly sad case of Ms Y showed that it was not fit for purpose. Ms Y was a refugee who came to Ireland seeking asylum. When she arrived in Ireland she discovered she was pregnant as a result of rape in her home country. She asked for an abortion and was refused. She was suicidal as a result of the pregnancy and the lack of help she had received from the place she had fled to seeking shelter and compassion. She was suicidal enough to be locked in a psychiatric ward but not enough to “qualify” for an abortion, and eventually, the State performed a C-section at 25 weeks. A caesarean section is a major surgical operation. It has a much longer recovery period than a medical or even surgical abortion, and it was a treatment she only consented to under enormous pressure because she didn’t want to be pregnant anymore. The Irish State really has an incredibly long track-record of torturing women, particularly the women in its care. Earlier this month the HSE has admitted liability and said it is willing to compensate Ms Y for failing to provide her with an abortion when she first sought one.
Then at the end of 2014, we learnt of Ms P, a woman being kept on life-support because she was pregnant and doctors were unsure if they could withdraw treatment under the Eighth Amendment because it would end the pregnancy. Like in Savita’s case, the pregnancy was never going to end in a successful delivery but because there was a fetal heart-beat the doctors’ hands were tied. This was always the big problem with the Eighth Amendment; it didn’t allow for a case by case assessment of the situation, for doctors to use their own judgement. Once there was a fetal heart-beat, doctors were limited in what they could do for the woman, her life and health immediately had to be balanced with that of the “unborn”.
These were the most public instances of the hurt and distress caused by the Eighth Amendment over a three years period but they were not the only ones. In 2015 other women started sharing their experiences with the Eighth Amendment. The X-lie Project began collecting and sharing stories and images of Irish women who had had abortions. Within a few weeks of each other in September of that year, Tara Flynn and Roisin Ingle spoke publicly about their abortions. Maser’s mural went up on the wall of Project Arts Centre and was removed after a couple of weeks, which got a lot of people talking. The Repeal Project was launched and those stark black jumpers starting appearing all over the place, and starting conversations. Una Mullally made a radio documentary for the Irish Times Womens’ podcast called The Year The Converstaion Changed, which captures the shift in attitudes towards abortion and the need for change.
But the big moment in 2015 was the success of the Marriage Equality Referendum. Ireland was finally coming out of the long shadow of the church and it felt like change was possible in a really tangible way. It galvanised people to push for change in other areas. The government couldn’t keep pretending abortion wasn’t a political issue. They couldn’t just keep hoping it would just go away. At the same time, it was still a contentious issue that nobody wanted to make a decision on, so they gave it to the Citizen’s Assembly.
Though derided as a delaying tactic, the Citizen’s Assembly turned out to be pretty amazing. There was an incredible investment from the citizens themselves; when they asked for an extra weekend to be added to the schedule and when on the final day, they ran over time as they added more questions to their ballot on issues such as abortion for socioeconomic reasons. I was surprised and amazed and delighted with the final results when 64% voted for unrestricted abortion up to 12 weeks. I love Ellen Coyne’s article about some of the citizens on referendum day, when a similar result was returned.
The result from the Assembly was very clear. They were clear that the Eighth Amendment (or article 40.3.3 which was what they actually voted on, and which contains the Eighth Amendment) was not adequate, and they were clear about what should replace it. However, the government were not convinced by it and set up the Joint Oireachtas Committee to look again at the evidence. The majority of the Committee came to the same conclusion and the date for the referendum was finally set for May 25th, thirteen months after the Citizen’s Assembly returned their findings.
Once the referendum date was announced, campaigning could officially begin and Together For Yes was launched. Abortion Rights Campaign and Repeal groups around the country quickly came under the Together for Yes banner. This meant the campaign had a country-wide reach within days. These local groups organised training sessions for canvassers where they collected names and numbers for Whatsapp groups so people could keep in touch with others in their area and create their own canvassing groups. It truly was a grass-roots campaign with local groups and people on the ground empowered to get out there and make things happen.
For me, one of the most memorable and moving days of the campaign was the launch of Together for Yes’s crowd-funding campaign. The original aim was to raise €50,000 in seven days. It was done in less than an hour. The target was raised and smashed again and that kept happening over and over again throughout the day. It was incredible to watch the money pouring in. You could press refresh and watch the total jump €100 every 30 seconds. This was tangible proof of the support for the Together for Yes campaign and it was so uplifting to see. It was particularly satisfying coming a couple of days after an article in the Irish Times saying there was “No sense of urgency” in the Yes camp. Other voices in the media described the Yes side as complacent. This outpouring of money, in small amounts and big, did not lack urgency. The car-share groups heading out of Dublin to canvass in other smaller towns did not feel complacent. The fundraising to bring people home to vote did not feel complacent. The anxious and urgent conversations being had at home and at work did not feel complacent. It felt good to watch the total rise and read the comments people left and know that it wasn’t just your family and friends who felt like this, there were lots of others out there who felt as strongly.
Many of those people did much, much than donate a few bob to a crowd-funding campaign. There were people out canvassing around the country every night of the week, others working in the Together for Yes HQ, all finding time around work and family commitments to volunteer. They did it because this was important to them. They didn’t want to live in a country that would let a woman die in pain rather than perform an abortion, or one that could commit a woman to a mental hospital for wanting an abortion, or that would torture a grieving family by insisting that their loved one had to remain on life-support because of her pregnancy. On May 26th 2018 we moved away from being that country, and what’s worth celebrating.
That Saturday, the Taoiseach described the success of the Yes campaign as a “quiet revolution”. Those involved in the campaign have loudly shouted down this assessment. It wasn’t quiet when thousands took to the streets for the massive March for Choice in 2016. It wasn’t quiet on O’Connell Bridge during Strike for Repeal in 2017. The hum of anxiety we felt during the last week before the Referendum didn’t feel quiet. And there was nothing quiet about the hundreds of women who told their stories over and over again; stories of being abandoned by the medical profession, of being forced to travel for health care, of not feeling welcome in their own country. Those wonderful women gave up their privacy because they wanted to make Ireland a better place and I am so grateful to those women. I am grateful to women in the public eye who “came out” about their abortions and heart-broken that they suffered vicious attacks as a result. I am grateful to women who shared their stories online in the last few weeks of the campaign in the hope of changing a few minds. Their willingness to share their private, painful memories are what won the referendum. 66% of people who voted Yes said that it was because of the personal stories they heard.
Describing all that as “quiet” just means Leo Varadkar wasn’t listening. Let’s hope that when they are drafting the abortion legislation, he will listen a little more attentively to the people it’s going to affect. The fight for free, safe legal abortion is far from over and that’s another reason why it was necessary to celebrate on May 26th. The referendum was one major hurdle that had to be passed but there is still so much to do. May 26th was a brief breathing space before we got on to the next thing.
The next thing is getting good, working legislation that makes abortion accessible to all, particularly in terms of cost and location. There are many things that still need to be decided on, things like exclusion zones, waiting periods and conscientious objectors. We need to keep the pressure on to ensure that abortion services are available by the end of the year. That is still the government’s aim, but we now know that the legislation will not be introduced to the Dáil before the summer break.
The next March for Choice is on September 29th and the Abortion Rights Campaign will be holding open meetings about the organisation of the March over the coming months. Dates and venues are usually listed on their Facebook events page. Of course, until the legislation is in place, women will still be forced to travel and the Abortion Support Network is still taking calls from women who need their help to do that. You can support their work by donating here.
Repealing the Eighth Amendment was a glorious thing. It was a wonderful thing to be part of and definitely worth celebrating. It is also a great reminder that change is possible. In 2012, the majority of TDs in the Dáil had no interest in making abortion accessible to Irish women. It was hard-working and persistent campaign groups and ordinary people who made them take an interest, made them call a referendum and made sure that we got the right result!
At this stage (18 days from the referendum), you probably have to be living under a rock to be online and not know what Together for Yes is; particularly after their huge crowd-funding campaign when they raised half a million euros in seven days. But in case you missed all that, Together For Yes is the National Civil Society Campaign to remove the 8th Amendment from the Constitution. It’s an amalgamation of lots pro-choice organisations who have come together to get a yes vote in the referendum on May 25th.
This could be a once in a lifetime opportunity to make Ireland a safer place for pregnant women and to give the women of Ireland control over their own reproductive rights. This yes vote is my no means a done deal. The vote will be very tight and we all need to do our bit to get it over the line.
And really, it should be a yes vote. The only reason to vote no is if you are against abortion in all circumstances and cannot imagine any possible scenario where abortion might be the right and necessary choice. If you feel that’s true, beyond any reasonable doubt, then vote no. But if you do feel that sometimes abortion is an acceptable option, for women who are pregnant as a result of rape for example or when the woman’s health is at risk because of her pregnancy or if there is a diagnosis of fatal foetus abnormality, then you should vote yes. Do it for those women.
And it you know that a yes vote is the only compassionate option and want to see Ireland embrace the compassionate choice, there’s lots you can do to make that happen.
1. Vote! And encouraging others to vote.
Tuesday 8th of May is the last day to register to vote. The form must be stamped by a Garda and be with your local authority by 5pm today. There is still time to get registered, but not much. All forms can be downloaded here.
If you already have that sorted, the most important thing is to go out and vote on May 25th. It’s a Friday. The polls will be open from 7am until 10am. And encourage other people to do it too. We’re a small country, every vote really does count. We cannot assume anything about how this vote is going to go so please talk to friends and family, figure out how and when you’re all going to vote on May 25th. 2. Go canvassing or have the chats at work or at home. Together for Yes have local groups all over the country going out knocking on doors and talking to people about why they should vote yes. Find your local group and give them a hand. It will mean giving up a few evenings and maybe having a few awkward conversations but it will move us towards a yes vote.
If you can’t go canvassing, maybe have a conversation with work colleagues, friends of family. See how they’re feeling about the referendum, suss out if they have any concerns and maybe make sure they have the correct information. Big areas of misinformation seem to be the fact that the law as it is currently does harm pregnant women, even in a wanted pregnancy and those unrestricted 12 weeks. “Unrestricted” is not the right word to use. A woman will still be making that decision with her doctor, and right now women are buying abortion pills off the internet and taking them up to 12 weeks, which is to my mind is more unrestricted and more dangerous than doing it with the support of a medical professional. Together for Yes have all the facts.
3. Wear a Together for Yes or Repeal badge, t-shirt or a jumper.
If you aren’t able to canvas or feel uncomfortable initiating conversations about the referendum, for whatever reason, wearing a badge is a great way to support the cause and let conversations come to you. Wearing your political intentions on your chest whether it’s a Together For Yes badge or a Repeal jumper tends to get your a few smiles and nods and might even start a conversation or two. It’s a gentle way to support the campaign but there is a great solidarity in seeing all the badges around the place!
Badges and other supportive paraphanilia is available from shops in Dublin, Cork and Galway and from the online shop.
We need this change to the constitution and we can all do a bit to make it happen. The vote is less than three weeks away. We are ready for this change, we’re been ready for a while. We just need the last little push to get it over the line.
Tomorrow, March 8th is International Women’s Day. I like to do something to mark this day each year, usually something small like going to see a female-led play or film. This year I’m doing something bigger. I’m taking the day off work to join Strike 4 Repeal on O’Connell Bridge to protest the 8th Amendment. I know that I’ve written about the 8th Amendment very recently, but I still have more to say and feel like I will continue to have more to say about until it is removed from the Constitution.
Over the weekend when the news was full of the Tuam babies scandal and the Citizen’s Assembly sat again to hear personal stories from people affected by the 8th Amendment and from advocacy groups and representative organisations. All of the presentations are available on the website, including the Q&A sections which I found really interesting because they allowed us to hear from the citizens in the room. They had a long weekend in the hotel in Malahide with two full days of presentations and I am grateful to those citizens who are giving up their time to take part in the Assembly. Even though it seems unnecessary because it’s blindingly obvious to me that we need to hold a referendum on the 8th Amendment. (Minister for Health Simon Harris agrees with me, as he told the World Congress Women’s Mental Health on Monday.) Maybe the Citizens’ Assembly is more suitable to the other, massive and difficult subjects they also have to discuss, such as the problems facing an ageing population and climate change. Those topics do not have the easy, obvious solution.
Legislating for abortion in Ireland will not be easy but we know that what we have now isn’t working. It doesn’t stop Irish women from having abortions, it just makes it more difficult, more expensive and more dangerous for them to do so. I want to see the repeal of the 8th Amendment and the introduction of safe, legal abortion in Ireland. I am pro-abortion. I am happy to live at a time when medicine and science have come up with a way to safely end unwanted pregnancies. There always is and always been a need for abortions by women experiencing unwanted, unexpected, impossible pregnancies. Safe, legal abortion means those women don’t have to throw themselves down the stairs or get into a hot bath with a bottle of gin and “hope for the best”. In this outdated scenario, the “best” is a miscarriage that doesn’t kill them.
But while I am unashamedly pro-abortion, I am also pro-choice. I don’t think abortion is the only solution for every unexpected, “inconvenient” pregnancy. Nobody should be forced to have an abortion. I support women who know that they cannot continue with a pregnancy and I also support women who choose to delay cancer treatment so they can continue their pregnancy, or women who know their child cannot survive outside the womb but want to carry that baby to term so they might get to hold him or her, even for a short time. I support women who find themselves unexpectedly pregnant and surprisingly delighted. I support women who are pregnant as a result of rape and want to have the baby because they see it as a way for something good to come out of a terrible experience. I think our government and our society should support and help those women. But we also have a duty of care to women who don’t want to have a baby. No women should be forced to remain pregnant when she doesn’t want to be. I agree with Amnesty and the United Nations that access to abortion is a human right. I am embarrassed by my country which does not allow it.
To me, abortion is a kindness. Women who have had abortions often describe feeling extremely grateful towards the medical professionals who helped them out, as Lindy’s West’s thank-you letter to an abortion doctor demonstrates. For Irish women, this gratitude is directed as those who looked after them when their own country turned their back. Abortion Support Network, who support women traveling from Ireland to the UK to access abortions are a magnificent organisation. It’s the most grassroots charity you could possibly support because the main thing they do is give money to women who need it. They also offer a confidential helpline, a lift to and from the clinic, sometimes a bed for the night. Such kindness and such generosity. I sometimes feel teary-eyed with gratitude when I think about how the Marie Stopes clinics in the UK offer discounted rates for Irish women, who have the extra cost of travel. I am grateful to the British Pregnancy Advisory Service who last year set up a helpline for Irish women who take abortion pills they got through the post and might need to ask someone what’s normal and to be expected, and what’s dangerous and requiring medical attention. This is important because going to the doctor is a dangerous thing to do in a country where taking these pills is illegal and could led to a 14 year prison sentence. You can see why they might need some non-judgmental medical help in what could be a life and death situation. And suddenly it feels like Ireland really isn’t all that far away from women throwing themselves down the stairs.
Abortion will not be the right choice for everyone but it’s a choice that everyone should have the right to make. It would be wonderful to live in a world where abortion wasn’t necessary, a world where every conception resulted in a healthy, happy child born to parents who had the emotional and financial capacity to love and care for them. A world where every child was wanted and cherished. But that’s not the world we live in. We live in a world with rape and domestic abuse, where contraception is never 100% reliable and where people make mistakes. We live in an imperfect, human world where abortion is necessary and should be free, safe and legal.
Making abortion legal and freely available does not increase the rate of abortions just as making abortion illegal does not stop people from getting abortions. There are better ways to do that. Improving sex education in schools and making contraception more available would probably help. So would building a society that values young women for more than just their sexuality; a society that offers more support to mothers, particularly single parents and parents of children with disabilities.
There are lots of improvements that could be made to Irish society. Repealing the 8th Amendments is one of these improvements. I’ll be on O’Connell Bridge at 12.30 tomorrow calling for it’s repeal.
A society should also be able to house it’s citizens, and the government should be doing more to end the housing crisis so that Irish children don’t have to grow up in hotels and everyone has access to somewhere safe and warm to sleep. In the meantime, to help the homeless this IWD, I will be donating period paraphernalia to the Homeless Period. They have top-off points around Dublin, in DIT student unions, Tropical Popical on South William Street and the Market Pharmacy in Smithfield.
Over the last year and a bit I’ve been reading a lot of books about feminism. Partly as research for a thing I’m writing but mostly just because I’m interested. (This is also why I’m writing about it!)
Here is a short round-up of my feminist reading list.
The Female Eunuch, Germaine Greer
Germaine Greer’s feminist manifesto seems to me to be the grandmother of all feminist texts, the one that started the second wave of feminism. First published in 1970, it attempts to cover all aspects of being a woman under the headings Body, Soul and Love. This edition was published in 2006 and includes a new foreword by Greer about what the world is like for women at the beginning of the 21st century.
I didn’t find the book as informative or as an inspiring as I’d hoped. The second wave of feminism is a movement that I’m very familiar with which meant it felt more dated than revolutionary. It’s very much one-woman’s view of the world and how women should think and behave, it’s a bit too academic and a bit too bossy for my tastes.
The added extras at the back include a essay by Elizabeth Wurtzel called The New C-Word, which I did find interesting. It condemns the notion that feminism is all about choice; that anything a woman chooses to do is a feminist action. She writes “To say anything goes, feminism is whatever you believe it is, not only renders the movement meaningless but also amounts to a demand for rights without responsibility…We don’t have to respect everyone’s choices and we do have to say to certain women that they are behaving like idiots, that their choices are not good enough for a feminist world.”
The Guardian recently listed The Female Eunuch as one of it’s 100 best nonfiction books, they obviously liked it more than I did!
The Feminine Mystic, Betty Friedan
The Feminine Mystic was first published in the 1963 but to me, it felt more relevant and contemporary than The Female Eunuch. I liked the fact that there was so much research behind it. Fifteen years after they graduated, Friedan sent an intensive questionnaire to her college classmates. She got responses from 200 women. She also interviewed 80 women and analysed popular media, namely women’s magazines. She looked at how women are described in these magazines, in articles and in fiction, and what that says about how women are perceived by society. Similar studies done today look at female roles in tv and film, such as the fascinatingLargest Ever Analysis of Film Dialogue by Gender.
Frieden coined the phrase “the problem that has no name” for the yearning and dissatisfaction that American housewives felt in the 1950s and 1960s. This problem often manifested itself in physical as well as psychological symptoms. These women got married in their early twenties and were constantly told, particularly by advertisers, that being a wife and mother was the most worthwhile thing they could possibly aspire to. Friedan’s descriptions of how home-making was marketed to women in the 1950s reminded me of the early Noughties when domesticity was very much back in fashion. Women were sold an idealised cupcakes-and-crafts version of femininity and the Domestic Goddess was (re)born. The battle for equality seems to be circular. American women found a place outside the home during WW II but afterwards they were aggressively encouraged to go back to being a housewife. The cult of domestic goddess was a reaction to the 80s Career Women and the Ladette of the 90s. Even in the early Irish State, after women played key roles in the trade union movement, the Easter Rising and the War of Independence, once freedom was achieved De Valera’s government sent them swiftly back into the home, literally writing it into Article 41.2 of the constitution. A lot of work has gone into keeping women in the home over the years.
Girls Will Be Girls, Emer O’Toole
At last, a book that’s about my own country written during the present century! After reading books about feminism in different countries and different times in the past, it was wonderful to read about an Irish woman’s experience, particularly someone around the same age as me, who has had similar experiences. This really is unusual and revelatory. Women are uniquely skilled at putting them into the place of the person they are reading about – even if they are very different. We’re good at it because books are mostly written about people who aren’t like us. It’s a much more satisfying experience to see your own experiences reflected back at you through someone else’s eyes. For any Irish woman, this book is work reading for that alone.
There are lots of other great reasons to read this book. It’s written in a more populist way than the more academic texts on this list. In a way it’s a beginners guide because it charts someone coming out as a feminist and realising the need for feminism, which the other books don’t really do.
It’s also very very funny. There aren’t a lot of laughs in the two previous books but O’Toole will have you snorting with laughter and at the most inappropriate things. For a little taster, read her piece about not shaving. But between the laughs there’s also some excellent information, such as also this mind-blowing bit of info about the clitoris.
“Shockingly, the clitoris remains either misrepresented or omitted in much contemporary medical literature, including many of the anatomy textbooks used to train doctors. In spite of the pioneering work of the urologist Helen O’Connell in the nineties and early noughties, the first 3D model of the clitoris wasn’t made until 2009. So, to put that in some kind of perspective: modern science authoritatively mapped and made models of the human genome before it adequately described or modelled the clitoris.”
It angers me that science and medicine plays so little attention to the female body. To the extent that car test-dummies are always male so they only examine what happens to the male body in a collision (and extrapolate that the same would happen to a woman. It wouldn’t. Our bodies are different.). I think it is shameful that women’s bodies are treated like this. Doctors still don’t really know what causes endometriosis even though 1 in 10 women suffer from it and there is still a lot unknown about the menopause, which all women will go through.
Bad Feminist, Roxane Gay
This is not really a book about feminism. It’s a book of personal essays with a provocative title but it certainly delivers on that title. Elizabeth Wurtzel’s essay on The New C-Word was about calling out women who’s “choices are not good enough for a feminist world”. Gay’s book gives you permission to be that person. Nobody is perfect and everyone makes bad choices now and again.
Roxane Gay is a great writer and here she writes persuasively and engagingly about a host of different topics including gender, race, rape culture, women in popular culture and competitive scrabble tournaments. I found her writing about race and popular culture particularly enlightening. This book should be required reading for Gerry Adams and his ilk. It’s book that made me see the world differently, and while Gay writes critically about popular culture, she is also very enthusiastic about the things she loves. I find her very likeable from her writing. She’s also good fun on twitter. It is one woman’s view of the world, but instead of attempting to say that this is the way it should be for all women, these are personal essays that only aim to show one person’s experience of the world. It’s a more inclusive way of writing.
That’s some of the books I’ve been reading in the last year. Some upcoming feminist books that I am looking forward to include Lindy West’s Shrill and Laura Bates’ Girl Up. Both women are in Dublin this month to talk about their books and I’m looking forward to seeing them live as well. I’m always interested in recommendations of good nerdy, feminist books so if you have suggestions, please let me know!
1. Corn Exchange’s Through A Glass Darkly
I went to see Through A Glass Darkly last night, knowing next to nothing about Ingmar Bergman. It didn’t matter, I still really enjoyed it. Wonderful performances and a dark, creepy story. I wondered how a film adaptation would look onstage, but I found it very theatrical. It still felt like a Corn Exchange show. There was beautiful movement and a precision and clarity to each character and every scene. I also really liked the scene changes, which must be one of the hardest things to adapt from film to stage!
It runs until December 5th and it’s really worth seeing. Tickets available from Project Arts Centre.
2. Elizabeth Gilbert in conversation
Tomorrow (Thursday 26th) I’m going to see Elizabeth Gilbert in conversation with Roisin Ingle in the Liberty Hall, a venue I really like but don’t get the opportunity to visit that often. Gilbert has a new book out called Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear with a brilliant, colourful cover! You might have seen her Ted talk about the genie in the house, which I think explores similar territory. It’s a book about how everyone is creative and how we should use that in everyday life. I think, I haven’t read it yet, though I do really like this review in the Irish Times by Anna Carey. I think it will be an interesting evening. There might still be tickets available here.
3. Rough Magic SEEDS Showcase
Rough Magic’s SEEDS is a development programme for writers, composers, directors and designers. The programme lasts two years and at the end, the SEEDS showcase there work. Over the next two weeks, you can see the work of these up-and-coming artists in Project Arts Centre, in three shows and a rehearsed reading.
Anna Bella Eema
24 – 28 November | 8.15pm | Tickets from €11-16
An eerie trailer park epic about a fierce mother-daughter bond spoken and sung by three women.
1 – 5 December | 8.15pm | Tickets from €11 – 16
With an ensemble of ten performers, Enjoy takes you inside the minds of a lost generation of 20-something part-time workers in a comic book café.
3 – 5 December | 6.15pm | Tickets €11/9
An exciting new collaboration between Composer/Sound Designer SEED Danny Forde and choreographer Aisling McCormick. Employing music and dance, Unspoken seeks dialogue amid potential conflict, exploring the body as it divides and unites; provokes and resolves.
4 – 5 December | 2.00pm | Admission free, booking advised
What happens when the dream comes true, when a radical, charismatic leader from the left is within reach of government? What compromises does she need to negotiate? Set in 2026 and 2016, Traitor looks at the journey from activism to politics. A rehearsed reading of a new play by Shane Mac an Bhaird.
4. The Women of Hollywood Speak Out
While #WakingTheFeminists has been encouraging Irish theatre makers to speak out about sexism (and new testimonies are being added to the website all the time), this New York Times article was shared all over the place last week – The Women of Hollywood Speak Out. It’s about sexism in Hollywood, as experienced by female executives, writers and directors and lots of people working in tv as well. The stories are similar and shows that it’s not just Ireland and it’s not just theatre. Hopefully speaking out about this ingrained sexism is the first step to dismantling it.
I’ve been doing pilates in My Wellbeing on Dame Street for the last three months, and really enjoying it. I feels like it’s good for my brain and my body. It makes me feel more connected with my body, more present. It’s a Beginners and Improvers class on Monday evening, which I also like because it’s something to look forward to at the beginning of each week and something to help get me through Mondays. It’s a relaxed, friendly class and it doesn’t feel like you’re working too hard, but I still see myself getting stronger week by week, which I love. I would definitely recommend it to anyone who wants to try pilates. Suzanne is running a mini-term between now and Christmas and you can sign up for three classes for €25.
Thursday 12th November 2015 was a momentous day for Irish theatre and Irish women. The #WakingTheFeminists event at the Abbey was a deafening roar from women who had been silenced for too long, as well as a proud celebration of the amazing Irish women who work in theatre.
I wasn’t in the Abbey on Thursday afternoon but I was following along on social media, from my bus journey into work in the morning and throughout the day. I was a distracted employee, my head and heart were elsewhere. I tuned into the Periscope broadcast for a little while at lunchtime but I found it a bit too emotional. I was in danger of weeping at my desk; weeping with pride for those courageous women speaking up on stage and with joy that they have finally been given the opportunity to say those things. There is a huge sense that what was said were things they’d felt for a very long time, issues that they felt strongly about, but also things they’s been warned against saying. Some spoke about how they had almost come to accept the absence of women on the National stage, they’d almost stopped talking about. And then Lian Bell came along and encouraged them to speak and each voice was joined by a dozen others and then a dozen more. I think the whole experience was cathetic for lots of people, I know I wasn’t the only one with tears in their eyes on Thursday afternoon. It opened up something; something very necessary and long over-due. The fact that 500 tickets sold out in 10 minutes and the over-flow filled the bar, the foyer and the street outside shows how necessary, how longed-for this event was. (Not to mention the 4,680 supporters that have signed the online petition.)
I am in awe of the organisers for making it happen so quickly and run so smoothly. That meeting, that large ticketed event, with 29 speakers from across the theatre sector, with sign-language interpretation, that was recorded and broadcast online live; they put all that together in about a week. It also started and finished on time, or close to judging by tweets and the length of the video. And it was a beautiful theatrical event. I loved that image of the empty stage that slowly filled with women as each speaker sat down after they said their piece.
I love that they included Lucy Kerbel from Tonic Theatre, a UK company set up to help their theatre industry achieve greater gender equality. I love the dance party at the end, that’s included in most of the videos of the day’s event. I also love all that press coverage. This is an organised movement with a lot of savvy producers in it’s midst! And very well connected – so many high-profile men and women from all over the world have shown their support in the last couple of days.
It was also very encouraging to see the incoming Abbey directors – Neil Murray and Graham McLaren tweeting their support on the day.
This is just the first step, I think there’s still a lot of hard work to be done before we see any real change in the theatre landscape. But it’s an incredible first step. It’s so hopeful and buoyant, it’s people working together and being generous to each other, and making change happen. The will is there and the last two weeks have shown that change is possible – the Director of the Abbey recognised and admitted to mistakes in the 2016 programme. I don’t know yet if there are any plans to make changes to that programme, but it’s still a good first step.
And these first steps towards equality are not just happening in theatre. Sexism is being noticed and reported in lots of areas. There was a lot of press coverage around Equal Pay Day at the beginning of the month; Equal Pay Day is the day when women start working for free because of the gender pay gap. It’s Ireland that gap is 14.4%, which means for every €1 that men earn, women receive on average €0.86. Earlier in the week, the Hearing Women’s Voices report came out to say that women’s voices are wilding under-represented on the radio. And on the same day as the Abbey meeting the Irish Film Board issued a press release to say that it “recognises and accepts that major underrepresentation of women exists in Irish film” and declared “its strong and heartfelt commitment to gender equality and diversity as a strategic priority.”
I would like to see other funding bodies make a similar commitment. In September, the Arts Council published their new ten-year strategy, Making Great Art Work – Leading the Development of the Arts in Ireland (pdf). Right now, they are asking people to respond to the strategy and suggest which objectives and actions to focus on in the first three-year plan. Right now, the strategy does not include any references to gender equality. After everything that’s been said in the last couple of weeks, this feels like a grave omission. Working towards gender equality should be a priority in that three year plan. A rising tide lifts all boats, and you can’t make truly great art if you are not supporting female artists.
[This is long and a little bit rant-y and I still didn’t include half the things that have flitted across my brain over the past week. If you’re short of time, skip to the end where I have included a few suggestions towards action. Also, I am aware that it’s not just women who are discriminated against in the arts, and in the world at large. Theatre is dominated by middle-class, white, able-bodied men. I’m writing about discrimination against women because that’s what I know, and because I want to add to the conversation that’s happening and keep up the momentum that has built over the last week. I expect/hope that getting more women in positions of power will help to open the doors to all, particularly because women have experience being the Other and the Outsider.]
Because I’m still on my holidays, I haven’t been spending as much time in front of my computer as I usually do. I saw the reactions to the Abbey’s Waking The Nation announcements on Twitter before I read anything from the Abbey. And maybe because I’m in holiday mode (ie had a few glasses of wine), I didn’t pay much attention to it. There’s nothing new about women being ignored by the big arts institutions. The Abbey isn’t even the worst of them – at least they included a few women. You have to go a long way back to find the last time the Gate staged a play written by a women. But then the discussion didn’t go away. There were more comments on Twitter and conversations on Facebook. I realised I needed to take a closer at this before weighing in with an opinion.
I went to the Abbey’s website and looked at the programme and I read the press release and then I got angry. The more I read, the angrier I got. The programme is described as “an exciting roll-call of new Irish voices alongside major revivals of the some of the great plays from the Abbey Theatre repertoire”, but doesn’t include a revival of a great play by a woman and those new Irish voices are almost all masculine. In 2015, that is a disgrace. I am particularly disappointed that all the revivals are by men. This suggests that nothing written by a woman in the last 110 years was deemed worthy of inclusion. Then Fiach’s comments on Twitter just added insult to injury. He said he programmed the things that spoke to him, and they just happened to be all written by men. That’s just not good enough. When you are the Artistic Director of the National Theatre with €8 million of taxpayers money to spend, you should feel obliged to include the voice of half the population, even if it isn’t to your personal taste.
Pointing out sexism is a bit of a hobby of mine. In my experience when you tell people they are being sexist they get defensive. The Abbey was no different. While defending this bit of blatant sexism, a lot of the blame was thrown back at women – there was the suggestion that if they were good enough, they would have been included; that the plays weren’t ready and it would be unfair to the playwright to stage them; that there were just more good male playwrights to choose from. The other thing that surprised sexist-deniers do is point out all the things that they have done for women. In Fiach’s tweets he listed the plays by women that have been programmed since 2008 (all nine of them, three by Marina Carr) and the female to male ratio of the New Playwrights Programme (13 out of the 24 writers were women). It’s always the same – sexists will blame women or deny the sexism is happening. Nobody has ever turned around to me and said “oh, you’re right! I hadn’t noticed. How did we let that happen?”
Because I don’t think it was done on purpose. I don’t think Fiach is intentionally or maliciously keeping women off the Abbey stage but I do wonder if he didn’t notice the lack of female voices or just didn’t think it was important. If I was feeling generous I might say that it’s understandable not to see this lack of women as something unusual or unacceptable. For a long time, leaving women’s voices out of public discourse was the norm. We live in a patriarchal society and those attitudes are ingrained at every level and in every aspect of our society. Patriarchal attitudes are insidious, they are so deep in our brains that we are mostly unaware of them. That’s why we have work against those unconscious attitudes and biases.
This means that, if you think there are no suitable plays by females writers that fit into the big centenary programme at the National Theatre – try harder! Find the one you dislike least or spend more time discovering and working with female writers until you find one you do like – don’t just shrug your shoulders and say “Them the breaks”. That’s not good enough. You need to do more. Some might say that’s not fair – why should they spend more time working with women or cultivating female talent? If it’s all about equality, then shouldn’t the women be treated exactly the same as the men? But the cards have been stacked against women for centuries and because of those insidious patriarchal attitudes women still aren’t regarded the same as men. We need to take the time and effort to balance the scales. And now is the time to do it.
The mere mention of quotas tends to makes people uncomfortable. I understand that, I used to feel the same way. But as I saw how how slowly things are changing – sometimes the change is so slow if feels like we are going backwards -I changed by mind. I’m impatient; I would like to see a more equal society within my lifetime and I think quotas are necessary to make that happen. Change is uncomfortable, so the fact that quotas provoke that response means they must be a good thing.
People are against quotas because they are afraid they will allow unworthy women to get things that should have gone to more deserving men. My instinctive response to that is; I don’t care! Again, it’s about balancing the scales. If quotas move us towards gender equality, then the risk of hiring a few under-qualified women is one I’m willing to take.
I also think that the chance of that happening is really small. There are loads of very talented, very capable women out there who are not getting the breaks they deserve because our patricachical society favours men and has done for centuries. There are loads of statistics that prove that this bias against women exists. If you believe that there are less women in politics or running companies or making work for the Abbey stage because they are just not good enough, you are dismissing a long history of sexism and you need to read up on the subject. Or you know, just believe women when they talk about their lived experience of sexism. The #WakingTheFeminists tag on Twitter is a good place to start. And if you think any woman who gets a place at the top table after the introduction of quotas is not going to work incredibly hard to prove that she belongs there, you obviously don’t know that many women.
In order to see make real change in gender equality in the arts, I believe we need quotas and that they should be linked to funding. Either the programme is 50% female, or you don’t get the money. That would speed up the rate of chance! As a kindness to those who can’t cope with the word quotas, we can refer to them as targets instead. This is what the film funders did in Sweden. When Anna Serner became CEO of the Swedish Film Institute in late 2011, she announced that by the end of 2015 Sweden would seek to have equal gender funding in all productions – the first country in the world to do so. At the time of this announcement, 26% of funding went to female directors. That was almost doubled and they reached their target ahead of schedule in a mere two and a half years. Targets work and it would be wonderful to see that sort of commitment from the Arts Council of Ireland. That’s my big pipe-dream plan for change. Here are a few other smaller suggestions.
2. Open Space meeting.
I love the conversations and sharing of personal stories that’s been happening on Facebook and Twitter over the last week. I’ve felt very connected and engaged with the Irish theatre community over the last week. So many voices saying the same thing makes it clear that this is not a small issue and it’s great that those voices have been amplified by Lian Bell. (This article is a good summing up of things that have been said already.)
Now we need to meet in the real world and start making plans. (No doubt this is already in the pipeline.) I think we should do this in an Open Space meeting on the theme of gender equality, something similar to the Devoted & Disgruntled meetings that happen in London each January. Theatre Forum have also hosted Open Space events around the country, though generally without a theme. I’ve been to a couple and I think the form would really suit this discussion. The agenda is set by those in the room, but everything is recorded for those who can’t attend. Actions are agreed on for each topic and a person is chosen to get the ball rolling, and keep it rolling.
3. Riot at the Abbey.
In her piece for the Irish Times, Una Mullally suggested it’s time for another riot at the Abbey. I’m not sure how I’d feel about walking out of or disrupting a theatre performance. It would feel disrespectful to the actors and other artists, as well as the audience. Am I too timid for this revolution? I suggest a picket line outside the theatre on opening night instead.
4. Theatre of Change Symposium
In response to Una Mullally on Twitter, Fiach said that women will be represented in the Theatre of Change Symposium in January. I really enjoyed the Symposiums over the last couple of years and I’m looking forward to the next one. But anyone included in that programme will get at most 90 minutes to speak to a fairly niche audience. (It’s more likely to be a 20 minute presentation, followed by a Q&A.) It’s not the same as a 4-6 week run on the Abbey stage. I think Gender Equality needs to be a topic included in the symposium. At this stage, it feels like the least the Abbey could do.
In the meantime, we will keep shouting about it. We will remind everyone that this is not acceptable behaviour. It’s time to stop feeling unsurprised and start feeling outraged. We have to keep talking until we are listened to. Hopefully nobody will have to throw themselves in front of a horse this time before that to happens.
Last Wednesday the Abbey Theatre announced Waking The Nation, their 2016 season and there were immediately comments being made online about the total lack of gender balance. Only one of the ten playwrights featured is female, and there’s only three female directors. Four days later, the conversation is still continuing on Facebook and Twitter which I think is fantastic. This is not going to go away any time soon. Lian Bell did a sterling job of collecting responses from the theatre community last night (Oct 31) – have a look at her twitter stream here or follow the #WakingTheFeminists tag.
I do plan on writing about it, it’s just taking me a little while to get my thoughts in order. This is a placemarker post with some suggested action! It’s one of things that came up in conversations online – instead of just talking about this injustice, what can we do to make it better? Tanya Dean‘s suggestion was to put your money where your mouth is and see more work by women.
For the next year, I pledge to buy 1 ticket per month for a production by a female playwright/artist. Dollars for change! #fairplayforwomen
This is really easy to do because, despite what the Abbey programming might suggest, there are lots of women making great theatre in Ireland right now. As I said in my last post about Feminist Film Festival, I think it’s important to support female artists and because it’s the first of the month, I thought I’d do a short list of work by women on this November.
Foxy, written by Noelle Brown and directed by Oonagh Murphy. Project Arts Centre, 27 Oct – 7 November
How to Keep an Alien, written by Sonya Kelly and directed by Gina Moxley Civic Theatre, Tallaght, 6 & 7 November Axis, Ballymun, 27 Novemnber
Dusk Ahead, created and choreographed by Jessica Kennedy and Megan Kennedy Project Arts Centre, 6 & 7 November
New Addition: Wrapped, written an directed by Tracey Martin Civic Theatre, Tallaght, 10 – 14 November
The Bells Of, written by Barry McEvoy and directed by Louisa Sanfey. Theatre Upstairs, Nov 10 – 21
Separated at Birth, written by PJ Gallagher, Joanne McNally and Una McKevitt, directed by Una McKevitt Mill Theatre Dundrum, November 28
Through A Glass Darkly, adapted for the stage by Jenny Worton and directed by Annie Ryan Project Arts Centre, 12 November – 5 December
It is a very Dublin centric list, though How to Keep an Alien and Separated at Birth are both on tour throughout the country. (Links above will bring you to full list of tour dates.) Please let me know if there’s anything you think should be included.
Finally, there’s an opportunity to see new writing by men and women during the New Writers Week at the New Theatre, 9 – 14 November. You can enjoy a new play every night at 7.30pm, Monday – Saturday. Three new plays by men and three by women – fancy that!
Women are under-represented on screen, in general and particularly in active roles, just as they are under-represented in politics and boardrooms. In the top grossing films of 2013, women accounted for 15% of all propagandists, 29% of major characters and 30% of all speaking parts. The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media have done studies that show that in crowd scenes, women make up only 17% of the crowd. Women are 51% of the world’s population but they are mostly absent from the world on screen. Eva Wiseman wrote about this is a recent article for the Guardian – Women are everywhere so why are we invisible on film? This is important because wiping women out of the onscreen world is a form of sexism. Making women less visible makes their concerns less important and makes them seem less valuable part of society.
When popular culture shows men being active, making big decisions and saving the world while the women are always waiting to be saved or offering support to the men, it’s easy to assume that men do the heavy lifting while women make the tea. When popular culture is one of the ways we learn how the world works and are our place in it, this message practically acts as propaganda, teaching women to know their place.
This is particularly relevant for children. A lot of the Geena Davis Institute’s research focuses on the things that children are watching. They found that in kids’ films and TV there are three male characters for every female one. Straight away, children are being feed the message that girls are less important than boys.
Even the tv shows or films that do feature women, and congratulate themselves on their diversity, generally feature one woman to every five, six, seven men. This is not an accuarate reflection of the real world. It also means the one woman has the tough job of representing all women. While the seven men can be smart or simple, sensitive or tough, angry, gentle, abrasive, bossy, etc , the one female character tends to be a two-dimensional stereotype. Women aren’t allowed to be nuanced or complicated because they are there to represent an entire gender and that doesn’t allow for subtlety.
One way to avoid these broad-stroke female characters is to put more women behind the camera, in decision-making roles, writing and directing films and tv. Hollywood is a sexist place to work, it’s an industry that clearly sees women as pretty objects to be looked at rather than human beings with ideas, opinions and ambitions. It’s not an easy place to be a woman in charge. And yet they are doing it anyway. There are an increasing number of women getting films made in the mainstream and the less commercial indie sector. Recent big screen examples include Suffragette, written by Abi Morgan and directed by Sarah Gavron, Miss You Already, written by Morwenna Banks and directed by Catherine Hardwicke and Pitch Perfect 2 written by Kay Cannon and directed by Elizabeth Banks.
But the numbers of films being written and directed by women is still depressingly low and there are many stories about the sexism that women have face while trying to make work for the screen. Women in Film and TV is an organisation that aims to encourage and support women working in this field. It’s a worldwide organisation with a burgeoning Irish branch. It’s a way to help see more diversity on our screens, and hopefully as a result, in life.
Another way to support women making movies is to go and see their work. The second Feminist Film Festival is happening in the New Theatre in Dublin this weekend and you can go and see lots of feature films, shorts and panel discussions. The programme includes the suitably scary horror film The Babadook for Halloween, and the Irish premier of She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry, a documentary charting the U.S. women’s movement between 1966-1971. All that and the profits will go to charity!