Feminism in Modern Ireland: Part One

2 Dec

At the age of 22, having only been a self-proclaimed feminist for about 3 years, I feel a bit nervous about being the only speaker here to discuss the state of feminism in modern Ireland. However, I do hope I can give you some insight both into my own feminist perspective, that of the organisation I co-founded, and also the issues, as I see them, for both feminism and women in Ireland today.

I was brought up in a relatively feminist family. Both my Mum and Dad view themselves as feminist and aimed to raise their kids in the most gender neutral of ways. Neither my brother nor myself were forced to play with gendered toys, wear gendered clothes or behave in different ways. This method, however, worked far better on my brother than it did on me. I bucked the system, insisting on staying as cis-gendered as possible. I delighted in wearing dresses, the colour pink, playing with Barbies and pretending to be a fairy princess. My most prized possession was my baby born doll with whom I spent hours feeding, clothing and cooking for in my little toy kitchen. I loved pretending to iron and sweep, was jealous of my friend Melissa who’s cubby house had a clothes line on its front porch, and generally aimed to be everything that society tells little girls they should be. I was everything a feminist child should not have been! And yet, I still feel that I have ultimately always been a feminist.

I felt strongly, even then, that girls were capable of anything boys were. When I was in high school I began to get involved in music, later attending college to study it. Music is a mostly male dominated environment. The university I attended in America was only 30% female, a record of female representation only achieved in the last few years. I never doubted that my skills were any less than the boys in my class. And yet, I only truly came out as a feminist 3 years ago. Previous to that my fear of social derision and my apathy for the plight of other women prevented me from doing so. In my head, the stereotype of a bitter, angry, man-hating feminist was one I didn’t want to align myself with and I was too scared what other people would think of me if I began speaking out on women’s issues.

My ‘Road to Damascus’ feminist moment, though, occurred in a bookshop on Boston (where I was studying music) when I stumbled upon a book called ‘Full frontal feminism’ by a popular contemporary feminist called Jessica Valenti. In the book she outlines why feminism is a positive movement, designed to promote self-acceptance rather than self-hatred. She outlined the issues facing women, and there is not one man-hating line in it. You see, one thing Ive learned in my feminist journey is that the stereotypical feminist doesn’t exist. I have never, and don’t anticipate ever, meeting the woman that is so often associated with the feminist movement. It perplexes me how advocating for women’s rights automatically turns you into such a negative person. But it was this moment that made me realise this and I have been so much better for it.

The line in Valenti’s book that resonates with me most begins:

As different as we all are, there’s one thing most young women have in common: we’re all brought up to feel like there’s something wrong with us. We’re too fat. We’re dumb. We’re too smart. We’re not ladylike enough… We’re too slutty. We’re not slutty enough. Fuck that. You’re not too fat. You’re not too loud. You’re not too smart. You’re not unladylike. There is nothing wrong with you.’

This message resonated with me so much that within minutes I was a born again feminist. Previous to reading this statement I had suffered from a culturally afflicted feeling of profound inadequacy. Every day I woke up with a blanket of crippling self-doubt and anger towards both my body and mind for deficiencies I was told I had, either by people around me or the wider influences of media and politics. In the moment of reading this book, as hard as it may be to believe, I was reminded that not only was I not alone in feeling this way, but more importantly that there was an alternative. Even though every so often I still have to occasionally dismiss feelings of insecurity and self-doubt, I am far more geared for it than I used to be.

So, I suppose this is what I feel is most important issue for feminism in modern Ireland. The way that most women I know feel about themselves has eclipsed a sense of motivation for change. Many women feel that they are alone in their sense of dissatisfaction with their bodies or with the way they are treated, or if they do notice other women feeling the same way, they rationalise it as being something inevitable. The future of both feminism and women’s rights in Ireland depends on women and men recognising that our current treatment is not the way it is, should or has to be. But rather that even small changes in the way society operates could have a big impact on the state of gender equality in Ireland and abroad.

So it is here where I come to the Irish Feminist Network, where we stand and what we hope to do. Myself and 4 other women set up the IFN in May of this year, so we are still a very new organisation. We started the Network with the aim of encouraging more young women and men into the feminist movement, hoping to make feminism relevant to a new generation of people. We started with a desire to build a mainstream movement, not aligned with any specific political or religious organisation, which would focus purely on engaging young people. Our five aims are: reclaiming feminism, involving young women, engaging in education and awareness, building alliances with other NGO’s and charities working with women, increasing political representation and challenging media representation.

The IFN is built on a foundation of education and self-empowerment. We have no desire to go out and proselytize or force feminist philosophy down the throats of those who feel we shouldn’t exist. Instead we hope to capitalise on the positive side of feminism and hope that this approach will lead people to their own feminist consciousness. The IFN works on a kind of pyramid basis, where on the bottom we have regular social gatherings. Activities like our feminist book club and film club and our discussion series, Feminism in the Pub, is directed at encouraging discussion about feminist issues. These discussions are not limited to self-proclaimed feminists and we see that the future of feminism in Ireland is dependant on allowing people the freedom to choose when to identify themselves. We do not limit participants based on any personal choice, including that not to strictly be a ‘feminist’.

The second tier of the IFN structure involves lectures by guest speakers, workshop’s, debates and discussions around feminist issues. Through these we hope to engage people in a deeper feminist discussion, gaining insight from those who work on feminist issues and exist as strong women in public life. An important element of empowering women and encouraging women’s political and social involvement is by mentoring and role modeling a possible future, in particular for young women. The third and final tier of what the IFN does is in research, campaigns and publications. We hope to engage a slightly more academic audience with studies and research on contemporary women’s issues in Ireland. For example, we recently launched a campaign collecting qualitative data for a study of sexual harassment in the Irish workplace. We set up a blog called ‘You are not alone: the harassment monologues’ and have since been receiving stories from women about their personal experience of harassment or discrimination in the workplace. Our second research task, which I am currently putting together at the moment, is a study of Irish women’s body image and body satisfaction, which we hope to present a paper on at the upcoming ‘Endangered Species’ conference on women’s body image in the UK.

As you can see, we recognise that feminism in modern Ireland will only survive if we take it from multiple different angles. It is not enough to protest in the streets anymore and nor is it enough to purely discuss feminist issues at social gatherings. In order to have the greatest impact we are dependent on tapping in to multiple sources of influence. This, we hope, will work on reviving a sense of social motivation that has waned over the last 20-30 years.

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One Response to “Feminism in Modern Ireland: Part One”

  1. NewWave February 28, 2011 at 9:30 pm #

    Thanks for that, Sinead. Have updated the links so hopefully they should be working now.

    All the best,
    Madeline

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