“Having it all” – response to Niamh Horan

I will say one thing for Niamh Horan, she’s brave.  Having sent Twitter into meltdown two weeks on Brendan O Connor’s The Cutting Edge on RTE One, she continued on her theme of women not ‘being able to have it all’ in the following week’s Sunday Independent.

But although she made a lot of women very cross, Horan is prompting a conversation that we really need to have and to keep having.  The kernel, the nugget of truth, which should inform this conversation is contained as an almost adjunct to a sentence when she writes that “capitalist culture doesn’t accommodate family.”  It is this culture which causes the problem which Horan interprets, along with many others, as women being able or unable to ‘have it all’.  And this is where the conversation stalls as women get cross and the conversation often becomes a heated debate, pitching the ‘stay at home moms’ against the ‘working moms’ (and I hate both those terms).  Meanwhile the men just stay quiet and continue to leave most of the childcare and domestic chores to the women.

Unlike Niamh, I have children.  I have had the experience of being a single parent, a so called working mother with two children in crèche and latterly a ‘housewife’ (another stupid term).  I surrendered, as opposed to retired, from the world of paid work when daughter number three came along and I just couldn’t juggle any more.  Our lives were mad.  Well the working bit was fine, it was the bits around the edges of the days and weeks that were mental.  Mornings rushing baby and toddler through breakfast muttering “hurry up” in a high pitched and increasingly maniacal voice.  By the time I arrived at my desk I felt like I had done a day’s work.  At the other end there was driving home having picked up the kids from crèche singing and talking incessantly in a bid to keep them awake.  Arriving into the house to be greeted by the detritus of breakfast.  It was only when I stopped that we both realised what madness it all was. And whereas I would take issue with Horan’s assertion that children suffer when women work, I do have some reservations about how some of our crèches are run.

I was very privileged that I could ‘retire’ and it was only possible because it coincided with the Celtic Tiger years and so my husband could work all the hours God sent while I kept things going at home.  We had ten glorious years and I feel very blessed and lucky, especially when as a single parent this was not a choice that was open to me.  In the aftermath of recession, most parents today do not have this choice either as they struggle to meet the cost of mortgages, childcare and all the other bills.

Equality means choice and all families should have the choice as to how they wish to live their lives.  We are now struggling to live in a world that was designed by men for men who had wives at home looking after the domestics and the children.  We need to make huge fundamental changes to how we organise the world of work.  Horan mentioned some of the measures we need to take such as better use of technology, remote working and more flexibility.  But we need way more than that.  We need compulsory paternity leave, we need care breaks, and career breaks for parents who want to park their career for a few years in order to spend time with their children when they are very young. And we need to actively facilitate the path back to paid work after that period of leave.

My big problem with Niamh’s assertions as articulated in her article is that she is framing this as a women’s issue.  This is not a women’s issue, it’s not even a family issue.  It is a society issue.  Because even those who never have children may well find themselves having to look after or support an elderly infirm loved one.

I am happy that Horan has prompted this conversation again but her focussing solely on mothers and making statements about “some women playing the system” doesn’t advance the conversation one bit and in fact steers it very deftly into a cul de sac.

I hope I will live to see real change happen so that my daughters will have all choices open to them – ones that I was just lucky to get.  What is interesting is that in order for this change to happen we must reach critical mass of women in the corridors of power – in Dail Eireann, in media and in boardrooms.  These women will drive the change if they are supported by men and women who want a better family life for all.

Meanwhile I hope that Niamh changes her mind about having a child in Ireland holding little appeal, whether she decides to have kids or not.  Because for those of us who wanted children and were lucky enough to have them it’s not only appealing but hugely rewarding.  That’s why we get so emotional when someone criticises the choices we have made, out of necessity or otherwise.

Ni Neart Go Cur Le Cheile

“Be yourself, because if you can get away with it, it is the ultimate feminist act.”
Liz Phair – American Singer/Songwriter
According to the Oxford English Dictionary Feminism is “the advocacy of women’s rights on the ground of the equality of the sexes.”   The two words that jump out of that sentence are rights and equality.  Surely every woman has the right to make her own choices and live her own life as she sees fit.  You see, for me feminism is as much about choice and freedom as it is about equality. 
And that right there is why I often find myself getting very depressed when feminist women (rarely men) get angry when a woman puts forward a vision of fulfilment that doesn’t rate climbing the career ladder her major priority in life. 
Over the last few days we have had another stunning example of how we women seem to find it next to impossible to accommodate views that do not fit neatly with ours.  Kirsty Allsop is the latest feminist to find herself in very hot water with the mainstream feminists who have been ranting and raving about her in our newspapers and on social media.  You see Kirsty has opinions and has never been afraid to express them.  Surely this is what feminists are all about?  Having women’s voices heard?  Not apparently if your opinions run contrary to the mainstream feminist view which seems to be all about achieving in education and career.
Ms Allsopp had the audacity to say in a wide ranging interview with The Telegraph that she thought that “women are being let down by the system. We should speak honestly and frankly about fertility and the fact it falls off a cliff when you’re 35. We should talk openly about university and whether going when you’re young, when we live so much longer, is really the way forward.” 
She went on to say that if she had a daughter (she has two sons) she would advise her to postpone university and to concentrate on having a family while she was young and doing the career and university thing later on.  She further said in an interview with Newsnight that she would have the same conversation with her boys.
Whether she is right or wrong is irrelevant.  The point is that she has every right to express her opinion.  She wasn’t saying that this is what every woman should do but that it is what she would advise her offspring to do.  But the immediate rubbishing of her view along with plenty of derogatory commentary concerning her background (which is reasonably wealthy by all accounts) and her work with interiors, design and crafting surely runs contrary to what feminism should be all about?
For generations women have passed down wisdom and stories along with recipes from mother to daughter; precious nuggets of knowledge borne from experience of our grandmothers.  In our enthusiasm for full equality we have narrowed our vision about what it is to be a woman – what it is to be a feminist.
Some of the greatest feminist women I know are working quietly in the home, caring for children, their aged parents and their household.  They have little if any interest in board rooms or glass ceilings.  Are there views on life less worthy?  Are these women some lesser species of feminist?
We need to be very careful of becoming too macho in our pursuit of full equality and freedom.  Actress Natalie Portman said “I want every version of a woman and a man to be possible. I want women and men to be able to be full-time parents or full-time working people or any combination of the two. I want both to be able to do whatever they want sexually without being called names. I want them to be allowed to be weak and strong and happy and sad – human, basically. The fallacy in Hollywood is that if you’re making a “feminist” story, the woman kicks ass and wins. That’s not feminist, that’s macho. A movie about a weak, vulnerable woman can be feminist if it shows a real person that we can empathize with.”

Before we can change the world we must change ourselves.  As a women’s movement we must recognise that we women are as different as we are the same.  We don’t all necessarily want the same things.  Equality is essentially about choice.  The choice to be yourself.  It is vital that we recognise the right of each woman to make the choices that are right for her. And we need to support each other regardless of how we personally view those choices.
So if Kirsty Allsopp wants to tell her children that they might consider fertility and plan a family early and put off career advancement till later, that is fine.  It is another way of doing things.  No more and no less valid that waiting until you are established in your career for the babies.
But women can we please stop being so critical of other women whose views don’t chime with ours.  We are often our own worst enemies… Ni neart go cur le cheile (no strength without unity)

Ni Neart Go Cur Le Cheile

When I watched the first of TV3’s new format People’s Debates with Vincent Browne I admired the courage of the station in attempting to give equal voice to ‘ordinary’ people as to elected politicians and aspiring politicians.  However I did feel that there was a lot of shouting and not a lot of coherence.  So when the second one was announced as being a women only debate on the subject as to whether or not we had yet achieved ‘liberation’ I wasn’t overly enthusiastic. 
But being me and afraid I might miss something, a character trait (flaw?) that has kept me on Twitter for six years, I rocked along to the magnificent HD studios in Ballymount last Wednesday. 
As someone who is a member of the National Women’s Council and also involved with the Women on Air group, I was immediately surprised that I didn’t know more than a handful of the women present.  As I took my seat in the studio I wondered if there was some kind of snobbery at work here.  There weren’t many (if any) TDs at the first People’s Debate and there was not a sign of a woman TD last Wednesday either.  I know we don’t exactly have a lot of female TDs but I was disappointed that not one had shown up.
I enjoyed the evening very much.  There is something very …. I am slow to say special…but it is special when a group of women come together.  Perhaps it’s the very different energy, the different dynamic. 
I was struck by the humour of the evening and also by the very articulate contributions from almost every woman who spoke.  There was passion too.  And believe me there were all points of view in the studio… from very Catholic women to women who were very vocal campaigners for liberal abortion. 
I am aware from the commentary on Twitter afterwards that some women felt their voices weren’t heard and that is a shame but I guess an inevitable fact at any event. 
But I felt that there was a tangible willingness in the studio for women to listen to each other.  It was said time and time again that true equality is about choice.  And this is something I have written about many times.  But more than choice I also think that in order for the cause of feminism to move forward we women must be tolerant of views that run completely to our own.
Abortion is possibly the most divisive of these issues but there are others too. It is vital that as women we realise that to move forward we must all stand together.  We must park our differences and our battles over issues such as abortion.  I understand that abortion is something many feminists will say is fundamental to our freedom as women… but if we continue to insist on all women signing up to that agenda we are doomed to failure.  There are also very feminist women who do not support liberal abortion laws.  That does not make them less of a feminist.
Equality is indeed about choice but it is also about tolerance.  We are not a homogenous group – we are as different as we are the same. 
As the debate wound to its conclusion two things were clear to me.   The new Irish women – many of whom on the night were African had so much to add to our conversation about equality.  Their voices were such a welcome addition and they brought wonderful insights to the debate.  The other thing that came up time and time again was the ‘work of caring’.  Until we as a nation value the work of caring and until it is subsidised by our taxes we will never be fully liberated.
Exactly 100 years before we gathered in a TV studio in Ballymount, a group of women met in Wynne’s Hotel in Dublin and founded Cumann na mBan.   I have no doubt that these women were equally full of passion and enthusiasm for their cause and the cause of national freedom.  But in the end they were divided, like the rest of the country on the issue of partition and the Treaty.  And so the cause of Irish women’s liberation ground to a halt.
There is a lesson there for women of 2014.  Some issues will remain divisive for years to come.  Don’t let that force us apart and therefore delay our full liberation for another century. 
Ni neart go cur le cheile

ROARING FOR EQUALITY

International Women’s Day and I was invited by the National Women’s Council of Ireland to take part in their SOAPBOX event which took place in the middle of O Connell Street – just opposite the GPO.  A place famous for oration… some more glorious than others.  It’s also around the corner from some of Dublin’s most formidable women – the fruit sellers and traders of Moore Street, whose powers of making themselves heard over the din of the city is legendary.  I didn’t sell any bananas but I was honoured to take my few minutes on the soapbox.  Here is the text of what I roared!

Michael Harding wrote one of the most lyrical and beautiful columns I have ever read in the Irish Times last Tuesday.  It was called What I Love Most About Women Is Their Voices.  He began by saying that while his father was in the dining room talking about God, his mother was in the kitchen talking to another woman.  His father called it gossip – “what are you women gossiping about now?”  But Harding says “my father was full of ideas – but mother – full of stories – was always more real.”  He went on to say of women “They share a ‘knowing’ beyond words. …. They know things men don’t know.  They shelter men in the fabric of their knowing and they intuit a deeper universe when a man’s world is falling apart.”
It certainly is time that this world of man’s design fell apart.  It certainly is time for women to demand much more than just equality with men.  It is time for us to demand a new world; a world in which we can participate fully and as equals but a world which acknowledges that we are not men; a world where we can express our womanhood without fear that it will be perceived as weakness.
All women are heroes in my opinion.  We bleed every month which can often make us feel like crap but we carry on with our jobs, paid and unpaid, pretending all is fine as we pop another nurofen and dream of reaching home where we can fling ourselves on the sofa with a hot water bottle and a bar of chocolate.  I know menopausal women who suffer horrendous periods which are challenging in a practical as well as physical way – and they carry on working wearing black a lot and praying a lot that their super plus extra sanitary protection doesn’t let them down.  Would men be so silent if roles were reversed?  Would they hell? 
How many women are afraid to display photos of their kids on their desks in case it gives the game away.  How many women miss their new baby so much when they return to work after maternity leave that it causes physical pain?  How many women wish they could take a couple of years of reduced hour working  in order not to miss their children’s early years?  How many women hate that their children are in crèche from too early in the morning till too late in the evening?  And why do so few women articulate these feelings openly?
I know some men feel all these emotions too.. but today is about women.
How come we live in a modern and relatively wealthy country where we have unsafe maternity services and where we have so little choice in those services?  And how come we are not raising a holy racket about it?
But most of all how come we live in a country where the work of caring is so undervalued.  Our children are our most precious asset – both individually and nationally.  So how is it that the people who care for them are in general working for a minimum wage?   And of course this is equally true for those working in nursing homes – caring for our most vulnerable elderly. 
Care, that most traditional of women’s work, should not be left to either charities or the private sector.  Caring should be heavily subsidised by Government in the same way education is and should be run by professionals on a not for profit basis.
Michael Harding spoke of women’s voices.  And yet the day after his beautiful column appeared in the Irish Times, we heard that 1 in 3 women in the EU have suffered physical or sexual abuse.  The figure is 1 in 4 in Ireland.  That means women in our neighbourhoods, perhaps in our families, in our circle of friends have or perhaps still are, experiencing violence.  And yet they are largely silent.  There still exists a shame and stigma to admitting that our vulnerability, that which is part of being a woman has been cruelly and viciously exploited. 
But before we can change the world we must change ourselves.  As a women’s movement we must recognise that we women are as different as we are the same.  We don’t all necessarily want the same things.  Equality is essentially about choice.  The choice to be yourself.  It is vital that we recognise the right of each woman to make the choices that are right for her. And we need to support each other regardless of how we personally view those choices.  Ni neart go cur le cheile
We are 51% of the population and here we are marking an International Womens Day at an event organised by the National Women’s Council of Ireland.  I hope that some day our  grand daughters and great grand daughters can laugh at the madness of such a concept.
Michael Harding finished by saying that “women have been my compass, my anchor, the ground and the completness of my universe.  As I grow older they are the warp and weft of all my spiritual hope, because it was women’s eyes that saw Christ resurrected and it was women’s voices who sang the song of it – until they were silenced. 

It is time to break our silence.  It is time for us to sing our songs, to tell our stories, to support each other and demand the changes we need to fulfil our destiny to change the world.  Our men need us as women and our grand daughters are depending on us.  

TIME FOR A RED WAVE OF FEMINISM

A few years ago BBC2 screened a documentary series called ‘Tribal Wives’.  In each episode a different British woman went to live for a period of weeks with a so called ‘primitive’ tribe in various parts of the developing world. 
There was one particular episode that stands out in my memory because it dealt with what happened when that week’s British woman got her period.  In the tribe she was living with menstruating women had to go to a special hut on the outskirts of the village.  So off our British woman went, somewhat horrified that she was being ‘put out’ of the village as if unclean.  But she found the experience very soothing.  In the special hut she was minded by other women who braided her hair and she was not expected to do any work.  After a few days she returned to her duties in the village feeling refreshed.
I had forgotten about this until recently when I read a wonderful book by Anita Diamant called The Red Tent.  This book tells the story of Dinah who is the daughter of Jacob, he of the infamous 12 sons, one of whom had a Multicoloured Dreamcoat.  But what I found so engrossing about this book was the actual Red Tent. 
Dinah grew up with many mothers as Jacob had many wives.  As is generally the case when women live together, their menstrual cycles synchronised and so the Red Tent was where the women of the extended family went while they bled.  For three days and nights, they did no work, no cooking but spent what sounded like a reasonably relaxing time chilling out together in their own female tent.
I just love this idea of retreat for a few days once a month.  Imagine if instead of living in a world that has evolved from a patriarchal society we actually had come from a matriarchial system.  How would our world differ?  Well for one I doubt we women would have gotten to the 21st century pretending we don’t actually have periods. 
This pretence is beginning to change.  We now have ads for tampons and towels with their cute little wings on the TV but the ads are largely a bit weird and full of blue liquid.
Last year Bodyform posted a brilliant ad on YouTube addressing a Facebook post by ‘Richard’ who sought to expose the lies contained in the advertising of feminine hygiene products.  In this ad, Caroline Williams, fictional CEO of Bodyform, admits that their ads have lied but makes the point that their focus groups in the ‘80s couldn’t handle the truth of periods with mood swings and cramps etc.  She even makes reference to crimson landslides.
Lately another period ad has been causing a sensation online.  This one features a young girl who is the first in her group to get her period and becomes (for a while) a kind of period superhero distributing tampons all around her.
And that, right there, is the point.  Women are superheroes.  Once a month we manage to carry on for a couple of days through cramps, headaches, mad appetite surges, sore breasts and the need to be reasonably near a loo every couple of hours.  Do we complain?  Not if we know what’s good for us we don’t?  Do we look for some time out?  Oh no, because then we mightn’t be equal to the guys.  So instead we dose up on painkillers and we try not to give the game away by putting a comforting hand on our sore abdomens as we carry on with business as usual.  
It’s the same way we pretend we don’t miss our kids when we are in work.  It’s why we are afraid to be seen crying.  We are hyper aware of doing or saying anything that might make us seem less, well, less macho than the guys.  We deny a lot of what being a woman is about.
It’s time for a new wave of feminism.  It’s time we looked at how our world is organised and made some enlightened changes.  We need better work life balance, better maternity (and paternity) leave, we need to be proud of our emotions and we need better and affordable childcare.  But most of all… we need to shout loud that WE ARE WOMEN AND WE BLEED… and sometimes that feels crap.  Actually perhaps this wave could be called the Red Wave of Feminism.
It’s time that we took a lesson from our ancestors and our sisters in supposedly ‘less developed’ countries.  I am not suggesting a row of red tents on the outskirts of our cities, town and villages… although if they came with a spa attached.. well maybe.  Could you imagine the networking possibilities of powerful women spending some quality time together once a month doing nothing but planning and dreaming and thinking?  It would be better than the golf club has ever been.
 But we need to stop pretending that being a woman is very similar to being a man.  Because it’s not.  And no, I haven’t written this while suffering PMT… I’m menopausal!


"JUST A BIT OF HORSEPLAY.."

Last night I toddled off to bed way too late after staying up to watch ‘Tonight with Vincent Browne’ followed by Primetime on RTE.  Both programmes were on much later than usual to give us an insight into the workings of our Parliament as the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill was being voted upon.  Twitter was as usual great craic particularly as the team on TV3 kept rolling out pairs of TDs to be interviewed outside Dail Eireann by Vincent who was in studio.  There was Fidelma Healy Eames who faced sideways to camera and kept her finger in her ear the whole time and better still was Peter Matthews who kept his eyes fixed on the floor.  All of this to the distant chants and prayers of protesters gathered at the gates of Leinster House.  The subject being discussed in the chamber was serious but the theatrical element of this late night sitting was captured beautifully especially by TV3.
As I bid farewell to Twitter at about 2am, I did wonder about what kind of Banana Republic has a Parliament sitting until 5am.  It’s not like war had just been declared and there was a fierce urgency to their deliberations.  I wondered if the Dail Bar was still open – Gerry Adams had referred to the number of staff that were being kept late by this rather melodramatic approach to serious legislation.  As I climbed under my very light sheet I wondered why a workplace has a bar anyway.
I woke this morning to another fabulously sunny, hot day; nothing like it to put a smile on your face and banish all negativity.  But then I turned on my phone and found that my Twitter feed was a blaze of anger and indignation over what had, by about 8:30am, become known as #lapgate.
You all know the details.  During a break in the early morning proceedings, TD Tom Barry (FG) grabbed his female colleague Aine Collins and pulled her onto his lap.  Barry has since issued a sincere apology for the incident and apparently Ms Collins has accepted it.
So – should that be the end of it? 
No I don’t think so.  This kind of casual, sexist behaviour is an appalling abuse of male power and strength.  To be a woman on the receiving end of such boorish attention is humiliating and intimidating.  It is also against the law and has no place whatsoever in the workplace.  The fact that this workplace was our national parliament – the seat of our democracy and cradle of our legislation makes it even more offensive.  Dail Eireann by its very nature has to be a place where the laws of the country are upheld with transparency and vigour.
I was angry when I viewed the recording of the incident last night.  I accept that there was no malice intended… but that is not the point.  Tom Barry’s actions undermined the natural equality and dignity all women in the chamber.  But also have a look at the men around at the time… no one looks shocked or perturbed. 
As the firestorm on Twitter took flight this morning a Fine Gael spokesperson was quoted as saying that it was all a bit of horseplay and nothing more.  It was the polished version of ‘calm down girls and get a grip’.  This is far more worrying.  At a time when our Government is committed, through the system of quotas, to recruiting more women into politics, the main Government party thinks grabbing a female colleague and forcing her onto a lap is just a bit of nothing.
Journalist Colette Browne wrote recently of her own experience of this kind of everyday sexism in The Examiner.  As I read it I slowly became aware that I too had encountered just such ‘abuse’ in my past.   I have a vivid memory of when I was about 14 walking home from school alone, in my school uniform in bright summer sunshine.  I passed a workman involved in roadworks nearby and as I did he casually put his hand right up my skirt.  He said nothing and walked on by.   At the time I got a shock but, said nothing.  Told no one.  When I read Colette’s account of her own experiences I realised that for generations of young women being subjected to this kind of predatory behaviour and violation was commonplace.  We accepted it. That’s the tragedy.
And it is that silence which is now deafening from the women TDs of Dail Eireann. 
Individually some have posted comments on Twitter but I am very dismayed that there is not an organised statement from these women, across all parties calling for an assurance that no women (or man) will be subject to such humiliation in the future. 
I have to admit I was late to this party.  Having been out of the workforce for ten years, and having always worked in female dominated industries I can honestly say that I never experienced sexual discrimination or harassment in the workplace.  I am also 6 feet tall which probably provides me with some protection from being grabbed and man- handled at the whim of a passing stranger or colleague.
I have always believed that the world is largely as we find it and if you want to look for problems you will find them.  As women we are lucky that our rights as equal citizens are enshrined in law so we can be reasonably sure that we cannot be discriminated against in any overt way. 
But I am now realising that sexism is alive and well and thriving just below the radar.  It is just as wrong and possibly more damaging not only to women but to our society.  It is time that we all call it out whenever we see it happening.  And it starts at the top – in Dail Eireann.

Thank God the cameras were rolling…. cos to me it sure didn’t look like anyone who was present was much disturbed by what they saw.  
Note:  later in the day Fine Gael changed their tune and issued a statement which described the behaviour of their TD as unacceptable.