Reflections from #FemFest: My feminist future
Last Friday was quite the day for me – not only did I speak at FemFest, the feminist festival organised by the National Women's Council of Ireland for young women aged 16-24, but I also spoke to a group of Trinity College students about social media, and what it's like to be trolled. Weirdly, both talks ended up essentially being about the same thing: my experience of being a woman, both online and off, in 2016. But it's FemFest I wish to discuss. It was both an encouraging and a depressing moment, to be in this room full of smart, engaged, angry young women, and feel as if, okay, good, there's hope for the future – but also, why do we still have to fight for this?!
I was speaking with Ellen Coyne (whose undercover exposé of abortion advice services in Dublin has fully made my subscription to The Times Ireland worth it); author Sarah Maria Griffin, who penned the poem in the incredibly moving – and harrowing – We Face This Land (below); on a panel chaired by Repeal Project's Ana Cosgrave.
We each spoke about what feminism means to us – how did we become feminist voices? Ellen spoke about how, as a political writer, she sees no reason why "women's issues" (often relegated to the back pages or not represented at all) don't belong in the political pages; Sarah spoke about having empathy, about how we need to convert with kindness rather than quash with anger; I spoke about how I never meant to talk about feminism all the time, but in talking about myself, my life, my day, feminism somehow, y'know, came up. We each spoke about our anger.
Afterwards, the floor at FemFest was opened for questions – and there were a few key issues that arose, issues that I wanted to get down in print, to commit to something better than paper. Because if there's one thing better than speaking to a room of already "woke" women, it's being heard by a group of women – and men – who haven't yet got on board with our "feminist agenda".
What comes after #repealthe8th – what's next?
For me, this is a dangerous question. Firstly, it assumes that the campaign to repeal the 8th amendment will be successful – which we hope it will, but there are no guarantees. Secondly, it suggests that the #repealthe8th campaign and movement is the only pressing feminist issue in Irish life today when, if you ask me, that couldn't be (sadly) further from the truth.
A part of what I talked about at FemFest is the importance of recognising all of the composite parts that make up our society's gender inequality. It's not just about the fact that we don't have bodily autonomy – although, y'know, that's pretty important – but it's also about the fact that we don't feel safe walking home. It's about the fact that people will call women bitches and hoes and act like it's okay. It's about the fact that, when I got angry on the phone at a service provider (for failing to provide a service I'd paid for), the man on the other line hung up on me – and called my boyfriend.
Sexism is systematic and endemic, and it affects every fibre of our society. To ignore the everyday sexism – to accept it when someone calls you "love", or assumes you can't change a tyre because you're a woman (it's okay not to be able to change a tyre; I can't – but it's not because I've got tits, it's because I hate cars), to accept cat-calling and sexual assault in bars – is to permit it, and to permit it is to say, that's okay: we are lesser.
And if we're lesser, then, sure, what do we need bodily autonomy for? It's all a great big part of the same problem, and if we ignore the teeny, tiny everyday injustices, we run the risk of, by granting them permission to exist, propping up the bigger injustices. There is nothing after #repealthe8th – there are just a whole load of things that run alongside it.
Why do people keep acting like sexual assaults are our problem?
One woman in the FemFest audience spoke about the climate at NUI Maynooth since 18-year-old Kym Owens was violently assaulted on her way home one night last month; she said that women in the area had been told not to go out after dark, not to walk places alone. They had been made feel like their very existence had the potential to cause another attack – they were being encouraged to live in fear. She asked what can be done.
I suggested that we start complaining – to An Garda Síochána, to the media outlets that urge caution in the female population. Because there is another angle you could take after these hideous crimes, one that would place the onus where it belongs: on the perpetrator.
Imagine if our police and media started to urge people to keep an eye on their men. Because someone came home that night out of breath. Maybe his clothes were torn. Maybe he was agitated, restless, in a state of shock.
There is a man, who was also involved in an extremely violent assault that night – and, y'know, how about the gardaí and media started discouraging men from going out late at night. You know, "for the safety of the women in the area". How about if men were encouraged not to be seen out alone, in case they were suspected. Wouldn't that make just as much – if not more – sense?
Do we need to include men in FemFest?
The question wasn't posed in exactly that manner, but there were quite a few questions at FemFest that centred on men. Why do we need to include men in feminism – isn't it for women? Do we really need to talk about men, again? Why do men try to sideline conversations about violence against women into conversations about violence against men?
Ultimately, I think the key here is in a misunderstanding: feminism isn't about women. It's about society, and working to make that society a more fair and equal place for both genders. Right now, in a lot of ways, women are on the back foot. We get paid less, we get sexually assaulted more, we get murdered by our partners in disproportionate numbers, we become homeless with our families at a very high rate... We are vulnerable. But similarly, in a lot of ways, men have a tough time. They're often expected to be the breadwinners in a fast-changing economy. They aren't socialised in ways that allow them to be sensitive, to talk about their feelings. As a consequence, they bottle things up and they struggle when they feel as though they're not being the right kind of man.
The thing is, feminism can help both genders with all of their problems. Feminism seeks to place men and women on an equal footing; women won't get paid less for simply being born female, while men won't be expected to earn the majority of the cashola. Women won't get bullied for crying, because "being girly" won't be a bad thing – ergo, men will find it easier to talk about their feelings because they won't fear that same "being girly". It's a big, complex, complicated circle of life, but as feminism achieves its goals – and it does, incrementally, over time, it does achieve them – we all come out better off.
Ultimately, I try to frame the conversation as being about gender inequality. So, for example, we know that women are sexually assaulted at disproportionately high rates because of their gender. It's because we're considered sexual property, because straight men are socialised to think that being sexually aggressive is good, and because almost everything we see shows men that women like it when you force them. (I mean, they like it eventually.) When men are worried about walking home at night, is it specifically because they're men? Or is it because they're humans, with wallets, and some people might be opportunistic?
In so many feminist arguments, we need to get the entire population on board. Change won't happen if just the women in the world want it – but the change we want to see would help us all, so it is worth trying to have those conversations (as frustrating as that may be), and giving the men a seat at the feminist table. As long as they don't do any manspreading while they're there.