Dublin Writers Festival opened 20th of May and one of the first events was an exploration of the varying guises of feminism, as well as a plug for a new collaborative book, Fifty Shades of Feminism, in the Smock Alley Theatre. One of the book’s editors, Rachel Holmes, was on hand to discuss issues that led to its speedy publication – and I mean speedy: it was thought up ‘over a glass of wine’ in September 2012, contributions sought immediately, and published by March 2013! Each contribution, then, is more of a vignette – column length essays from more than fifty writers/activists/feminists. Along with Rachel the panel consisted of book contributor Shami Chakrabarti, director of the civil liberties advocacy organisation, Liberty, in England; Louise Lowe, theatre director, playwright and Artistic Director of Anu Productions; Una Mullally of Irish Times fame (and a personal favourite of mine); and as chairperson, journalist Margaret Ward.
So, an interesting panel discussion seemed inevitable with such an interesting group of women, and the setting added to the feeling of collaborative thought – the main room of the Smock Alley Theatre is beautifully laid out, and the variety of age-groups taking up the pews was indicative of the head of steam feminism is building up throughout the country again. It must be said, however, that there were moments when conversation flagged and the panel became little more than a self-congratulatory session, where battle wounds were compared. Shami, in particular, came across as somewhat mocking at times – particularly when disagreeing with audience members, one of whom had the audacity to interrupt the panel before question time. While the audience collectively sighed at the loud voice from the back of the room that interrupted what was becoming a fascinating back-and-forth on stage, it was unnecessary for Shami to take the role of the chair in poking fun at the woman. This interruption was sparked by the attendee’s own interest in the discussion, and while I was one of the many who wished for her to shut up so that the panel could continue, surely Margaret Ward, as chair, was more than capable of bringing it back to centre. I admire much of what Shami had to say, but it seemed at times that she wished to hear her own voice much more than others – something accentuated by her drinking beer on stage, slouching in her chair like a teenager, interrupting others as they spoke, and calling everyone ‘darling’ in a slightly sarcastic tone. Obviously cultural differences do step in here – I’m really not a fan of that endearment, and it seemed particularly out of place when compared with Una Mullally’s intelligent and erudite contributions.
The youngest member of the panel, Una absolutely held her own with the best of them. Obviously I was heavily invested in her being good, as she is a year younger than me and writing for a paper I would give my left ear to be working for, but she stepped up to the plate admirably. Drawing the discussion back regularly from the brink of irrelevancy, her comments marked her as an interesting and interested feminist who thinks outside of the box. Gaining confidence as the evening wore on, she became much better at responding and jumping in on questions – it was a pleasure to hear her belt out almost-statistics (who can ever remember exact numbers?!) and various studies. Lacking this confidence, or perhaps shouted down at an early stage by Shami, was Louise Lowe. I would have been very interested to hear more about what her theatre group does in relation to highlighting gender issues, but unfortunately she was loathe to step in on many conversations, and Margaret did not direct enough questions her way. Rachel Holmes was very well spoken, and dealt with the discussion humorously and vigorously – clearly a woman of convictions, she knew her path and had worked hard to get there. To alleviate some of my comments about Shami, it must be said that her contributions were often extremely interesting, and it is very clear that she works hard at her very laudable job – being an activist and advocate can often leave you disdainful of mere discussion, so it is perhaps inevitable that she might not always have taken the discussion as seriously as she might have.
Overall, the panel did not quite live up to what I would have hoped from a group of intelligent women coming together to discuss feminism today. Irish issues were often not addressed, as statistics and reports were English based – a moment that stands out in my mind was instigated by Una Mullally, who pointed out that the Attorney General for Ireland (Máire Whelan) was female, which prompted muttering between myself and my friend about how the Director of Public Prosecutions (Claire Loftus), State Pathologist (Marie Cassidy), Ombudsman for Children (Emily Logan), the first Taxi Regulator (Kathleen Doyle), first Chief State Solicitor (Claire Loftus) and our last two presidents (Mary Robinson and Mary McAleese) were also women. Ireland is slowly making changes, and it would be nice to have some acknowledgement of that – I’m not saying that the utopian meritocracy is upon us, but as a cloistered nation we have broken some of the bonds of patriarchy in recent years. Indeed, the ‘Irish Mammy’ trope has had something to do with this – Irish women have always been strong, their strength just requires some direction. We still suffer the general patriarchal impositions that most developed nations do – less pay in work, less advancement opportunity, childcare requirements not met, discrimination in the street, low rate of prosecution for rape and sexual assault cases, etc. etc. – and there is plenty of work to be done. It took an audience member at question time to say ‘get out and march’, that this is the time to make sure our voices are heard, since the panel were not making that point – though ‘throwing bricks through windows’ should probably be taken more metaphorically than not. There was far too much congratulation for writing the book as though that is all it takes to generate a discussion – the attendees were overwhelmingly female, and already in agreement with feminist as a tenet. I would have welcomed a discussion on the damage post-feminism, societal pornification and raunch culture has done to our solidarity as a movement, rather than a cheap for-claps emphasising that ‘I’m not post anything, darling’. I also felt that there was a contradiction in their allegation that women don’t generally help other women, yet each of them mentioned a strong woman who had helped them throughout their lives – again, it was Una who pointed out this crossing of lines, and I would have loved to have heard that developed. This is especially relevant in terms of media portrayal of feminism – the ‘dirty word’ as it has become known, and that same audience member who wanted us throwing bricks through windows was again the one to confirm that is has never been a ‘clean’ word.
Having attended university as an 18 year old and again as a mature student, I can tell you that some general opinions on feminism have changed and some have become even more entrenched. Perhaps that was why Una’s contributions appealed to me the most – she would have come through the ranks as post-feminism was gaining its foothold, suffered as I did through the ‘Mad Men’ resurgence of ‘gentle sexism’, watched as the internet became a medium both of freedom and of increased oppression of opinion, and seen first hand the effects the pornification of society has had on a young population. It had moments of lucidity, and there were times when I would have jumped in on the conversation myself, but the length of discussion was too short and the book-plugging too necessary for it to rise above the normal in panel discussion terms. In the end, a lot of it was preaching to the converted, and I doubt very many people left the auditorium with deeply renewed fervour in their feminist goals. I did learn a new term for my type of feminism – socialist feminist – which I will carry with pride, but I can’t say that I will be hugely inspired otherwise by what occurred beneath the Smock Alley roof. Enjoyable, then, but since I left the discussion feeling mainly passive, I can’t call it anything other than a cap-tipping exercise in mutually congratulatory feminism.
EDIT: Another thought that arose through questions, but we didn’t have time to explore, is the fact that feminism as we discuss it, and revolt against patriarchy as we see it, all exists under the umbrella of capitalism – which leads to an interesting debate about where we go from here. Does the entire system need to be torn apart before changes can be made? Are we constantly just putting patches on an essentially unworkable system by propping up capitalist tenets even while making gains in our feminist agendas? Something to think about, certainly, so very glad to have these questions arise on Monday night.