I’ve been a feminist for as long as I can remember. I was a feminist before I was aware there was such a thing as feminism. My awareness of the subjection of women to man’s laws began at a very early age, but it was not through the reading of books or listening to the ranting’s of women libbers (there were none of these where I came from ) but from witnessing a woman being dragged into her home, on a sunny Saturday morning, by the hair. As she walked down her pathway the front door opened and a dishevelled man, shouting obscenities yanked the woman back indoors. No one intervened; the busy street got on with its business and let him get on with his. This scene had a deep impact on me and the total subjugation of this woman to this man remained with me throughout my early teens and led me to the doors of the then Women’s Movement in North St Arcade at the age of 18. I didn’t really know what was wrong with the world I lived in nor did I know how to fix it, I just knew in my world women got a raw deal. The men didn’t fair too great either but as the saying goes ‘the woman is the slave of the slave’.
As a child of the Troubles I knew nothing but violence; however I wasn’t aware of the limiting effect of this on me and my peers’ life chances, nor of the freedoms denied or opportunities lost because of the bombs and bullets. It wasn’t the Troubles that played on my mind as a young girl but the fate of women, such as my mother and her peers. Intelligent, strong women consigned to domesticity by a role defined by religion, laws and customs. Marriage and children was the destiny for women and they were educated and socially reared for this purpose. If lucky enough a woman could escape this fate through a scholarship and entry to a profession such as teaching aptly referred to as the Cinderella profession by Germaine Greer. This provided a vital necessity for autonomy, her economic independence. Unfortunately most with high hopes, married, and if lucky they married a ‘good un’. This meant that he didn’t beat her, wasn’t a drunk, didn’t gamble every last penny, and wasn’t a womaniser. If a woman got a man who didn’t indulge in any of these vices she was considered to have done well. She was well served in her domesticity. For me it was a waste of creative, talented, inspiring women and I often wondered how it could be that a human being, purely on the basis of their sex, could be denied not only their rights but humanity.
Fortunately for me I was able to avail of a student grant and attended university where I gained a deeper understanding not only of the plight of women in Ireland but the doctrine of feminism. It was a great feeling to be vindicated and not alone. My anger and anguish at the condition of women was not unfounded. I wasn’t a misfit nor a woman who thought above her station, there were reasons for not only the inequality of women, (I don’t believe the word ‘unequal’ does justice to the state of women) but the mistreatment of them. Women’s status as wives and mothers was enshrined in laws, in the South it was enshrined in the very Constitution, a constitution practically written by the Arch Bishop of Dublin, John Charles McQuaid. The laws that allowed men to rape and beat their wives, laws that forbade abortion and contraception, laws that forced married women to leave their jobs, stigmatised single mothers were made by men for men. It was this that brought me to the doors of the Women’s Movement in the late 80s, even if only to hand out leaflets or attend meetings it was empowering to attempt to change things. Like any movement or ideology feminism attracts diverse and colourful characters, it also evolves in terms of its thinking and strategies, it has to or else it would become irrelevant. And irrelevant it is not.
More women may be found in the universities, in the sciences, medicine etc. but something happens in the leap from the shop floor to the boardroom and many other aspects of society have yet to change to realise feminism. Many gains have been made but many more have yet to be achieved. International Women’s Day has come round again and the local dignitaries and media have paid the yearly token acknowledgement to the contribution of women. We have been patted on the head, had the opportunity to relate some success stories, been reminded of the horror stories and then put away in the box until next year. But for those women taking part in the International Women’s Day march tomorrow in Belfast City Centre, Every day is Women’s Day, and for me I will be a feminist until the end. Likely I will just become a more unforgiving one!
Catherine Mc Cartney