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Hearing Women's Voices - #WakingTheFeminists

This paper was delivered at University College Cork's Women's Studies 'Women's Voices in Ireland' conference on the 10th June 2017.

Advocacy and its role in achieving gender equality in Ireland is a well-established phenomenon. The rise, recession and rise again of activism, advocacy and issue representation throughout the 20th and 21st century can be clearly traced and documented to periods of severe social decline, regressive social policy and an often mainly reactive government approach to women’s issues.

Given todays’ conference theme links to both the decade of revolution, and the decade of commemoration, my paper seeks to illuminate the extraordinary resonance of one particular advocacy movement – in particular, its timeliness, focus and honesty.

The 1916 Proclamation’s clarion call, declared “equal rights and equal opportunities” for all citizens. This clear commitment set the country on course to hold gender equality as a central tenet of its political system and social justice ethos. However, as has been so regularly documented, this was not the case. Indeed, it is somewhat ironic that in fact, the country’s progress on women’s equality followed a retrograde trajectory in the decades that followed.

DeValera’s 1943 radio address, ‘On Language and the Irish Nation’ – often referred to as the “comely maidens” speech – held Ireland’s ideal to be ‘a land whose countryside would be bright with cosy homesteads, whose fields and villages would be joyous with the sounds of industry, with the romping of sturdy children, the contest of athletic youths and the laughter of happy maidens, whose firesides would be forums for the wisdom of serene old age.’ No exactly a beacon for the egalitarian, progressive Ireland so earnestly commanded in the proclamation.

In the decades that followed, this regressive trajectory continued – with women’s rights (or lack thereof) enshrined in the Constitution, one shining example being article 41.2.2, ‘On Women in the Home’ which specifically states that “The State shall, therefore, endeavour to ensure that mothers shall not be obliged by economic necessity to engage in labour to the neglect of their duties in the home”. An article which remains in the Irish Constitution now.

A Marriage Bar, introduced in the 1930s required that women working in the public sector, on marriage would automatically have their employment terminated. This rule applied in the banking sector also.

By 1970 (to name but a few restrictions on their liberty), women could not sit on a jury, buy contraceptives, collect her children’s allowance, get a barring order against a violent partner, get the same rate of pay for her work as a man – the home she lived in could be sold without her permission. She was prohibited from drinking a pint in a public house without male accompaniment (or may have been flat refused a pint, full-stop).

Some of RTÉ’s top ratings were for shows entitled ‘The Housewife of the Year’ and the annual Lovely Girls triathlon. Undoubtedly, great fodder for the young Graham Linehan and Arthur Matthews, but a rather stark picture of where women’s voices were placed in the contemporary society of that time.

Many academics and commentators herald joining the EU as a critical turning point for women’s equality (and women’s voices) in Irish history – and with good reason. Given the many restrictions women experienced up until 1973, joining the EU forced changes which simply would not have been realised as promptly were it not for external direction.

At the point of EU accession, along with the many gender equality issues highlighted already, the rate of women’s employment stood at 27% and the gender pay gap was 53%. Over the course of the following forty years, thirteen separate directives aimed at ‘equality between women and men’ were issued, with considerable impact. Not all were well-received – with equal pay being roundly rejected in the 70’s when legislation was drafted – the Government of the time did little to enact it, and The Federated Union of Employers raised furious objections to paying women the same as men, insisting it would “banjax the economy”.

However, looking back at forty years of EU membership, by 2013, it was possible to see positive strides – the removal of the Marriage Bar, significant narrowing of the gender pay gap (now c. 14%), an increase in women’s engagement in public life, decision-making and economic activity, generally. Positive measures to actively promote this engagement including policy, quotas and programmes – generally, a wider cultural recognition of the role of women in society. Undoubtedly, there is still a long way to go, but it is important to acknowledge some marked change. What is notable, when you look behind specific issues such as contraception, the marriage bar, and several of the other restrictions alluded to – is the presence of the advocacy group. Organisations such as the Council for the Status of Women (latterly, NWCI), the IFPA and Women’s Aid are clearly visible in their contributions to the arc of gender equality and social justice.

Indeed, while policy analysts differ in their regard or perspective on the role of advocacy groups – my research clearly indicates that none dismiss their importance and saliency in making change happen.

At the point of deciding to undertake postgraduate research in 2015, over 5,500 advocacy groups existed across Europe, and in the region of forty (a conservative estimate!) gender equality / women’s networks existed in Ireland. Spanning politics, science, business, enterprise, rural community and many other sectors / interests – their proliferance is striking.

But something unique also happened in 2015. The culmination of a multitude of factors, actors and context.

“I think (everyone) felt there wasn’t much to lose – something had to be done. There were a series of coincidences, I suppose – the centenary, which was hugely symbolic – the fact that Fiach (MacConghail, Director of the Abbey Theatre) was leaving… All of a sudden, a huge number of people were saying ‘hold on’ – this isn’t good enough. Definitely, social media played a huge role… particularly because people were connecting, meeting peers and being able to see who was saying what.”

The words of Lian Bell, one of the chief architects of the #WakingTheFeminists movement. Galvanised by a commemorative programme seen as unrepresentative and certainly, gender biased (the programme contained just one play written by a woman) – the movement set out to build awareness, and ultimately, foster equality for women in theatre. Organised by volunteers across a range of artistic roles – producers, actors, directors and technical professionals - #WakingTheFeminists set out an ambitious mandate for their movement, one which they took time to consider in order to ensure they could achieve measurable change.

This decision (to focus on equality for women in theatre) became the movement’s official manifesto, and underpinned activities for the duration of their campaign – which, it was decided, would run for exactly one year from its establishment. To embed its manifesto, #WakingTheFeminists set out three key objectives, as well as a ten-point sequence of recommendations, centring on practical, implementable actions for theatre producers and organisations.

Their manifesto’s three objectives were set out to ensure every publicly-funded theatre organisation upheld: 1. A sustained policy for inclusion with action plan and measurable results; 2. Equal championing and advancement of women artists; 3. Economic parity for all working in the theatre. What followed was a series of open discussions, active social media campaigning, media engagement, public and private meetings with stakeholders from both the theatre world and policy-makers connected to theatre and the arts. It was an evolutionary process and one which in many respects, was led by the sector in response to the movement. As a group of volunteers, the team behind #WakingTheFeminists found the groundswell of interaction a driving force for their activity – indeed, Lian points to this reality by noting that “everything came after the fact… there was no (initial) plan. We had a lot of good people, from across the sector in the room – we had to focus on what we could legitimately do”.

Over the course of its year-long campaign, #WakingTheFeminists became a national movement with off-shoots springing up around the country (and internationally). The core group of #WakingTheFeminists assembled three key national events, one in November 2015 (following the founding of the group), an International Women’s Day Event and a further public event on the anniversary of their founding in November 2016.

By virtue of its voluntary, grassroots-led approach, however, #WakingTheFeminists galvanised individuals and collectives to host events and talks and join in on the social media narrative. On Nollaig na mBan, 6th January 2016, over fourteen individual gatherings took place around Ireland (and overseas) as part of a ‘call-out’ issued by #WakingTheFeminists to their supporters. Momentum built quickly in a short period, with prominent celebrities sharing their support for the movement online, bolstering the position of the organisation in the eyes of the public, the media and in many other spheres. In fact, the media’s predisposition towards the movement was noteworthy; with over ninety separate media outlets covering stories related to the group. According to Lian, this was crucial to the campaign’s success – with the media’s positive support actively validating #WakingTheFeminists’ stance, and publications such as The Irish Times featuring fifteen separate articles, “the fact that the media was so positive towards the movement made a huge difference… it was like everyone was saying ‘obviously, yes of course!’. We were concerned that people would push back and disprove everything we were saying, but it never happened.”

At the point of their one-year anniversary event in November 2016, #WakingTheFeminists had built a crucial narrative and in doing so, galvanised a sector, and the wider public, to a significant gender inequality issue. Their efforts had been recognised internationally, with a Lilly Award – the Arts Council had supported them in conducting a robust academic study across gender representation and roles in Irish theatre over a ten-year period (just published this week). It certainly appeared that this collective, arising from the culmination of key events, had left an indelible, unignorable imprint on the conscience of its community. So what can be learned from a movement whose historical impact will likely be considered as a critical moment as well as a movement, and what will happen next?

  • That tone and focus is everything

Tone is an issue I regularly see debated online and in all forms of discussion - not only is it completely understandable, but it is also completely to and frustration and anger over inequality.However, facts and evidence, delivered in a way that engages the many as well as the few in logic and reason is paramount.As has been evidenced in other recent movements (my other thesis case study was #MarRef) – maintaining at all times, a calm, deliberate and often non-judgmental approach really does pay dividends when it comes to achieving the ultimate objective.

  • That engagement with stakeholders is key

Including the media, partner organisations and networks, your community, public, officials and politicians – that working together and drawing out solutions, rather than battle lines goes a long way to achieving outcomes.In this regard, a notable outcome following #WakingTheFeminists’ campaign conclusion was the direction, issued by Minister Heather Humpreys, that all Cultural Institutions must have a gender equality policy in place by 2018.This was followed, more recently, by the inclusion of specific objectives surrounding female representation as well as measures to address both gender inequality and the lack of diversity across artistic programming, film and media in the newly launched National Strategy for Women and Girls (2017-2020).

  • That by galvanising change in one space, inevitably you can become the catalyst for others / or other issues

Throughout my research process, and since #WakingTheFeminists concluded their formal activity – a consistent theme emerging from their campaign has been the development of awareness of wider equality issues within the arts for different communities and individuals.Indeed, the research report published this week by #WakingTheFeminists specifically points to the need for further analysis regarding diversity in all its forms.

  • … and finally… That our stages, and those working on them and behind them are critical to reflecting the diversity of our society and engaging that same society in critical and creative thinking - #WakingTheFeminists research figures are stark; and highlight gaps across key artistic roles – notably writing (28%), directing (37%), lighting (34%) and sound (9%).

The dearth of women’s voices must be addressed as we’re missing out on crucial narratives, as well as lacking great creativity.

To close, I thought it might be fitting to briefly speak about the work our National Theatre is now doing to respond to the challenges so clearly delineated by #WakingTheFeminists.

Just months before the movement emerged, on the 21st of July 2015, Neil Murray and Graham McLaren were announced as the incoming directors of the Abbey Theatre – commencing their tenure in January 2017. At the concluding #OneThingMore event in November 2016, their sentiments regarding the role of a National Theatre were clear (and I quote from their joint speech):

“It is a great privilege for us to be given this opportunity to welcome you to your National Theatre and to congratulate #WakingTheFeminists for putting the issue of Gender Equality at the heart of Ireland’s theatre community.

Last July we announced our appointment to the Abbey Theatre with what we hoped would be a clear message; That, regardless of your gender, your race, your accent, your physical abilities or the money in your pocket. The Abbey is your national theatre and we are here to tell your stories.

Three months ago the Abbey Theatre announced our 8 guiding principles for Gender Equality, and we regard this as a good start but also know that we need to do more. Not just The Abbey but everyone in this room, everyone currently watching online, everyone reading reports of this meeting. We need to find the many different ways to translate words into action.”

For our National Theatre, this commitment has meant solid progress in the 2017 programme – with consistent measurement of gender equality now being recorded in five year cycles. It is only with measurement that real change can be achieved, and issues or challenges considered and rectified. Furthermore, we’re working inside the theatre to ensure the company, its policies and procedures actively nurture and support diversity and inclusion.

International research clearly shows that the more inclusive your theatre is, the more diverse your work will be and consequently, the more diverse your audiences will be.

It is a fascinating, challenging and inspiring journey to be part of – given the history, resonance and importance of the Abbey Theatre, Ireland’s National Theatre. Our journey will be one which hopefully many other organisations, institutions and companies will also follow – not out of compliance, but for growth, for creativity and for social justice.

Finally, it seemed appropriate to close with this citation, which I deftly paraphrased for the title of my thesis – it seemed fitting given the protracted nature of some of the battles won thus far – and those still being fought for gender equality.

“The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice…”

(Citation: Martin Luther King, Jr.)

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