Converting Advocacy to Action: #WakingTheFeminists Legacy
In late 2015, gender inequality in Irish theatre came centre-stage, following the public announcement of the Abbey Theatre’s ‘Waking the Nation’ 1916 commemorative programme. Featuring just one play written by a female playwright (and few female creatives represented within the programme), this moment catalysed a far wider-reaching conversation which continues to reverberate.
For many the notion of the arts, and in particular theatre, being at the heart of such a controversy, seemed unlikely. As a conduit for societal narrative — a mirror of sorts to contemporary and historical issues — it seemed at odds with this ethos. However, as #WakingTheFeminists’ campaign gathered momentum, it became clear that there were real and substantial inequalities at work within theatre and across other artistic communities.
A wholly voluntary campaign culminating in a final event at the Abbey Theatre in November 2016 (entitled #OneThingMore) one year on from its founding, #WakingTheFeminists’ advocacy movement sought to advance change across a range of key issues facing women in theatre. Ably assisted by social media, a swathe of committed volunteer activists, and a (mainly) supportively inquisitive media, the group’s impact remains a regular topic of conversation for organisations and individuals working within the arts.
Their success in placing equality for women squarely on the agendas of the theatre community, policymakers and politicians, the media and wider public — at home and abroad — is unquestionable. However, their efforts were strategic and substantial, underpinned by clarity and commitment.
Catalysing Change: #WakingTheFeminists Strategy
In the immediate aftermath of the initial catalysing social media discussion, it became clear that a timely and important conversation had started — one that had been bubbling under the surface for quite some time and was now being given voice. The #WakingTheFeminists hashtag had quickly become a shared space where female artists from across the arts could articulate their experiences; experiences of inequality, of deliberate silencing, of being ‘fired from the canon’(1). The themes emerging highlighted a real need to bring people together.
A public event, held at the Abbey Theatre, took place within a matter of weeks, providing a platform for open dialogue and experience sharing. This event also made it clear to many of those involved that #WakingTheFeminists had ignited a discussion that demanded action, and it was now a case of deciding how best to harness this momentum in order to achieve concrete outcomes.
Speaking about this period of time, Lian Bell, one of the key architects of #WakingTheFeminists suggested that ‘it became clear that this movement was bigger than me – it was also bigger than theatre – and for a while became hugely overwhelming. It was clear we had to just focus on our own area [theatre] as #WakingTheFeminists was bigger than the Abbey... it indicated a wider social and cultural statement... the culture we live in.’
In acknowledging both the opportunities and constraints of the situation, it was decided that a set of definite objectives would be put in place — all with a specific focus on achieving gender equality in theatre. A manifesto followed (‘Equality for Women in Irish Theatre’), with a website(2) setting out three core objectives for every publicly-funded theatre:
A sustained policy for inclusion with action plan and measurable results;
Equal championing and advancement of women artists;
Economic parity for all working in the theatre.
Comprised of artists encompassing arts managers, producers, actors, directors and technical professionals, the group also decided to set a timeline for their activity — the campaign would run for a year, continuing vital dialogue across the sector, championing change and building consensus.
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 (including Hollywood stars Meryl Streep and Christine Baranski) 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.’
This acknowledgment of the issues #WakingTheFeminists were advocating, helped to add to the substantial wave of public awareness and engagement, paving the way for advocacy within government decision-making, a fact which Lian acknowledges had differing levels of priority. “In the first instance, our interaction needed to be with the Arts Council; it was very important to keep them informed and bought-in.” As the authority which oversees the vast majority of arts policy implementation, ensuring the Arts Council was connected to the evolution of the movement was of central importance – and also assisted #WakingTheFeminists in securing some funding towards their planned activities.
Though financial resourcing was not a chief concern for the group at the outset, it became apparent that, in order to undertake research to validate the organisation’s viewpoint, and add weight to the need for policy change – as well as running larger scale events – it would be required. Funding was obtained via the Arts Council, specifically for academic research and the development of a gender equality programme for theatre companies; while the Community Foundation provided grant-aid to support ancillary and event costs – both sums amounting to €32,000. The Irish Government’s 1916/2016 fund provided a donation of €5,000 towards the final #WakingTheFeminists event, noting its resonance to the commemoration itself. Apart from these sources, members of the public and theatre community provided small donations, and at the outset, Lian commented that most support was in-kind donation. Throughout the duration of the movement’s one-year tenure, its structure remained unpaid and voluntary.
At the point of their year anniversary, #WakingTheFeminists had achieved a core tenet of its mandate and objectives, building awareness and recognition of the gender equality issues within its community. Bringing these issues and their impact to the makers and producers of theatre, and to both organisations and individuals involved. But those at the core of the movement also recognised that work would need to continue to achieve considerable policy change and make the theatre community itself accountable for observing this change and implementing new ways of producing and commissioning work. As had been set out in their mandate’s objectives, policies and processes would be necessary to safeguard the progress made.
Utilising the funding attained from the Arts Council, the group appointed three academics – Dr. Brenda Donohue, Dr. Tanya Dean, and Dr. Ciara O’Dowd – to undertake an analysis of the gender breakdown across the top ten funded theatre organisations, over ten years. This research would be unveiled at the year anniversary event, with a private meeting conducted afterwards with producers and organisations to discuss the findings and plan for policy change. The decision to conclude the campaign after one year was deliberate, with a view to both the sector and policy-makers taking responsibility for what needed to happen next.
Just months after the one-year anniversary event, then-Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Heather Humphreys T.D., hosted a gender equality workshop with members of #WakingTheFeminists and representatives of National Cultural Institution; she also requested that all institutions would have gender equality policies in place by 2018(3). This timeline was to coincide with another historic milestone: the centenary of women’s suffrage, which was granted to some though not all women, in 1918.
This Ministerial request highlighted a crucial acknowledgement of the issues raised by #WakingTheFeminists’ advocacy at Government level — which were, as had been recognised by the group itself, widespread and not simply confined to theatre.
By June 2017, the research report commissioned by #WakingTheFeminists, entitled Gender Counts was launched. Its findings highlighted a series of trends; some that had heretofore been considered anecdotal, others that pointed to engrained biases and norms. Of the most stark patterns within the report, was the fact that the four highest-funded organisations had the lowest female representation, and in general, the report noted ‘an inverse relationship between levels of funding and female representation… in other words, the higher the funding an organisation receives, the lower the female presence’(4).
Having presented this clear evidence to the theatre community, it was then for the sector itself to respond with a plan. The Gender Equality Policy Working Group had been established following #WakingTheFeminists final event in November 2016 (#OneThingMore) — the group consisted of ten theatre professionals representing the breadth of the sector — with the objective of working together to devise their own individual policy responses. Meeting quarterly, the group provided time and space for those involved to candidly discuss various approaches, solutions and ultimately, decide upon the best policy for each member.
In July 2018, the Gender Equality Policy Working Group published its policies at an official launch in the Lir Academy. Featuring policies by the Abbey (the company had also formulated its 8 Guiding Principles on Gender Equality in 20166), Druid, Dublin Theatre Festival, the Everyman Theatre, Rough Magic, Corn Exchange, the Gate, Cork Midsummer Festival, Fishamble and the Lir Academy, Gender Equality in Irish Theatre highlighted a unified response to a shared challenge.
As noted by Loughlin Deegan, Director of the Lir Academy on the day of the launch, “We’ve talked about it enough, our consciousnesses have been sufficiently raised, we know what the problem was, we’ve identified solutions, and in launching these policies today we are committing ourselves as organisations to very concrete proposals that will guarantee that equality of opportunity for women working in Irish theatre becomes everyday.”(5)
Furthermore, the question of an Arts Council response, in policy form, had also been mooted and by this point was coming into focus. Following a similar approach to the National Library of Ireland, in line with the Public Sector Duty(9), the Arts Council chose to encompass diversity and inclusion in its policy, publishing a detailed Equality, Human Rights and Diversity Policy and Strategy in March 2019 (10)
In late 2017, around two years after the #WakingTheFeminists campaign had commenced, and in the wake of the international #MeToo movement (a moment which might have been referred to as a feminist “Groundhog Day”) news began to emerge of allegations of sexual harassment and bullying in the Irish theatre community.
The allegations pointed to systemic and continuous abuses of power in a sector beset by precarity and insecurity, with instances cited illustrating in sharp relief the lived experiences of artists, particularly female artists, as highly challenging and unsafe.
An immediate response from the theatre community committed ‘to working together to raise awareness and to create a safe culture and environment where unacceptable behaviour can be addressed and challenged.’, while also stating that ‘The welfare and wellbeing of everyone working in our theatres is of paramount importance. Therefore we wish to restate our collective commitment to ensuring that Irish theatres are safe, fair and equitable places for all those working within them’(11)
Taking the lead in the formulation of a Code of Behaviour for the sector, the Irish Theatre Institute held an event in March 2018 entitled ‘Speak Up and Call it Out’ at Liberty Hall, with the support of the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht. While a range of insights and experiences were shared during the course of the event, its chief focus was to develop a code of practice which could be shared throughout the sector and put into action.
Some months later, ‘Dignity in the Workplace: Towards a Code of Behaviour for Irish Theatre’(12) was launched, following a series of pilots with theatre companies. The code provided companies of all sizes with clear guidelines, processes and resources to ensure dignity at work for all those employed or engaged in their productions. It seemed as though a particularly turbulent period for theatre had concluded.
Today, almost five years since #WakingTheFeminists happened, the impact of its advocacy is very evident. While conversations regarding gender equality, diversity and inclusion, abound across all sectors, the necessity of strategic action within the arts to address pertinent issues is clear.
That the agency with central responsibility for the development of the arts in Ireland, The Arts Council, at the publication of its Equality, Human Rights and Diversity Policy in March 2019, cited its own work on equality as “too compartmentalised” (13), highlights the wide-reaching ripple effects of a movement whose impetus centred on achieving equality for women in one artform.
In 2016, at the culmination event of #WakingTheFeminists entitled ‘#OneThingMore’ in the Abbey Theatre, the sector was challenged to achieve 50/50 parity by 2020 (with reporting appearing in March 2021). As this anniversary approaches apace, it will be interesting to observe the progress achieved on that target — not to mention, representation of Ireland’s artists in all their diversity.
© Olwen Dawe
Olwen Dawe is a Policy Analyst and Consultant, and is currently leading the Arts Council’s (An Chomhairle Ealaíon) Equality, Human Rights and Diversity Policy implementation. This article features extracts of her MEconSc. thesis, awarded by the Institute of Public Administration, entitled Advancing the Arc of Social Change: Lessons Learned from Contemporary Advocacy Movements.
A subsequent version of this essay was published in the Irish Journal of Arts Management and Cultural Policy, Volume 7, 2019-2020.
1 Fired from the canon: the fate of Irish female playwrights | The Irish Times, 2nd December 2015
3 Minister for Arts wants gender policies in place next year | The Irish Times, 5th April 2017
https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/music/minister-for-arts-wants-gender-policies-in-place-next-year-1.3034856 4 #WakingTheFeminists | Gender Counts Research http://www.wakingthefeminists.org/research/
5 Yes we did: Irish theatre’s gender-equality revolution | The Irish Times, 14th July 2018 https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/stage/yes-we-did-irish-theatre-s-gender-equality-revolution-1.3563784
6 Waking The Feminists welcome Abbey equality plans | RTÉ, 31st August 2016 https://www.rte.ie/entertainment/2016/0830/812963-abbey-theatre/
7 Arts Council moves closer to gender equality | The Sunday Times, 18th June 2017 https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/arts-council-moves-closer-to-gender-equality-59nj0m7j3
8 National Library of Ireland: Diversity and Inclusion Policy 2018-2021 | https://www.nli.ie/en/Policy.aspx
9 Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission | Public Sector Duty | https://www.ihrec.ie/our-work/public-sector-duty/
10 Equality, Human Rights and Diversity Policy | The Arts Council http://www.artscouncil.ie/uploadedFiles/EHRD%20Policy%20English%20version%20Final.pdf
11 Theatre directors condemn sexual harassment and abuse of power | The Irish Times, 27th October, 2017 https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/stage/theatre-directors-condemn-sexual-harassment-and-abuse-of-power-1.3271865
12 Dignity in the Workplace: Towards a Code of Behaviour for Irish Theatre | Irish Theatre Institute http://www.irishtheatreinstitute.ie/attachments/c512602b-e015-48fa-a071-b70ed31a5e65.PDF
13 Arts Council concedes its work on equality has been 'too limited and too compartmentalised' | The Irish Examiner, 27th March 2019 https://www.irishexaminer.com/breakingnews/ireland/arts-council-concedes-its-work-on-equality-has-been-too-limited-and-too-compartmentalised-913752.html