I was sorry I had to turn down an invitation from Trinity College Dublin’s eminent College Historical Society to speak on the motion that “This House Believes that the Modern Irish Women Have No Need for a Women’s Movement”.
Especially since it included dinner with the Fellows and Scholars, a wondrously glamorous prospect.
And especially since it was chaired by former Uactarain Mary Robinson (who must have observed with some bemusement her campaign song “Here’s To You, Mrs Robinson” mockingly transferred to Iris).
But alas, my domestic circumstances made it impossible, which only goes to show I haven’t moved too far from the kitchen sink from which I sought escape in the first instance.
A lot of women in my generation, and after my generation, became feminists because they yearned to lead different lives from their mothers, and aunts, and older sisters. They looked at the women in their families and thought – “I want something better than that.”
It wasn’t Germaine Greer or Simone de Beauvoir who drove them on: it was their mother as an unhappy – and perhaps impoverished – housewife, their clever aunt who had to quit her promising job when getting married, their older sister whose entire school class, saving a handful who went into nursing or nunneries, become office secretaries because that was what women were expected to do.
It was watching gifted women mouldering away as bored, bored, bored provincial doctors’ wives – small wonder Emma Bovary went mad; or sensitive, artistic women subjected to the tyranny of a domineering husband who couldn’t stand to see a female drive a car and would run his finger along a ledge to check it had been dusted.
Such examples occurred in my own family, and that was, essentially, what propelled me to discover, and to need, feminism.
Questions like contraception came later, but the lack of control over fertility only emblemised the lack of control, already observed, over women’s lives.
Later on again, I would question whether there is any such thing as total control over fertility, since biology is not within the mastery of man or woman. As Greer once put it, with her cutting logic: “If we had rights over our bodies, we would have the right not to get cancer.” But certainly the state should not command our biology.
Young women today would rarely have these negative examples before them. They may know bored housewives, subjugated spouses, women frustrated in their careers or women who quit their jobs when they married, but it is unlikely that these represent the norm today.
A bored housewife nowadays only has herself to blame. A woman with a tyrannical husband should call a good lawyer. A woman forced to leave her job on marriage (or on motherhood) has the law on her side.
Young women now have other problems and dilemmas. The question is – would a feminist movement today alter anything important? Is there anything that the law, or political pressure, or a reformation of custom and practice, can substantially change in women’s lives?
For example, you can pass as many equality bills as you like through a parliament, but it won’t change the hard economic realities of life. You can say that men and women should always have equal pay, but if the enterprise to which you have devoted your career has just filed for bankruptcy, then no one gets any pay at all.
You can rule that young mothers should have two years maternity leave and young fathers ditto, and that good child-care should be available to all, but if the finances aren’t there to support that situation, forget it. If a small business is on a knife-edge of survival, any kind of employee paid leave can spell disaster.
Today, it all comes down to money. And I would say, looking around at my own contemporaries, those women who did best in their lives and their career paths were those who flourished financially.
* * * * *
So if there is advice to young women today, it is not in adhering to a women’s movement which is not empowered to reorganise realities, but it is Iago’s advice: “Put money in thy purse.”
Look for a job with generous emoluments. Aim for a career which carries with it six magic words: “security of tenure” and “index-linked pension”. And the most likely area to provide these six magic words is one funded by the taxpayer.
Become a senior civil servant. Become a politician. Become a university lecturer. Become a fonctionnaire with the European Union. Join the staff of RTE (or the BBC, where many of the suits upstairs are clearing £400,000 sterling annually, plus a golden “pension pot”). Join the UN, UNESCO, the WHO. Join – or head up – a Quango of any kind. Marry the taxpayer, in short.
In our time, and for the future, the only sure road to liberation is money. Money will buy any amount of equality, education, opportunities, child-care, respect, status, and professional satisfaction. With wealth, you’ll be an honoured guest in any golf club. And please ensure the revenue comes with the aforesaid six words: “security of tenure” and “index-linked pension”.
Different times need different remedies. Put money in thy purse. ENDS
Irish Independent Magazine. March 2010