These interviews were conducted in December 2020 and January 2021 with self-identifying women theatre makers in Northern Ireland across four generations. They were each asked the same set of questions. The four participants are…
GINA DONNELLY – Generation Z: Gina is a freelance writer, stage manager, and producer. Her writing credits include the award-winning ‘Two Fingers Up’ (SkelpieLimmer/Tinderbox Theatre), ‘Tea’ (Three’s Theatre Company) and ‘Maybe If We’d Stayed Angry’, initially presented at the Origins First Irish Theatre Festival New York in January 2020 and recently remounted as part of Listen At The Lyric in November 2020. Her piece ‘Ice Cream’ for Three’s Theatre Company’s ‘These Streets’ is due to be remounted again in January 2021. Her Stage Management credits include ‘My Left Nut’ (Pan Narrans/Prime Cut), ‘The Miami Showband Story’ (GBL) and ‘Body Politics’ (Macha Productions). She recently produced the live streamed No Touching Theatre Festival alongside 3 other artists which showcased the work of 62 independent artists. She is an Arts Council of Northern Ireland SIAP recipient for 2020/21 to develop her skills as an independent creative producer.
NANDI JOLA – Generation X, cusp of Millennial: Nandi is South African born. She came to Northern Ireland in 2001 and has since worked extensively in the Arts as a Poet, Playwright, Storyteller and Facilitator.
RUTH MCCARTHY – Generation X: Ruth McCarthy is Artistic Director of Outburst Arts in Belfast and has been an LGBTQ+ activist for over three decades. Born in Limerick, she has lived and worked in Belfast for the past 30 years. She has worked on the development of queer arts events and education initiatives in Belfast through the annual Outburst Queer Arts Festival since 2007, producing events from grassroots community initiatives to national award-winning productions. She also works with queer/LGBTQ+ arts producers and activists in the Global South, Caribbean, and Arab nations to support the development of queer arts networks and knowledge sharing. She is a member of British Council’s Arts and Creative Economy Advisory Group and a Director of the Black Box venue and Alliance for Choice.
BRENDA WINTER-PALMER – Baby Boomer: Brenda Winter has been a professional actress, director, and writer for over forty years. In the 1980s she was a founder member of Charabanc Theatre Company. In 1989 she founded, and was the first Artistic Director of, Belfast’s longest established Educational Theatre Company: Replay. Whilst at Replay she wrote numerous scripts for the company and for BBC Radio and Television. In 2005 she undertook a doctoral study at Queen’s University Belfast in Drama Studies and lectured there until 2016. Since leaving Queen’s she has continued with her career as a writer. Her First World War play ‘Medal in the Drawer’ (2014) has earned critical acclaim and enjoyed popular success. Her play ‘Keep Telling Me Lies’, which focused on the situation of the women behind the Irish Showbands phenomena of the 1960s, premiered at the MAC Theatre Belfast in 2019. She is currently working on her new play, ‘The Testing of Typhoid Mary’.
1. What do you think are the events and experiences that define your generation?
GINA: I always think of 9/11 as an obvious one because I have such a vivid memory of the world around me being glued to the news and the feeling that something really significant had happened. Of course, it’s impacted and shaped our world since but in reality, my personal experience of it isn’t as strong because I was only 5 and I wasn’t in an airport until I was nearly 11 so I have never experienced security and travel before 9/11 changed everything. But I do have vivid memories of it happening and it’s been such a part of conversations and culture since so I think it’s worth including.
The major event is potentially #MeToo, it marked such a shift in how we think about power and abuse, and it has had reverberations across all different levels of people, I think it’s made people of my generation bolder in speaking out against what’s happening to them. It’s also made it less acceptable for people to brush abuse under the carpet or laugh it off. Less acceptable but unfortunately still not totally unacceptable – there’s still a lot of really dangerous behaviour from people in power being accepted and the work is far from over. A lot of people can talk the talk much better than they walk the walk. But definitely the publicity given to these conversations that were previously silent and the sense that there is at least some repercussions for the abusers has been massively significant in changing how my generation talk and fight.
Repealing the 8th: This has definitely been a defining moment for us. I remember hearing the vote was going to Yes, I was at a music festival waiting for First Aid Kit to come on and it all just felt so surreal and emotional. It was so complicated too because my instant response was such joy that thing were going to change but then the realisation that the victory for people in the North was close but not close enough. I think that was a defining moment of really bringing it home how behind Northern Ireland was falling – the same was true when Equal Marriage passed in the South. It definitely has a significant impact on you to grow up and live in a place that trails so far behind when your generation is always pushing to move forward. Of course the change in law here to abortion access and Equal Marriage was significant but the feeling was undeniably different. That we were only able to get these things through Direct Rule and that our own government still push against it, I know there’s always resistance everywhere, but while it was amazing news it just felt slightly overshadowed by the knowledge that it wasn’t a whole country push to move forward and change. Though we all know the DUP don’t reflect the majority interest, most people wanted these changes, but it’s shit that we couldn’t get our own government to make this change.
Brexit: Of course. I was able to vote (thankfully!) but now so many people who were too young to vote are having major moments in their life impacted by a decision other people made for them. I sat up watching the result and started the night feeling fairly confident that Remain would win and it was such a wake-up call when it became clear Leave was winning. I think Brexit was a real defining moment in the worldwide Sea Change to the right wing. The more it’s drawing on as well the more I’ve seen people around me who voted Leave regret their decision because a lot of lies were told and people were manipulated, Brexit was definitely a lesson in the dangers of accepting things at face value and ‘fake news’, hopefully one which will inform the way my generation votes.
Trump: When Trump won I wasn’t surprised in the same way as I was with Brexit, Brexit was kind of the last one to surprise me. By November 2016 we were firmly in a right wing hold on the world and sitting watching the election all night I could feel it coming. Everything about Trump will have such an impact on this generation – seeing such an unashamed asshole who openly talks about abuse of women, mocks disabled people, spouts racist rhetoric non-stop to win the Presidency without having to hide any of that was horrific. It’s what he brought out in followers as well, people who may have previously kept these opinions to themselves suddenly feeling validated to say and do whatever they want. And even now his refusal to accept he has lost to Biden and the madness of his behaviour during the election week 2020, it’s definitely not a sort of behaviour we’d witnessed before.
Covid: I’m not even sure we know how much Covid will have impacted us yet. Upon reflection in years to come it’ll definitely look like a very small period of time, but it feels very odd to me to have only just turned 24 when it all started and if they’re saying Summer 2021 is when we’ll be back to normal I’ll be half way through 25. There’s a weird significance around certain ages and 25 is definitely one of them, mostly I tend to ignore stuff like that but Covid made me think more about it cos I (even though in years to come I’ll probably think what was I worried about) there’s definitely a sense of feeling like I’ve lost the last year of my early 20s (is 24 early 20s? I dunno pre 25 anyway). There’s definitely a concern that it could change how we interact with each other forever, or it could increase people’s anxiousness in social situations for a long time. Personally I hope it might bring some good lasting impacts – I think we’ll all start to value mates and nights out and socialising more and understand that those things are important, I hope also that it’ll change the acceptance we’ve had for so long that it’s normal to work 40 hours a week and spend all your money on childcare, working from home should become a permanent choice. We’ve proven this year that it’s possible and it breaks down so many barriers in terms of economic positions, single parents, illnesses both mental and physical which can make it difficult to physically go to work. And it’s better for the environment for everyone not to be travelling to everything – previously you’d have driven 40 minutes for a 10 minute meeting but there’s really no need to do that. I’d also like to see a lot more support put behind independent and local businesses as a result of this. No matter what happens we’ll never forget this year that’s for sure.
Lyra McKee’s Murder: This probably only applies to people of my generation in Northern Ireland but I don’t think I’ll ever forget that day. A journalist being murdered in the streets felt so alien to me, it doesn’t feel welcome or like it belongs in our world anymore. Of course, we have never stopped hearing about lingering impacts of the Troubles, security alerts, shootings etc but this was totally new that a journalist would be murdered while doing their job. I remember that day feeling so weird and uncertain, part of me felt like maybe it’s a one off and another part of me was afraid that we’d look back on it and go ‘that was the day that started it all again’. It was just so sad, that’s really the only way to describe the feeling that day.
Starvation in Ethiopia and Drought in 1980’s
Mandela release in 1990
Voting for the first time in 1994
RUTH: Generally, I’d say neoliberalism; Thatcherism / Reganism; AIDS; recession; the revelations of Church abuse in Ireland; the emergence of a new wave of activism. A new wave of individualism for sure. Then, culturally speaking: acid, rave, first time in the 80s and 90s with many of the underlying issues that many Baby Boomers sort of skipped over in their eager embrace of newfound freedoms and upward mobility: shame, economic uncertainty, addiction, control, status anxiety. There’s a lot more to go into there. As an Irish lesbian woman who came of age in the 80s, the main experience that defined life for me and my circle was the opening up of proper visible discussion around women, sexuality and homosexuality for the first time in Ireland and dealing with everything that came with that on a personal level.
BRENDA: Access to grammar school education for working class girls (and boys) made possible by the post-war Education Act 1947. This opened up a culture of aspiration in young women and their female teachers.
1960s and the emergence of a renewed feminist sensibility. The Miss World Protest 1969.
The Pill and legalisation of abortion in Britain.
Virago Press regenerating interest in women’s writing.
The influence of women’s theatre companies: Monstrous Regiment, Charabanc.
The Kerry Babies Case and the death of Anne Lovett.
The election of Mary Robinson.
The Northern Irish Troubles.
Formation of the Women’s Coalition in Northern Ireland.
The Good Friday Agreement.
The #MeToo Movement: the commonality of the experience of sexual harassment in women of my generation and their relief in the identification of perpetrators.
The Ulster Rugby Rape Trial.
The ‘Amendment’ debates and successes in the South.
2. How do you define feminism?
GINA: To me feminism is the fight for equality for people of all genders. That discrimination on the basis of gender can never be acceptable and that our futures and our opportunities aren’t written for us based on our gender. It’s quite simplistic but really it’s about everyone being on a level playing field.
NANDI: As a liberation struggle for women bodies and women rights.
Female representation in public spaces, from Black female fighters to musicians.
I understand that Black and White women feminism are not the same in the sense that they are power struggles.
RUTH: For me feminism has always been about exploring alternatives to oppressive systems and raising consciousness at a grassroots level about women’s lives, gender construction and female experience in ways that empower everyone to make those alternatives a reality. I’ve never been interested in only finding equality for women in an inherently inequitable and patriarchal system. And it’s not always about struggle, it’s also about reclaiming joy, connection and pleasure. That’s an integral part of my feminism.
BRENDA: The belief that every woman has the right to be treated equally in respect of the law, employment, preferment, the family unit, and civic society. And that, without hindrance or harassment, a woman should exercise complete autonomy and agency over her lived experience, her intellectual property, her financial resources, and her own body.
3. Do you think feminism has had an effect on society in Northern Ireland?
GINA: I think a lot of great initiatives like The Homeless Period and sexual health clinics here wouldn’t really exist without feminism. A lot of those have been driven by that basic desire to give people of all genders equal access to the things they need in life. Feminism certainly drives a lot of the art here and the campaigns for abortion access. It does have an effect on our society but I think you maybe have to look for it a bit harder here than in other places. We’re still quite a traditional place in a lot of ways and I think we’re only starting to feel the impact of feminism in a lot of aspects of life here.
NANDI: I’ve only lived in NI for 20 years, therefore I have no experience of the Troubles and how women have fought for their issues to be on the agenda, however I’ve been here for safe abortion access campaigns, reclaim the agenda and empty purse campaigns and have taken part.
RUTH: I moved from the south of Ireland in my early 20s, so didn’t have a generational lived experience of the war, and the war can’t be ignored when you talk about the history and impacts of feminism in the North. Through my involvement with grassroots women’s groups I saw changes happening within both republican and loyalist communities through the work of women’s centres, collectives and lobbying groups. Though feminism was already more rooted in republican politics for sure. Alongside the slow change in party politics, we saw feminists fighting for reproductive rights, childcare, wage equality and great visibility of women’s work. I also think that feminism has played a central role in dialogues and changes in attitude to sex and sexuality, especially in a place where Christian dogma has been so central to social and political life and to the oppression of sex and sexuality.
BRENDA: The advent of the Troubles, plus the innate conservatism of both communities, undoubtedly delayed the effects of feminism on Northern Irish society. Throughout this period, although there were women combatants, women were mostly expected to assume the traditional role of helpmeet and supporter of the male activist. When the Women’s Coalition was formed they were ridiculed by parties of all persuasions for daring to suggest that women could, and should, be directly involved in political decision making.
On the surface at least, women are now more visible and better represented in public life. In my own field, there are now many more female writers, directors and theatre managers. When Charabanc was in formation in the early eighties female writers such as Anne Devlin and Christina Reid were only beginning to make inroads into having their work staged. However, the company couldn’t find a woman director. We had to import one from England.
The demands that membership of EU required in terms of equality legislation has greatly improved women’s rights in Northern Ireland. Women are also much more visible in public life. However, bubbling under the surface, there are still misogynistic elements who show little respect for women and revile feminism and feminists. This was called sharply into focus during the 2018 trial of members of the Ulster Rugby Team for gang rape. The public response to this event polarised opinion and energised the feminist movement in the North. It certainly exercised me! It dragged up personal memories of disrespect, disregard and low levels of sexual harassment already aroused by the #MeToo movement.
4. Has feminism had an impact on your life?
GINA: 100%. I think the idea that I shouldn’t shy away from anything on the basis of my gender has been instilled in me from a pretty early age even without me realising. And also things like #IBelieveHer that fought against the idea that slut shaming was justice and boys will be boys and all that shite, it opened up a dialogue between myself and the people round me and made me think a lot more about how my right to defend myself or embrace my sexuality is not as inherent for people who identify as female. And of course the fights that are ongoing like periods not being a luxury will continue to impact my life, and the ongoing fight to ensure abortion access is free, safe and legal which is a lot more than just a bit of legislation being passed. Those fights will continue to impact and shape my life every day.
NANDI: American Black women have had an impact, for example Angela Davis and the Black Panther movement. I have seen the need for arms at times and the need to read and write to liberate one’s mind.
RUTH: I realised my lesbian sexuality at 14, as well as a deep desire to explore a whole other world of possibility in art and ideas that I knew existed somewhere. Coming from a background where both of those things were outside of the norm, feminism was lifesaving. It was one of the only places I saw myself reflected in the ways that mattered. I didn’t want the life most of the women around me lived: domesticity, heteronormativity and gendered roles, marriage, children. That felt suffocating to me. Feminism is where I learned that I could not just survive otherwise but I could grow and be held by something while I did. I didn’t find that in academic literature or feminist theory so much as in the lived feminism and stories of the feminist and lesbian women who were writing articles, poetry and novels, making music and art. That’s where my feminist education and awareness came from and what spoke to me. Powerful women holding space, sharing stories, working in solidarity, creating networks of knowledge, loving each other.
I think it also gave me the language and confidence to find alternative paths and find others who were doing the same. Feminism gave me hope and fire.
BRENDA: Most certainly! Sexual politics was the underscoring of my life from my teens to the present day. Together with class politics and social justice, the struggle for women’s rights has been the foundation of the context and content of my career as a performer, director, writer and academic and the undercurrent of my personal politics.
5. How have you encountered feminism during your life? For example, through particular people or contexts, educational institutions, popular culture…?
GINA: My mum worked in Family Planning Clinics and Women’s Shelters when we were babies and even after she left that work definitely informed a lot of conversations we had. She was talking to us about periods, contraception and consent from quite a young age. It kind of just got worked into day to day conversations so it was just part of life to know about those things. At the time I think my response was the standard mortified response a child would have but in hindsight it’s much better these conversations were always present and not hush hush like some families had them.
I think you encounter feminism before you even know what it is, from a young age in school you fight for your right to be seen equally, to be allowed to play with ‘boys toys’ and silly day to day things that you don’t really think about at the time. The education system definitely has a lot of faults with treating people differently based on gender – even in GCSEs I remember a boy being told he couldn’t do Child Care & Development because it was a ‘girls subject’ and we all thought it was mad but nobody fought against the school on it. We all just chatted about how mad it was. And what was that grounded in – the idea that this boy shouldn’t want to learn about children because of his gender. Totally bizarre, but a lot of that kind of behaviour is accepted in schools and you spend a lot of time complaining amongst yourselves about it.
Feminism was definitely a major part of university. I studied Drama at Queen’s University Belfast from 2014 to 2017 and feminism informed a lot of our discussion, was present in a lot of our reading and I think some of us definitely challenged and brought each other’s views out more. Myself and another student Moya used to have full blown debates in every tutorial we had – we generally agreed with each other but liked to challenge and push each other. I think university was good for bringing that out in a lot of us, you couldn’t hide your views and you had to really commit and inform yourself.
NANDI: Mostly popular culture, my education was Bantu, therefore it had no value to me. Travelling gave me access to books, free information and key institutions.
Reading papers in libraries, university libraries is something I did for a long time, looked at articles, because up to 2001, I knew nothing of the outside world having being brought up by a regime and propaganda news and information.
RUTH: I didn’t encounter feminism through formal education. Truthfully, I found academic feminism alienating when I was younger. I didn’t feel it belonged to me because most of the women doing that were middle class and I felt intimidated by them. The feminism I encountered, or have been drawn to, has been largely cultural. From the age of 17, I was involved with organisations like Lesbian Line. Then in my 20s the Women’s Support Network and Women’s News magazine. But I was mostly drawn to social and cultural organising. Women’s discos and queer gig and club nights, writing, zine making. Music, art and film were my feminist go-tos. Gathering and talking. Not so much mainstream pop culture, more through alternative cultures, which we had to go hunting for pre-internet. The writing of Adrianne Rich, Alice Walker, Virginia Woolf and Audre Lorde; the music of Patti Smith, Nina Simone, punks and Riot Grrl, the films of New Queer Cinema.
The grassroots north/south Irish lesbian-feminist community was where I encountered feminism in practice. In terms of collective organising, everyday consciousness raising and sharing experiences. The older women I met through that community were my greatest feminist educators as well as my friends.
BRENDA: My fellow actresses in Charabanc.
Sadie Patterson, Trade Unionist.
Inez McCormack, Trade Unionist.
The textile workers of Belfast interviewed for the research for ‘Lay Up Your Ends’.
Members of the NI Woman’s Coalition.
My teachers, some subsequently colleagues, at QUB: Melissa Sihra, Anna McMullan, Trish McTighe, Alison Campbell etc.
My fellow actresses in She Wolf Women’s Collective.
The 1970s television series ‘Shoulder to Shoulder’ which recounted the story of the fight for Women’s Suffrage.
‘Testament of Youth’ by Vera Britton.
The ‘faceless’ wives of the Showband performers of the 1960s in Ireland (who inspired my play Keep Telling Me Lives) whose stories of hardship and isolation were so at odds with the glamorous lives of their husbands.
‘The Vagina Monologues’.
The Canon of plays by women, for and about women, from 1969 onwards: you know who they are Shonagh!
6. Has feminism shaped your work/ artistic practice?
GINA: It totally has. I work as a writer, a stage manager and I’m starting to train myself as a producer and it informs all that work in different ways. As a writer I tend to spend a lot of time making work which deals with traditionally feminist issues – my first full length play ‘Two Fingers Up’ written and directed with Seón Simpson is all about shame surrounding female sexuality. It’s basically a journey of masturbation and trying to orgasm but wondering why girls don’t talk about it the way boys do. I think some of that stigma is starting to change now too but Seón and I both found that in school there was a weird judgement or shame around it if girls mentioned masturbating, Which is ridiculous cos it’s a part of life for a lot of people from puberty on. We wrote it as our response to the Ulster Rugby Rape Trial so it’s born from a lot of anger but we were determined to make it a funny celebration of sexuality and pleasure. There’s been a weird trend since #MeToo and #WakingTheFeminists where theatres seem to think that the best form of activism is to stage rape which is just so out of touch and the result is that you make rape this weird voyeuristic piece of excitement for half the audience and you retraumatise the other half. We had a lot of fun making ‘Two Fingers Up’ and it started a lot of conversations and elicited very emotional responses from people. That’s exactly what we wanted – we made it with the idea in mind the whole time that if the woman from the Ulster Rugby Rape Trial came to the see the play or any person from any similar trial or who had had their right say no violated came to see the play would they be able to enjoy it? Could they sit through it? Because realistically some of your audience will be in that position and a lot of theatre has forgotten that.
As a stage manager I definitely experience the presumption that you won’t know what you’re doing or be able to do it as well based on your gender. Backstage work and crew work can be quite male dominated and I’m young and I’m 5’ 2” so there’s a lot of times when I’m underestimated. You always have to work a bit harder to prove that you know what you’re doing. The stupidity that when it comes to things like lifting equipment, I’ve had people literally push me out of the way mid lift favouring to do a 4 person lift between 3 men rather than 3 men and a woman. It’s such bullshit and it’s so weirdly ingrained in so many of us. It definitely doesn’t happen all the time but on more than one occasion I’ve witness men nearly break their backs rather than let a woman help them with a lift. It’s a small thing but it’s just a day-to-day example of how weird assumptions are placed on us based on how the gender we identify as. You kind of want to scream at these people ‘yeah guess what if I couldn’t lift a heavy box I wouldn’t do it as a job’. That nonsense starts for us all so early though, it’s like in school a teacher would need help moving a desk and they’d always say ‘I need a couple of boys to help me’ and there’s a pressure in those scenarios throughout life to step forward as if you’re a guy even if the girl beside you is twice as strong and you know you’re gonna fuck up your back. This is what I mean when I say feminism is about creating an equal playing field- gender based assumptions hang over us all and it’d be so easy to get rid of them and it would benefit everyone.
NANDI: It hasn’t shaped my writing; however, it has shifted a lot of my language. It has given me a direction to focus and empower and question many things, at times I feel that Black feminism is different to White feminism and living in a majority white country, it still feels as if I’m still oppressed in some way and this time by white women.
RUTH: Feminism is central to all the lesbian and queer work I’ve done, in particular in my work for the past 15 years with Outburst Queer Arts Festival. While LGBTQ+ politics, activism and culture have been deeply influenced by feminism, I don’t think it is always inherently feminist especially around body issues. My queer work with others, particularly in programming and commissioning, always comes back to basic feminist principles. Like working to amplify voices and stories that have been made invisible, making space for different needs in arts education, looking beyond the global north and challenging white cultural supremacy in ourselves and others, being as bold as possible in taking on what needs to be celebrated and talked about. Also challenging institutions and cultural establishment to look beyond the hetero norms, gender norms and even homonormativity. Feminism has also taught me not to get too distracted by even the most benevolent mainstream forces but rather keep sight of what is possible when you stay focused on what needs to be said and done instead of what’s expected or accepted.
BRENDA: Without a doubt! Charabanc broke ground for women in theatre in the 1980s. However, reception of the company by critics, funding bodies and our peers were tinged with reluctant admiration and a degree of suspicion, even fear. At an after-show party in a Dublin pub, to which some company members had brought their husbands, a well-known critic was overheard to remark, ‘I thought they were all lesbians.’
It was very much our sense that our work was regarded by arts funders in the North as inferior to our male contemporaries Field Day because it was popular and produced by women, whilst theirs was considered ‘Art’ produced by high profile literary figures. We joked that they were the ‘Big Guns’ whilst we were regarded as the ‘Feisty Young Fillies’. In the early days of our work I was even asked by a female performer, “How’s your wee women’s company going?” But all this strengthened us in our resolve and made us embrace feminism more heartily.
However, feminism has not been the only driver of my work. The question of the unfair and inequitable treatment of the powerless by the powerful is what I am interested in. An unconscious sense of social injustice was first kindled in my convent grammar school days when I noticed that doctor’s and solicitor’s daughters were treated differently from working class girls from West Belfast, like myself. I was made to feel inferior and ‘other’, by the nuns in particular.
I was first properly politicised during research for Charabanc’s textile workers play ‘Lay Up Your Ends’ by the Belfast trade unionist, and advocate for the mill girls, Sadie Patterson. Since then, my work has been shaped by the consequences of inequality; be that in terms of class, disability or feminism.
7. Would you describe yourself as a feminist? If yes, are you aware of when you started to identify as a feminist, how this came about?
GINA: Yes I am most definitely a feminist. I think around maybe 14ish is when I would have started to identify as a feminist – I don’t really know how it came about I guess it’s just that as you grow up you’re faced with more and more barriers and assumptions placed on you by something outside of your control, and it definitely does run so rampant with traditional attitudes in schools here that by the time I hit 14 I was so aware of it all and mad at it all. Being taught about abortion and sex in R.E does that to a person.
NANDI: I used to until I realised that my issues as a Black woman.
We are not on the agenda, now I just write. It’s not a title that I would use now, I just write and perform rather than being overly bothered by it.
RUTH: Yes, I’m a feminist. Mostly I say I’m a dyke and feminism is inherent in that for me. I started calling myself a feminist before I fully understood what it was. I was probably about 14 or 15. I wrote “Feminists Forever” in chalk on my bedside locker next to a picture of Morrissey, who for all his recent racist nonsense led me to feminist writers and queerness. I found feminist and lesbian articles in magazines like Hot Press and In Dublin. I knew I liked girls romantically, emotionally and sexually. I knew that if I liked girls and wanted to survive I had to understand why people didn’t like that and find a way around or through it. Feminism taught me why and how and helped me find my people. Though straight feminists were not always very supportive of lesbians and often outright lesbophobic. There’s still a lot of unpacking to do around straight feminist discomfort around lesbians.
BRENDA: I do. Again, my awareness of, and introduction to, gender and sexual politics came about through friendships I made in my student days. A very good friend, a fellow member of Queens’ Dramsoc, was gay and heavily involved in the Gay Rights Movement. I scarcely knew then what homosexuality was and I did not identify as a feminist at 18. But he introduced me to Gay Clubs and Gay slang in which women who embraced traditional female stereotypes were called ‘palones’. This alternative culture, at the time, educated me in the injustices meted out to gay men and women in the early 1970s. The experience started me on a journey in which, for the first time, I began to think about ‘Liberation’ in a broader sense. I wasn’t yet brave enough to publicly identify as a feminist. However, two episodes of sexual harassment raised my consciousness with regard to my own oppression as a woman. One incident involved overtures from one of my lecturers during a one-to-one tutorial. I felt confused and I felt guilty! But the sexual harassment of ones female students was almost de rigour amongst certain lecturers in those days. Almost a perk of the job. So I did nothing about it.
The other more serious incident involved a ‘run in’ with group of rugby players at a party. These eight meatheads were mocking a friend’s appearance. When I challenged them in her defence they gathered in a tight circle round me and began pushing me roughly from one to the other like a football. Fortunately, I was not physically hurt. But I was badly frightened and humiliated! But most of all I was angry! I had been brought face to face with my own powerlessness in the face of male abusive behaviour. That was the real start.
8. Has your sense of what feminism is, and your relationship to it, changed over your life? If yes, can you give details of these changes.
GINA: Yeah I think so. I have kind of always understood it as the idea of creating equality, but I think I understand more the ramifications of inequality as I get older. I mentioned earlier lifting and traditional gender roles as an example but that’s the way it influences life day to day – I’ve understood more as I get older about how dangerous the inequality is, I walk home with keys in my fingers and I pretend to be on the phone if it’s dark and I’m alone and that’s because you grow up learning these ways of protecting yourself – I remember the keys tip being in a Cosmopolitan, it’s like on one page you’re reading about the best new moisturisers and where to buy your Christmas outfit, or what books are out and then the next page is like ‘walk home with a make shift weapon in your hand’ and that’s just normal. But as I’ve gotten older I’ve started to understand that feminism is basically a fight for all genders to be equal because women and really any gender other than Cis male are currently thought of as less than, less worthy of respect and less human and less deserving of autonomy. And that’s terrifying. I think as well, my feminism began as being very much within my own sphere and my own experience of the world as a Cis Heterosexual White woman and that’s definitely changed. I think everyone’s politics and morals begin being influenced by their own world but if yours don’t grow outside of that then it’s a problem. My feminism now is much more understanding of how the inequalities are experienced differently for everyone and I’ve made more of an effort to learn what it means to other people. There’s a term Intersectional Feminism which to me is almost redundant because if you’re not an intersectional feminist (basically if you don’t believe in equality for all) then you’re not a feminist pure and simple. You always have more you can learn and your relationship with your feminism should be continually changing as you learn more and get access to more experiences – mine has already changed a lot and I imagine if you asked me this question again this time next year it would have changed again. There’s a documentary 100 Vaginas- I think everyone who identifies as a feminist should watch it to understand feminism and inequality outside of their own sphere.
NANDI: Yes, definitely.
It’s careers to some
Content to others
To me it is a liberation struggle.
RUTH: I think I’ve drifted in and out of identifying with certain elements of feminist establishment while always still being a feminist in practice. For example, I found the feminist sex wars of the late 80s/90s quite challenging and censorial (and often anti-art), so I started moving more towards queer culture. And I found the lesbophobia that often existed in mainly straight feminist circles humiliating and mostly left unaddressed. And now trans folks are dealing with that too, from all angles. So at times I’ve definitely felt less connected to or less interested in organisational feminism.
Seeing a new generation of Irish women and trans folks rise up with a very pro sex, creative and joyful feminism is an absolute tonic. I think they are going to do some great work and it’s rekindled my interest in feminist organising.
BRENDA: Yes! There was no Damascene conversion involved in my feminist credentials. It gradually evolved through a consolidation of libertarian instincts with a rage provoked by accretions of male patronising behaviour, harassment and injustices which women of my vintage tolerated and negotiated in their lifetime. My feminism was further nurtured in my artistic practice where I worked closely with like-minded women. However, the #MeToo Movement and the ‘Ulster Rugby Rape Trial’ had a profound effect on my feminism. The rape trial provoked me into a belligerent zero tolerance of any supporters of the young men involved. My personal position was voiced loudly and clearly, where previously I had let my art speak for my feminism. I ‘lost some friends I needed losing’ as the song says. But it was cathartic! It was good.