Who's a Feminist? We Are All Feminists ... - The Gloss Magazine

Who’s a Feminist? We Are All Feminists …

Long before Dior T-shirts were emblazoned with this slogan, Polly Devlin nailed the idea of the everyday feminist.

I always have to bring everything back home. The proverb says home is where the heart is but home for me is memory and nostalgia, a place where I feel safe. You mightn’t think it but I’m talking feminism here. Or what happens to many of us women to make us trust hardly anything. I know so many women who are not liberated and do not even realise it yet who could be free. Our society allows it and the opportunity is there but they are still in thrall to the misrule of men and it is deeply dismaying. And I also know of continents of women who are not liberated and cannot be and would give thanks to the sky above for the chances we have and often are not taken.

“I wouldn’t call myself a feminist because I’m not anti-men,” a high-powered businesswoman, the boss of many, in her mid-30s tells me. “Though,” she adds hastily, “I am pro women.” She is? Did she think I might doubt it? From a 29-year-old barrister: “I get the impression that many women don’t like to call themselves feminists because its become a bit of a dirty word, conjuring up images of hairy legs and militarism.” It does? It does. A mother of three who works in the city: “Feminism for me is something rather aggressive and militant; objecting to men standing up for you on a bus or opening a door for you. A hater of men.” It is? It is. A 40-something gay art dealer: “The term feminism is particularly hideous. It brings to mind the very old-fashioned political correctness of the 1970s that does not apply to our society anymore, thank God.” Doesn’t it? And from a musician’s agent: “If being a feminist means equal rights for women, then yes, I am a feminist. But I still want my men to help me with my coat, pay in restaurants and open car doors for me so, in that, I suppose I am not a feminist. If my man helps with something or takes care of me, I melt at his feet.”

Women, I want to cry, we are all feminists! It doesn’t mean you are anti-men or anti dressing-up or that you think feminists want to be like men when really our differences should be celebrated. For me it is simple. I am a feminist because I believe that women should not suffer discrimination because of their gender. I was never a member of any Feminist organisation, and I wish that I had been – dozy dork that I was – but yes I am a feminist to my angry heels.

Women are being abused in every way all over the world. Let’s not go to a bus in India, or a back room full of trafficked women in London or Dublin or Saudi Arabia, or even to a University Hospital in Galway – let’s go to Afghanistan, say, where the West has spent a fortune trying to help the country and its society. Or that was the big idea. Hamis Karzai the Afghan president endorsed a religious ruling that states: “Men are fundamental and women are secondary.” Sound familiar? We are shocked? I’m not shocked. It’s what many men in Ireland believe. I grew up in a society where men were fundamental and women were secondary. I was reared within a coercive and pervasive idea of female domesticity. I may shudder at the idea of my granddaughter growing up in a society where she has to wear the burqa and obey sharia law, but I went to mandatory religious services every Sunday, no question of missing Mass or Benediction and the social life of women was severely curtailed. You rarely met a married woman out walking unless she was going to Mass or to do the messages, as they were called. The only woman who walked for pleasure in our district – and because of her status was allowed to, without incurring ignominy – was my mother, the teacher and a blow-in, and an old eccentric beauty called Lizzie who didn’t give a hoot what anyone thought of her. The rest of us covered our heads when we went to church – and in the back pews women still wore shawls that concealed their hair and their bodies effectively. There was no question of a woman going out alone to have a drink in a pub and courting was a furtive affair. I remember the truth and sadness in a poem by Austin Clarke about Irish lovers: Pity poor lovers who may not do what they please / with their kisses under a hedge until a raindrop / dislodges it; and astir from wretched centuries / Bramble and briar remind them of the saints.

Women, I want to cry, we are all feminists!

In houses all over Ireland the best seat in the house was for the master, the attention, the adoration, the fear, all was focused on the men. Years later, driving in Tehran, I was sickened by the sight of obese men sprawled everywhere reading the Koran complacent in their entitlement and their belief in their righteous certainties and I couldn’t help but remember the story of Mary and Martha. Mary behaved like these men while Martha did all the work and got no credit and we were told to follow her example. I thought then and think now that she should have downed tools and walked off and put manners on the other two. For all that I was in Tehran I hadn’t travelled that far from home nor the culchie intent men in frocks running around the parish telling women to keep their place or from the men who took their superiority for granted. When I appeared on The Late Late Show and I was castigated for my so-called lifestyle and I asked Gay Byrne if he ironed his wife’s blouses, the programme got letters from men saying that if they were married to the cunt they’d make sure she’d iron their shirts.

Women’s place in Irish society has changed so much that many of the young think the achievement was a fairly painless process but it took enormous nerve and courage to stand up against patriarchal priest-ridden respectable Ireland. Women were ring-fenced by the establishment and the union of church and state and the invidious legacy of de Valera, from the liberation of change happening in other parts of the western world. It happened here because singular women like the blessed Nell McCafferty, Mary Holland, Mary Kenny and Nuala O’Faolain put themselves on the line, wrote and marched and defied the wicked conventions of the day and demanded contraception, the right to divorce, the right to control of their own bodies. They were jeered at and maligned by women as much as men. Pioneering women took the risk of becoming public figures, and writers like Mary Lavin and Edna O’Brien wrote honestly about Irish society and were condemned and censored for it. Kate O’Brien could never have it be known that she had had a baby or was a lesbian for of course homosexuality did not exist in Catholic Ireland.

And perhaps of all the women we owe a debt to, we should think of the wonderful Inez McCormack, the female president of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions and who did so much for us and was named in 2011 by Newsweek magazine as “one of 150 women who shake the world”. (Meryl Streep played her on stage and said she felt “slight next to her, because I’m an actress and she is the real deal”.) But all through her effective life – and what a life it was – of outspoken feminism and single-minded determination to improve our lot, and the minority Catholic lot in NI she was subjected to male harassment, bullying and humiliation. She said, “At one meeting I was booed off the platform and called scum. I was talking about child care and was told that it shouldn’t be on a trade union agenda.” Hillary Clinton said of her: “Her efforts to promote human rights and social justice remain an inspiration to me – she was a Belfast Protestant who rose above her family’s unionist background to become a powerful activist on civil rights, human rights, women’s rights and fair employment.” She was often the only woman on Northern Ireland’s boards and committees, and said wryly, “There’s no fun in being the first woman on anything.” Quite. I cannot tell you how many women tell me that they aren’t feminists because personally they haven’t encountered sexual discrimination. Haven’t they?

Decades after these battles of the women’s movement, Irish women are still faced with negative attitudes, discrimination and even dismissal in the workplace because of their roles, actual or potential, as mothers and carers. They are expected to provide primary responsibility for care of their children. Orla O’Connor, director of the National Women’s Council, said, “Ireland stands out in Europe in that there’s no legislative leave for fathers and that’s giving a strong message about who should be doing the caring.” The lack of paid paternity leave, flexible working and a long-working-hours culture mean that women pay the penalty. Ireland’s Employment Equality Act was supposed to provide us with one of the most far-reaching equality laws in Europe yet women here make an average of 17 per cent less than men; and women without children have a good chance of earning more.

There were four events, aside from marriage and motherhood, which changed me radically and made me realise how doubly and?deeply colonised I was as?an Ulster Catholic as well as?an Irish woman. The first I?didn’t know about till I was?nearly an adult and I still?haven’t come to terms with?it, so really the first radical?momentous moment which?impacted consciously happened was when I was 15, cycling home from the chapel after confessing my meagre sins to a horrible man and realising what a cod it all was and suddenly perceiving the way I had been brainwashed. The second event was reading two books, the third, meeting one remarkable woman Gloria Steinem, who was glorious, founded Ms magazine and fought hard for women’s rights; the paradox of course was that she was so beautiful men were disarmed and dismayed by her and her arguments – so obviously not fuelled by bitterness. A long time ago my daughter Daisy interviewed me for a magazine and I just now have re-read this: “My mother rails, still, and rightly so, about how domestic duties threaten, unchecked, to suffocate women’s creativity. She always, always stands up for herself. In my head, therefore, she has always been a feminist extraordinaire. I telephone her in New York – she is living there for four months teaching at Columbia University – to confirm this. ‘No,’ says my mum to my surprise. ‘I’m a feminist to my bones now, but when I first arrived in London from Ireland I hadn’t heard of feminism. I was steeped in the old lore that said men were powerful creatures that had to be pleased. I sucked up to men. It was meeting Gloria Steinem that changed my life. She was feisty and beautiful and not timid. She was the eye-opener.’”

“Men are fundamental and women are secondary.” Sound familiar? We are shocked? I’m not shocked

And the books? The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan’s hugely influential study helped change the way we looked at ourselves but that I didn’t read until years after it was published. It was The Female Eunuch with that famous iconic cover of the female torso as a sad sack with handles (designed by a man: John Holmes) in which, with rage and revolutionary energy, Greer revealed – or to me it was revelation – among so many other things that men hate women, though we don’t realise this and are taught to hate ourselves, which constituted another Damascene moment for me. (We only have to open the newspaper to see in our own society the terrible subjugation and torture of women, the everyday occurrence of women battered to death and children killed, by their husbands and fathers.) Germaine Greer pleaded for the freedom to be a person, with dignity, integrity, nobility, passion, and the pride that constitutes personhood. “Freedom to run, shout, talk loudly and sit with your knees apart. Freedom to know and love the earth and all that swims, lies, and crawls upon it … most of the women in the world are still afraid, still hungry, still mute and loaded by religion with all kinds of fetters, masked, muzzled, mutilated and beaten.”

The third event: only three years before, when I was working on American Vogue, it published an erotically suggestive double page spread by the already legendary photographer Irving Penn, of Marisa Berenson lying naked, one knee raised, trussed up with jewellery like a kind of female turkey ready for devouring. I hated the image and didn’t quite know why but it stayed with me as a deeply troubling one. I was ignorant of the very word feminism and of my own shackles. Finding feminism made me realise the photograph was an aggressive act of male colonisation – I expected it of Playboy but not of a magazine entirely directed towards women, which paid lip service to women’s equality and for which I had worked.

It still is true that women who appear in public are expected to appeal to men’s desires and if they don’t they suffer. Look at Mary Beard, the erudite and charming Cambridge professor with long grey hair who appeared on BBC Question Time in her own slightly rumpled style and who was insulted with sickening misogyny concerning same hair, teeth and her sexual organs, and sadistic rape fantasies on the internet as result. She inspired such particular fury one analyst said, “Long hair is typically associated with unrestrained sexuality while grey hair is associated with being past it. If you are bad at processing complex information the combination will fry your brain.” Whose brains? What brain?

The other book thingy was reading The Bell Jar. I had just left Belfast to go to work on Vogue in London when I read it. It was by Victoria Lucas and I still have the copy (it’s now worth about £2000) and I was knocked out by it. It was about a young woman who suffered from depression starting work on a woman’s magazine and it was like coming to a standstill in front of a mirror. I read: “If neurotic is wanting two mutually exclusive things at one and the same time, then I’m neurotic as hell. I’ll be flying back and forth between one mutually exclusive thing and another for the rest of my days … I was supposed to be having the time of my life.” Which I was. And I was so unhappy. When it became known that it written was by Sylvia Plath, already dead by then, I thought I would try to be happy and live life to the full. I don’t know if I would have realised how easily I could have lost everything if I hadn’t had her tragic example.

We learn by example and our children must learn by our example because by God they won’t learn from the masculine porn-based society they are growing up in.

The late great Nora Ephron, whom I met when I first went to New York and instantly fell in love with, said in her address to her alma mater before she died: “What I’m saying is, don’t delude yourself that the powerful cultural values that wrecked the lives of so many of my classmates have vanished from the earth. There’s still a glass ceiling … Don’t underestimate how much antagonism there is toward women and how many people wish we could turn the clock back. One of the things people always say to you if you get upset is, don’t take it personally, but … please, I beg you, take it personally. Above all, be the heroine of your life, not the victim.”

In her 1999 book The Whole Woman Germaine Greer writes: “Women have come a long, long way; our lives are nobler and richer than they were, but they are also fiendishly difficult … The contradictions women face have never been more bruising than they are now … It’s time to get angry again.” Isn’t it?

Writing Home, a selection of writing by Polly Devlin, published by Pimpernel Press, is out now. 

Main image: American feminist activists and writers Gloria Steinem (left) and Patricia Carbine, cofounders of Ms magazine


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