Is feminism really necessary?

Uber-conservative Televangelist and all-round good guy Pat Robertson (yes, the one who predicted Doomsday would occur in 1982...) has described feminism as ‘a socialist, anti-family, political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians.’ Nice. While the non-extremists among us don’t hold this view, feminism is still perceived by many as either a dirty word or an outdated concept. Therese Caherty brings together the facts and figures to explain why feminism is still very relevant for women in Ireland.

Bullying the women who work in Dublin’s Davenport Hotel didn’t work for its wealthy owners. The five housekeepers, all from eastern Europe, resisted moves in early February to cut almost a euro off their (minimum) wage. Then they put a picket on the hotel. And they won – this week, they were reinstated on full backdated pay.

That’s something to celebrate this International Women’s Day – which marks 8 March, 1908, when women working in New York’s clothing sweatshops had also had enough. No longer willing to work for half their male co-workers' wage; to put up with not being allowed to join a union, and being denied the vote, they took to the streets. A hundred years after the first IWD, the Davenport Five show that the struggle for decent pay, where women are not segregated into the lowest paid jobs and treated with contempt, is not over.

For instance, more women than men work in Ireland’s low-paying hotels sector (56% or 22,448 employees, according to Fáilte Ireland). We’re also more likely to work in clerical/secretarial positions and in the public service – on which the new coalition is set to impose more savage jobs and pay cuts – and education and health.

The CSO shows women’s annual income was around 70% of that earned by men in 2008 – the latest figures. But women worked fewer hours, according to the CSO, and when this is factored in our hourly earnings come out at around 90% of men’s. It isn’t clear if this interesting adjustment takes account of the extra hours that half a million women spent in 2010 looking after home/family – compared with 7,500 men! One way or another, the fact remains we earn less.

And we’re also disproportionately affected by the rush to make ordinary people pay for the reckless behaviour of our banks. OPEN, which represents lone parents, reports that of 189,213 single-parent families (18% of all families in Ireland), 86% are lone mothers. Which means that the recent cuts in welfare, child benefit, the introduction of the Universal Social Charge, the fall in the minimum wage and so on are already affecting this group of women very harshly.

As if this weren’t enough, the recent ESRI report on financial exclusion finds a 34% rise in the numbers of families (unemployed, low income workers and lone parent families) without bank accounts. CSO figures show that women work mainly part time or in low paid sectors or are full-time carers on welfare payments. So on top of an income drop, these groupings in which women feature strongly find everyday tasks like getting cash from an ATM, paying bills or even just buying goods and services much more difficult – may even pay more as a result. The promise of access to a basic bank account, made by Brian Lenihan as he recapitalised the banks in 2008 with billions of public funds, has yet to materialise.

We don’t want the same fate to befall last December’s European Court of Human Rights ruling on the ABC case. The court decided that Ireland’s refusal to provide abortion services for a woman whose life was at risk from an unintentional pregnancy was a breach of human rights. Having even less money will directly affect low income women with crisis pregnancies because the cost of an abortion in Britain or elsewhere will be well out of their reach. Desperate women will take desperate measures. Implementing the ECHR decision could well save women’s lives. Fine Gael’s refusal to legislate on the rulings of the Irish Supreme Court or the ECHR is unacceptable. But ultimately the 8th amendment which in 1983 introduced a constitutional ban on abortion has got to be scrapped.

Domestic violence crucially affects women and children. Recent statistics from SAFE Ireland, the representative network of domestic violence services, show that in 2009, 7,512 women and their children received support from domestic violence services. Women and children could not be accommodated by refuge on 2,341 occasions. There were 34,332 helpline calls answered by domestic violence services throughout the country. You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to know who will be affected by cuts to the HSE budget and the consequent fall in funding for these services. Anecdotal evidence that an increase in male unemployment leads to an equivalent rise in violence in the home will mean already overstretched refuges won’t be able to cope. But what also needs to be addressed is how the gender roles related to the nuclear family help to reproduce an ideology in which men think it acceptable to use violence, including sexual violence, against women.

All these statistics highlight women’s particular vulnerability to poverty, a situation compounded to some extent by another fact – that our visibility in public life puts us 79th in world rankings. Our new Dáil has 25 women TDs, giving us a rate of 15%, our best ever – but how could that be good enough? Elsewhere, more women work in education and health but few reach senior levels. If they did, at least there’d be some slim chance that the issues directly affecting women would get more attention and the one-size-fits-all solutions to poverty would be revisited.

We’ve now got a ‘Dáil bar’ government where the boys have kept the plum jobs for themselves and the women take on the roles of housekeeper and nanny

Even women of privilege are not immune from good old-fashioned sexism. Olivia O’Leary’s remarks on Enda Kenny’s ministerial appointments said it all: in gender terms we’ve now got a ‘Dáil bar’ government where the boys have kept the plum jobs for themselves and the women take on the roles of housekeeper and nanny. Not that Social Protection Minister Joan Burton or Minister for Children Frances Fitzgerald deserve our sympathy given their willingness to back policies that will further immiserate already poor people. But the new Taoiseach’s decisions show that sexism is alive and well in Leinster House.

Which brings us to the question posed at the outset of this article: Is feminism really necessary?

A look at the Irish Times Sisters supplement that commemorates 40 years of the Irish women’s movement sets out ten things we couldn’t do in the 1970s – such as keep a job in the public service when we married; have an interest in the family home; serve on juries (because married women weren’t classified as property owners); get barring orders on a violent husband; buy contraceptives; there was no such thing as marital rape; and we couldn’t drink a pint in a pub.

All that changed because women believed they could change things. They weren’t afraid to be called feminist and they weren’t afraid to organise to create a more equal world. But gender roles remain an enduring feature of Irish society – roles that lead to the segregation of the workforce in which lower level and care work is designated as ‘women's work’, and that puts pressure on women to act in accordance with the views of male-dominated institutions. Designating certain activities as ‘women’s work’ allows them to be undervalued and in some cases not to be recognised as work at all – as the minimal ‘allowances’ for home-carers indicate. As the Davenport struggle shows, a gain for women is a gain for all. Ultimately, James Conolly’s socialist-feminist aphorism, ‘None so fitted to break the chains as they who wear them; none so well equipped to decide what is a fetter’ remains as valid today as it was in the early 1900s.


Therese Caherty is a member of the United Left Alliance and co-convenor of the Feminist Open Forum.