A RECENT GUARDIAN article examined the current ‘explosion’ in feminist grassroots activism in the UK. New feminist groups are on the rise there, and the intensification of people’s engagement with the feminist movement is being attributed, to a large extent, to young women and men.
Pupils as young as seventeen are reported to have organised in protest against local shops selling magazines that objectify women. There is, thus, a newfound enthusiasm for feminism, spurred by the obvious inequalities that still pervade our so-called liberal democratic societies.
Ireland is no exception in this regard. Recent years have seen a resurgence in feminist activism in Ireland, with new groups like the Irish Feminist Network, Cork Feminista and Feminist Open Forum forming a conduit for people eager to express their dissatisfaction with the status quo and willing to proffer alternative visions for the transformation of social and political structures. Groups focused on specific feminist themes have also sprung up, with the 50:50 Group focusing on women in politics, for example, or Women on Air concentrating on women in the media.
While Ireland has, of course, a continuous history of women and men advocating for changes in gendered power imbalances, and these new groups undoubtedly benefit from the insights and support of their activist forbearers, there is something unique about this particular moment in time which makes it conducive to oppositional political activism.
Mistrust and exasperation
The mistrust and exasperation people feel at the way the country has been mismanaged and brought to financial ruin, has in fact resulted in a general questioning of the wisdom of those in authority, and has ultimately spawned a climate relatively hospitable to a whole plethora of activists, who are not just content with accepting the current state of affairs.
Many of these critically engaged advocates believe that the correctives needed to redress the failings of those in charge are not being implemented – or that they are being meted out unfairly, making certain members of society pay more than others. They resist such unfair treatment at the hands of the powers that be, and bring different perspectives to problems that are frequently portrayed monolithically and in ideologically uniform ways.
Ireland’s activist groups thereby provide alternative analyses of the issues negatively affecting people, or indeed identify certain issues as being problematic in the first place.
In a society where political decision-making still rests in the hands of a largely uniform and unrepresentative body of politicians, and where the news media regularly excludes large swathes of people, it is essential that Ireland’s activist groups voice not only dissent, but also proffer creative solutions that will result in a more just, equitable and therefore stable Ireland. Feminist activist groups are doing precisely that, and are thereby contributing to a more vibrant civil society, which comes complete with demands for increased accountability and transparency.
While the momentum for change is palpable, we should not underestimate the challenges feminists still face. It is precisely the entrenched nature of issues surrounding women’s objectification in the media, denial of reproductive rights, or lack of affordable childcare – to name but a few – that is driving people’s (re)engagement with the feminist movement, but that also highlights the enormity of the task at hand.
The ‘silent majority’
In some cases gender inequality is perpetuated by hugely powerful industries, such as the fashion and beauty industries, and in others, it stems directly from political decision-making that disempowers women and children in particular.
In order to be maximally effective in working toward increased gender equality, feminist activist groups need to build upon their momentum by capturing the spirit of the ‘silent majority’ . That is, the very people who are affected by the issues – for gender inequality affects us all – but who may not be willing to express or act upon their negative experiences. Given the years of backlash against feminism, and its portrayal of feminists as hairy-legged men-devouring monsters, this is a tall order for a reinvigorated movement, but one that is nonetheless achievable.
The environmental movement, which similarly saw its members reduced to tree-hugging hippies, has managed to make the green agenda palatable to the mainstream. Indeed, political parties are now eager to proclaim their ‘green’ credentials, and being concerned with issues of environmental sustainability is no longer looked upon as a radical or outlier position, but rather as the norm.
Building upon its achievements thus far, the feminist movement can and must now follow suit by rearticulating social and political norms, thereby making gender equality the new standard of normalcy. We have already begun to do so by achieving gender quotas, for example, or by getting tangible commitments by government on the issues of sex trafficking and reproductive rights.
In a climate that is hospitable to proposals for wide-sweeping change, and where people are questioning traditional understandings of social and political issues, what could be more normal than the normalisation of gender equality?
Dr Clara Fischer holds a PhD in feminist theory and political philosophy, and is a co-ordinator of the Irish Feminist Network. The network will host a conference on May 19 highlighting the current resurgence in feminist activism, and will place this in the context of the history of the feminist movement in Ireland.