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'People tell me my book has changed their life'

Columnist and academic Emer O’Toole talks to us about her work.

Image: Twitter

IT’S ONLY WHEN you leave your home country that you can see it as it really is.

For writer and academic Emer O’Toole, moving to Canada – where she is an assistant professor at the School of Canadian Irish Studies in Concordia University – crystallised how she felt about Ireland: she loves it, but boy can she see its flaws.

“When I come home I can’t believe the levels of sexism and of racism, and even though we passed the marriage referendum, of overt homophobia, and I know that gets people’s backs up – look at her swanning home with her notions, with this, that and the other,” said O’Toole of Ireland.

I get it. If I hadn’t emigrated, I would probably have the same defensive and unequivocal truth.

“More than anywhere else I’ve lived, feminism is a dirty word in Ireland. Young women have trouble identifying themselves as feminists in ways they don’t where I am,” she added.

“It’s obviously linked to the legacy of the Catholic Church, linked to male domination of public discourse of airwaves, media, arts, religion, conversation, of all Irish public life.”

O’Toole’s first major media appearance was on This Morning in 2012, where she talked about her decision, aged 26, to stop removing her body hair.

The decision not to modify her body hair was one informed by her feminism: a decision made for her, by her.

Source: mjp221972/YouTube

Making the personal political

Much of O’Toole’s work involves talking or writing about her own life – from her body hair to her sex life.

“I think my family struggled a little bit, especially my mum, when I started writing for Guardian’s Comment is Free – it was very Irish, ‘mind what the neighbours would say’.”

But things have moved on. O’Toole knew she wanted to write about sex, feminism, racism and similar topics, and bringing this into the open helped. “These probably aren’t the usual dinner party topics of conversation so I often do have to have a conversation with people close to me before I publish something.”

That did take a bit of negotiation at first but I feel like what was maybe scary at first for people, people have now realised it’s not scary and now I think mammy is quite proud of me actually which is nice, as I roam around various continents shouting and screaming, banging my drums.

Her former partner was not a feminist, which “was definitely an issue”, but her current partner has “done the work” as she puts it, and is very much aware of the issues O’Toole holds close to her heart.

In fact, it was after breaking up with her previous partner, and realising she needed to be with someone who supported her views, that she reached, as she said with tongue firmly in cheek, “peak feminism”.

Girls Will Be Girls

download (68) Source: Amazon

The Galway native’s first book, Girls Will Be Girls, explores the ideas of gender, feminism, and performance, and how all three are intertwined.

O’Toole is in Ireland this weekend for the Abbey Theatre’s Theatre of Change symposium, where she discussed ‘The Man Problem’, along with Susan Cahill.

Their lecture takes its provocative name from the ‘woman problem’ of the 1940s and 1950s, and will examine abortion rights and the repeal of the eighth amendment to the constitution.

“It’s a feminist piece that is asking us to acknowledge the male domination of public discourse in Ireland,” she said.

Repealing the eighth amendment is something O’Toole believes passionately in, and she sees a “clear through line” from the domination of discourse by one gender, to how abortion is treated here.

If we as a nation don’t value what women say, then we are hardly going to value stories about abortion, because these are stories about women and women’s bodies.

She describes our current abortion laws as “a national embarrassment” and “an abuse of our rights as women”.

“It just shows immense distrust of the choices we make and it’s not stopping the abortion rate from rising. We have the same rates as the rest of the EU, we just cart them abroad.”

“I don’t know why we don’t have more political voices advocating for safe legal abortion,” said O’Toole, who supports abortion into the second trimester, with the limit drawn at 18 weeks. 

“To me looking at it, analysing it from the outside it looks like we’re close to legalised abortion in restricted cases. It looks to me we’re quite a few years away, perhaps decades away from access to safe, legal abortion.”

Becoming a feminist

As a teen, O’Toole saw “no need” for feminism. “I personally have never felt a lot of discrimination in my own life, I encounter mild sexism often as I think most women do,” she said.

“I have never felt any discrimination personally but I can distinguish between the fact that I have never felt discriminated against and the fact discrimination against women is real and palpable and demonstrable by simply looking at the statistics about our society.”

She credits moving out of Ireland and staying in academia with helping reinforce her beliefs:

Beginning to understand the relationship between things like gender, and race, and sexuality, and power and how it is disseminated in the society, and the various ideologies that are trotted out to try and justify power imbalances.

She believes she wouldn’t have gotten there just from examining her own life, being a “privileged person from a middle class family”.

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Dealing with criticism

O’Toole has had to deal with her share of negative online comments. On The Guardian, they took the form of being told “go home”, but sometimes they got nasty.

Once, she was sent a link by some men who said ‘you have fans’. “And I clicked through like an idiot. It was photoshopped images of me, they were talking about raping me with a jagged stick.”

That was something that upset me, usually I don’t get upset about it – it’s water off a duck’s back.

She has developed a thick skin, but if she ever had a similar incident to this, she would report it. “Not for me, but because those guys are out there and they think they can do this to women, and it would be nice if they weren’t and they couldn’t.”

Waking the Feminists

12/11/2015 Waking The Feminists Actor Kate O'Toole from connemara with actor and writer Kate Beaufoy from Dublin at the Waking the Feminists launch Source: Leah Farrell

The Abbey Theatre’s symposium comes in the wake of the Waking the Feminist movement, which occurred after it was noticed that the Abbey’s 2016 line-up was mostly male.

O’Toole at first didn’t believe that the programme was so imbalanced. “I went and I looked and went ‘oh my fucking God, it’s all men’,” she recalled.

“I was so delighted that we weren’t just shutting up and putting up,” she said of Waking the Feminists.

She hopes that the “shockwave” produced by Waking the Feminists “will fundamentally change the culture” in Ireland.

Linked to this is O’Tooles own work, which is also contributing to the discussion of feminism in Ireland. She’s part of a new generation bringing topics to the national table, and not leaving until they are tackled.

The reaction to Girls Will Be Girls shows that O’Toole has certainly struck a chord with young women – and as her writing and work continues, it’s likely to widen.

I’m getting emails from women telling me their book has changed their life, changed the way [they] think about the world.

The Abbey Theatre’s Theatre of Change Symposium continues tomorrow. For more information see the official website and schedule. Girls Will Be Girls is in bookshops now.

Read: ‘Here, women seemed to be more wary of speaking out. That’s changing now.’>

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