International Women’s Day 2011

Nay McArdle on the importance of International Women’s Day to Irish women.

One hundred years ago, on 25 March 1911, a fire broke out in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York. Management had locked the doors to stairwells and exits, resulting in the deaths of 146 employees. Most were Jewish immigrants aged between sixteen and twenty-three, condemned to die from burns or smoke inhalation. 63 jumped to their death from the factory floor which was ten stories above the ground. Of the total 146 who died, 30 were men. It is the fourth-worst industrial accident in American history. Survivors were awarded compensation of $75 per victim but two years later in a seperate case, the factory owner Max Blanck was again found guilty of locking an emergency exit stairwell during working hours. He was fined $20.

This horrific accident was the catalyst for a major overhaul of working conditions and occupational standards, and lent great weight to the Women’s Trade Union League’s call for equal rights. Less than a week before International Women’s Day had been established in Europe, where over a million people rallied for women’s rights to work, vote, be trained, to hold public office and end discrimination. The date was officially fixed as 8th March in 1913 and has been recognised as an international holiday ever since and now almost every country in the world marks the occasion. The campaign for equality has been a hard fight, achieving major results and immeasurable small victories along the way. Today, sexual discrimination in society is intolerable but sadly, not completely eradicated and there is still a long way to go before the world is truly in favour of gender equality. We are all aware of horrific injustices and crimes perpetrated against women, by individuals or entire communities, such as barbarous punishments for adultery which are still widespread in several regions around the world, along with sexual violence, human trafficking, horrifying working conditions and the repression of basic rights to education and healthcare.

Here in Ireland, it may seem that everyone has the right to live as they wish. Indeed, the figure of the Irish Mammy is so venerated that we could be mistaken for a nation of goddess worshippers if it wasn’t for the commonplace shrines dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Most Irish women today went to college and pursued their own careers but just thirty years ago, the majority of adult women were housewives. To quantify that, just imagine for a second that practically every adult female you’re acquainted with stays at home every day. All the women in your family and all those you know from your schooldays, the pub or the gym, every one on your Facebook friends list does not earn a living…imagine that your partner, mother, aunt, sister, niece or daughter was unlikely to ever get a job? It seems ridiculous. Yet, while employment is not a contentious issue in Ireland today, the women in our lives are still repressed by society in less obvious ways. Pay grades and promotion are still disproportionately in favour of men. If a woman discovers she’s pregnant, she is obliged by state mandate to carry a child to full term unless her health is endangered. A few weeks ago however, emergency contraception was made available over the counter, which is a step closer to fulfilling women’s rights of choice. And only last week it was ruled illegal for insurance companies to determine policy premiums based on gender. These are small advances in the final climb of the ladder towards a level footing but there is still a lot more to do to close the gap once and for all. Women hold some of the most important roles in the Irish media as directors, editors, programmers and journalists but when it comes to interacting with the public, the number of DJs and television presenters is very low in comparison to the number of men in similar roles. While female athletes, boxers, footballers, runners and swimmers perform well, and engineers, lawyers, paramedics, Gardai and soldiers inhabit the workforce, one aspect in which women are desperately under-represented is perhaps the most crucial area of all: politics. Although the 2011 general election yielded a record number of 25 new female TDs to make the percentage of women in the 31st Dáil the highest ever at 15.1%, up from 13.8% in the last parliament, for a country with a balanced male-to-female ratio between the ages of 15 – 64, Ireland’s political arena is sorely lacking adequate female representation. These are just some of the concerns of Irish feminists today.

International Women’s Day is certainly a celebration to accentuate the positive role of women in society but is also an important date in recognising inequality that is still ingrained due to a long-standing system of patriarchy, and as a result, it is also a day of acknowledging the advances feminism has brought to society. Far from being a bad word, Feminism can be embraced by all, women and men, as the apt description of advocacy for equal rights for women. Only when gender symmetry is attained can a respectful, harmonious alliance of equal rights for every child, man and woman prevail.

People on Twitter were asked, “which (in)famous female has had the biggest influence/impact on your life?”. Here are their answers:

@celinamurphy: “Eartha Kitt. So many things I couldn’t have managed without her example.”

@declandebarra: “Historical but thought they were amazing, Phoolan Devi (bandit queen), Gráinne Mhaol, Anne Bonny (pirate) and Lozen (Apache).”

@akajosie: “I really, really admire Julie Andrews, absolute lady! Being ‘ladylike’ but strong and independent is a rarity!”

@elainebucko: “Probably my sister, given that she saved me from near drowning. That’s a pretty big influence to have on someones life!”

@azzabaghdad: “Famous: Mrs. Pacman. Infamous: Probably that one off X Factor who slapped the other bird on stage then got ’em out for The Sun.”

@laurenguillery: “Nina Simone, a true inspiration. Janis Joplin, PJ Harvey, Patti Smith. KIM GORDON, Gina Pane, Amma. There’s loads!”

@ang_kor_wat: “Aileen Wuornos.”

@hello_lindsey: “Harper Lee and Kathleen Hanna.”

@nochorus: “Eve Libertine.”

@tadghoc: “Wonder Woman. Not even joking about that one. Justice League got me into comics, one of the greater passions in my life.”

@kateandthecity: “Mum and Nan. They have given me the life I love and Karen O: one third of the band that create the soundtrack to it. Plus Stevie Nicks and Regine Chassagne.”

@sleepthieves:”Kate Bush, Sylvia Plath, Jane Austen, Emily Dickinson, Zelda Fitzgerald.”

@colinjm: “Ms (Joni) Mitchell or Ms (Margaret) Atwood. Kim Gordon. Amazing lady. Oops, woman. Forgot I can’t say lady anymore.”

@zeldasghost: “Ava Gardner, Zelda Fitzgerald, Marilyn Monroe & Courtney Love. My Mam is in good company.”

@seanbushell: “I have a lot of irrational love for Enya…although in saying that I don’t think she’s impacted my life. Unless she’s some evil sorcerer controlling my life from her castle!”

@electricwhipcrack: “My English teacher. She was ace, encouraged me to write, and read my stuff even if it wasn’t homework.”

To mark 100 years of International Women’s Day the Irish Feminist Network are celebrating with ‘Suffragette City’ a gig in the Mercantile, Dame Street, featuring performances from Lauren Guillery, Isobel Anderson and Marianne Lee. Tickets are €5 with a raffle.

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