Feminist Ire’s Stephanie Lord and Sinéad Redmond, along with Niamh McDonald and her son Tom, join Kathy Sheridan to discuss the origins of Cop On Comrades, how men can support the feminist struggle, and activism in the social media age.
The author of this piece wishes to remain anonymous
Daily newspaper problem pages and agony aunt columns are usually the stuff of tea-breaks – a few subbed-down lines is all the reader gets to explain the situation that needs sorting. This week, though, the Irish Independent’s “Dear Mary” feature printed an extraordinary letter from a man who claimed to hate his wife but who said he would continue in the relationship if she had sex with him once a week. It caught my attention, not because of the misogyny – though that is astounding in its intensity – but because the writer admits to forcing his wife to have sex….and Mary welcomes this “other perspective”.
It prompted me to imagine what the writer’s wife might say to Mary, if she’d read her husband’s letter and recognised him. Perhaps other women might like to imagine too?
It’s been 14 – no 16 – years. Of hell. If you must know.
Fourteen years with his ring on my finger.
God he begged and begged me to marry him when I was at university. We met at a gig in the students’ union. He caught me unawares after a few drinks. It wasn’t until sometime later that he admitted he wasn’t a student too.
He was a salesman.
Who liked hanging around the university in the evenings.
And it wasn’t until sometime after that again that he admitted he still lived with his mother, not in a house on the edge of the city with two friends from college.
These untruths annoyed me and we split up several times. So why did I marry the liar?
Well, I met his mother on the final get-back-together weekend.
“Ah sure you’re great together.
“Ah he worships the ground you walk on.
“And when I think about it, he’s very good to me really.”
As I listened to her gush in her sparkling kitchen, I thought this was strange because he was always complaining about her. But I let it slide and accepted the ring.
And it was grand for a while. We honeymooned hornily in Benidorm for a week and our first child was born 40 weeks later.
When I found out I was pregnant he was delighted.
His own personal taxi service to and from the pub.
When the child arrived, he celebrated over the whole weekend with his friends. I saw him at the delivery and then 36 hours later, dishevelled and so drink-sodden I thought the nurses would turf me out of the bed and put him in it.
I’d just started a good job before I got married. The child put paid to that. They didn’t have to keep the post open and so I scraped by on the notes he put on the kitchen counter each week.
He was always promising more – there’s a big deal coming off, he’d say, loads of commission. But it never happened. It was on one of those Friday nights that I fell pregnant again. A couple of cans of cider in my three-month-post-baby-body and that was it. In spite of his assurances that he’d seen on television that a woman who’d had a baby couldn’t get caught again for a year.
Yes. I was that in love, that gullible.
So three years into the marriage and two youngsters under two. His money stayed the same so I had to do something. But who would look after two kids that age for nothing?
Well actually,his mother did – for a few mornings each week – and I started cleaning other people’s houses. Cash in hand. No sick pay. No holiday pay.
I could buy bits and bobs at Christmas….new shoes for the kids…the usual.
And it was hard Mary, do you know that?
Getting him off to work with a clean, pressed shirt each day. Getting the kids organised for their gran’s, getting to work – I’d no car – and back. Then housework, the dinner, the kids.
I was shattered.
He came home from work, threw off his shoes and ate his dinner with the six-pack he’d brought home. Or phoned me to say his workmates were having a few drinks and he’d see me later.
Either way, I couldn’t win. Either way, when I had put the kids to bed, he’d start pawing from the sofa, or arrive home with just one thing on his mind.
And I was shattered Mary.
A lot of the time I got away with it. I’d say one of the kids wasn’t well and sleep in their room. Or say I had my period. For a man who was supposedly so well up on female reproduction he had no idea most periods don’t last two weeks.
But sometimes there was nothing I could do.
Now don’t get me wrong. At that stage I did kind of still love him. If he’d lifted the toys or said he would iron his own shirts, I’d have been all over him like a mare in heat.
But he never did.
And he was no stallion Mary. He was a little mongrel dog. One, two, three. Done.
A good lover?
I climaxed three times in our marriage – twice on honeymoon. As the Americans would say, go figure.
Anyway, after a few years he stayed out more and more.
It sounds like a 1950s record, but when I washed his shirts I knew he was with other women. They can’t help themselves with the perfume – even their deodorant smells different. And it was all over his shirts.
Then one night he came home earlier than usual. The children were watching television and I was making their school lunches in the kitchen. In he comes through the back door, swaying, demanding.
I suggested later. He wanted it there and then. I protested the kids were in the next room, could walk in any minute. He tipped the back of a chair against the door handle and raped me over the kitchen sink.
Do you know what that’s like Mary? To be violated in your own home, your children in earshot so you can’t scream?
One, two, three. Done.
Be thankful for small mercies.
He said nothing the next day and neither did I.
I thought about leaving him then. But this was before the internet was big and I’d no mobile phone anyway. It wasn’t until weeks later that I saw a poster for Women’s Aid in the library – but when and where would I get the time to ring them? What would they be like? Would they give off that I had stayed there that night – and since? I did not know these things. Besides which, on the night it happened I’d four euro fifty in my purse and no idea of where to go.
Now, it’s different.
Now I’m still cleaning because the kids are still at school but I’ve saved a bit for what I call my sunshine day.
Now I know the Women’s Aid number. I’ve got someone to speak to.
He’s forced me since. And I’ve told her. She’s written it down.He’s never hit me, but she says that doesn’t matter – rape in marriage is still rape. I always thought the hitting mattered most, the black eyes and the bruises . That that was domestic abuse. I think lots of people – men and women – do. Maybe you do too. Maybe you should talk to Women’s Aid too. Ask them about rape in marriages and partnerships.
I didn’t know that controlling the money in the house was abuse. Both our names are on the mortgage, but he keeps telling me that I’ve let him down and it really should be his because I don’t have the job that my university education lead him to believe I’d get.
I’d didn’t realise that his never-ending put-downs were abuse too. After the second child and thinking I was stuck with him forever, I didn’t care about anything. I ate when I wanted – crisps and toast. No, actually, I ate what we could afford and when I wasn’t cleaning, or looking after the kids or him. So my jeans and T-shirts got bigger, but I’m always clean and fresh, even if my hair is constantly tied back in a ponytail and I cut my own fringe.
And I make my children smile. And the people I work for and anyone I talk to. Though I haven’t been able to keep up with my uni friends – or make many news ones. Well, you can’t when you’re never out, Mary, can you?
He has lots of “friends”.
But the Women’s Aid woman is a friend now. She persuaded me to tell her how my life is lived. And she helped me see that it is no life at all. She knows because it used to be her life too.She understands that a time will come. And she says they’ll be waiting.
I have a phone now but he doesn’t know about it. I hide it under those shirts he never irons in the basket. So, when that time comes and I’m ready, I can call them and tell them I’m coming.
He still comes home expecting his dinner and all the rest – and sometimes, like before, I can’t escape, but I will….soon.
When he’s sitting, furious at the lack of sex, on the sofa, he texts a lot. I know it’s other women but I ignore the pings. He smiles sometimes and puts on his coat and leaves me in the kitchen. I know he’s meeting them for sex – he keeps condoms in his jacket pocket. He doesn’t know I’m studying the books I’ve hidden behind the cereal boxes.
So yes, Mary.
Tell him to leave.
Tell him to get out of this house and move away, far, far away. He never cared about the kids up until now – ask him the dates of their birthdays and see what he says. He won’t miss them.
We won’t miss him either.”
The Irish Times Women’s Podcast today aired a show entitled #coponcomrades: Men and Feminism. For some reason none of the initiators or signiatories of the #coponcomrades letter were invited to speak. Instead three male writers for the Irish Times were on the panel, Frankie Gaffney, Mark Paul and Patrick Freye, only one of whom describes themselves as a feminist.
As someone who signed the #coponcomrades letter I listened with interest to the podcast. In some respects it was very illuminating. Like I was unaware when I signed #coponcomrades that I should’ve indicated my economic status when signing, which by the way is working class. (I can provide all the poverty porn details for anyone who needs it if required).
Listening to the podcast I discovered that I had apparently been duped by some bourgeois academic women who lured stupid old working class wimminz like me into signing the letter. Apparently my voice and those of the many, many other working class women who signed was purely “tokenistic”. Thank god I listened or I never would’ve known that no matter what I do or say or put my name to — my opinions can easily be dismissed as tokenism, by virtue of my working class status. But then, how could I have know this before, without an academic woman to tell me what to do or a Not-Feminist (but in no way mansplaining) man to explain it to me?
So, please bare with stupid working class me while I talk you through the podcast.
It started on a dodgy note, with host Kathy Sheridan saying that the podcast was to be about “The challenges for men that want to stand with women and the views that men hold that they don’t think they can express without being shouted down.”
I wonder what kind of views men might have that they might feel afraid to express without being “shouted down”? And who are these shouty women that are silencing the voices of men who HAVE SOMETHING TO SAY ABOUT FEMINISM?
So, let’s delve in (this is HEAVILY abridged),
Gaffney: “The Irony is that the people who use “mansplain” are the most patronising people I’ve ever encountered.”
I have to put my hand up here folks, as I’m one of those patronising women who uses the term “mansplain” when I’m trying to express my dislike of men who assume I’m an idiot. Luckily I have men like Gaffney to tell me that my use of the word is wrong.
Gaffney continues: “This is not America. There is something perverse in the narrative… Girls from Dalkey lecturing me about my privilege…This is not normal. This is not right…We can’t just import American ideas wholesale into Ireland and expect them to work.”
I assume it was intersectionality that Gaffney was taking issue with here, a systematic way of looking at the intersecting oppressions that any individual may have. (The expression was coined by American Kimberle Crenshaw and aims to make feminism more inclusive). These are the kind of ideas I personally would like to see more of in Ireland. (Here’s hoping those hated women from Dalkey were intersectional feminists!)
Gaffney: Speaking about #coponcomrades, “The most striking thing in the reaction since, when I talk about using straight white male using that as an insult, middle class Irish girls, fellas as well, talking about white cisgendered male, why are you excluding…if you’re talking about misogyny why are you bringing race in and throwing these things in together when class is one of the biggest predictors of life outcome in this country?…It was like apartheid going in in the demographics in Trinity….(conversation moves on)… the gender balance was 60–70% female.”
*EDITED to add that I have been told (by Gaffney) since I initially posted this that the apartheid comment was in relation to class, not gender (Gaffney said,”the class ratio in Trinity TSM maybe 2%”)*
Apartheid – yeah… I’m just gonna leave that one for all you smarter and middle class people to dissect.
But Gaffney wasn’t the only enlightening male voice on the panel, Mark Paul had a lot to say about feminism too,
Paul: “You can get too wrapped up in putting people in boxes. I’m more interested in what people do than what they are…. Trudeau bought in a cabinet was completely gender balanced and that is obviously a very laudible thing to do… has it performed any better than any of the governments that went before, I dunno….”
Kathy Sheridan tried to interject here but Paul spoke over her,
“…Tredeau’s pretty clever embrace of feminism”
Freyne: “Varakar doesn’t care about class or gender. He is entirely economic focused.”
Paul: “The Taoiseach isn’t a superman.”
Apparently only a superman cares about class and gender. I didn’t know that it requires super powers to care about class or gender, but I guess that makes sense, him being a man and me being, well just a silly and gullible woman.
Gaffney:“People have attributed views to men that I don’t hold. Like I believe in gender quotas”
Paul :“I’m against anything that puts a restriction on someone’s vote.”
Gaffney :“Parliament should reflect demographically.”
Paul (speaking over Gaffney): “But mostly it should reflect the votes of the people.”
Gaffney: “I’ve been getting smeared, coponcomrades connected me with alt right language, and I didn’t…. on the one hand you have a prohibition on offensive speech… on the other hand an opening up and normalisation of anti male, anti white, anti straight rhetoric. Identity politics is very bad when it stigmatises and attacks based on a demographic.”
Sheridan: “About the #coponcomrades, the response to the letter felt like a silencing to us — these people represent a lot of threads in society, have you any reservations at all about that piece now?”
Paul: “I defy you to look at the reaction to Frankie’s piece and say that the reaction he received was not a personal attack on him.”
Gaffney: “I don’t mention any person’s name in my piece…People object to any objection going in the opposite direction…The article wasn’t about feminism it was about a certain style of identity politics and some terminology used by feminism.”
Freyne: “…I think you’re punching down in this instance…”
Gaffney: “ Listen, academics using their departmental accounts to tweet about me, I’m not punching down, upper middle class women having a go at me giving out about me and using departmental accounts.”
Sheridan: “ The people who signed this letter aren’t all middle class Frankie.”
Gaffney: “The people who drafted the letter and the people that organised the campaign are. 500 people didn’t write the letter. It was initiated by one small group and they tokenistically they got working class women on board… I have empathy for everybody that’s the difference between me and those that single out and generalise.”
Freyne (to Gaffney): “No body is stopping you talking.”
Paul (speaking about #coponcomrades signators): “There is a complete and utter intellectual insecurity in people who can’t tolerate another person’s opinions. Feminism to me that exemplifies the worst of it is like a big tent right, and everybody is inside the tent and in order to get into the tent you have to bend your knees to the rules of the tent but they’re absolutely useless at talking to anybody outside the tent. Why such a backlash against Frankie’s article? Why such a ferocious response to his article?”
Say wha? But if everybody is inside the tent Paul who is left to try and get in the tent? (Also, I hope I’m in the #FeminismTent)
Sheridan reads from the #coponcomrades letter, then says: “You’re putting all these people into one little basket, like your accusing them of doing to you.”
Gaffney: “What I meant by that was it was initiated by a group of middle class people.”
This is how I found out that some of my friends have been lying to me about their working class backgrounds! (But then I am just a silly working class woman.)
Sheridan again reads from the letter: “They feel betrayed by what you wrote Frankie.”
Gaffney: “That’s not my problem. That’s their own projection.”
Freyne (speaking about Gaffney’s article): “There’s a much better way to engage with these things…”
Gaffeny: “You’re tone policing.”
Freyne (laughing): “I don’t have a problem with tone policing.”
Gaffney: “I’m glad you say that. I have a problem with the hypocrisy involved of the people who would decry tone policing when it goes one direction or who would decry gender generalisation… I see these words abused more than they’re used toxic masculinity , fragile masculinity, mansplaining, all of this kind of stuff…”
Men bonding over not having a problem with tone policing…#sweet
Paul (on toxic masculinity): “When you portray it as the only form of masculinity that is out there….”
Freyne: “Nobody is portraying it as the only form of masculinity, I’ve never seen anyone describe it as the only form of masculinity, maybe you have but it’s not common. People are taking descriptions of structures as a personal attack and it’s not-”
Gaffney: “People are taking descriptions of language as a personal attack.”
Freyne: “It’s one thing for you to come out and point out that there are levels of lack of privilege in your life that aren’t being addressed by these people…”
Paul: “Feminism is no longer the underdog when it comes to public debate. We are here in the Irish Times Womens’s podcast, there are more feminists in the….Feminism is not the underdog. For anyone to say that feminism is the oppressed viewpoint.. there are more feminists per square foot in this building than in any other building in Dublin… It’s not an oppressed viewpoint. ..Any movement with power is deserving of criticism. of scorn, analysis. Why when anyone criticises or analyses it are they piled on?”
Gaffney: “What I was talking about in the article was when feminism talks about me, I’m entitled, when someone talks about my demographic, I’m gonna talk about it. It’s a movement that objects to gender generalising and gender stereotyping and invents new forms of it and pushing the boundaries of discourse by making terms like straight white male a part of it…”
Paul: “Straight white male is very often deployed as an insult.”
Sheridan: “I don’t think it’s used as an insult, it’s used as a label for someone who already has intrinsic power.”
Paul: “Ah, come on.”
Gaffney: “It’s a derogatory phrase.”
Freyne: “They are genuine signifiers of power in western society, with class.”
Gaffney: “I don’t believe for a second that single white men are the most oppressed in society…(discussion moves on to the alt right, Trump and how feminism has been accused of playing a part in his rise to power)…The rise of the alt right have been fuelled by that kind of style of identity politics rather than trying to liberate their own group.”
Paul: “Feminism as a movement should try talking to men.”
So THAT’s what we’ve been doing wrong! We weren’t talking to the right people about the structural and societal inequalities women have been facing for thousands of years! Silly us! We should’ve been talking to MEN! Duh! Like, why didn’t we think of that? I mean I said, “Please don’t rape me” To the guy who raped me but I guess I must’ve been saying it wrong, cause it obviously wasn’t the way he was culturally conditioned to feel entitled to use my body. I said “Please stop abusing me” to the man I was in a relationship with who abused me but now I know it wasn’t becuase he grew up in a society that doesn’t even bother to collect statistics on domestic abuse victims, such is the disregard for women’s lives. It was just me, silly feminist, always talking to the wrong people. Thank God we have Mark Paul to tell us that all we need to do to achieve gender equality is TALK TO MEN. #HighFiveMark
(Still Mark espousing about feminism): “Feminism in not very good at talking to people who don’t bend the knee to it’s ideas. Feminism doesn’t engage with the world very well, it’s not a great communicator, it’s intellectually incestuous I think… I don’t identify as a feminist.”
*insert a bajillion laughing emoticons*
Freyne: “I think it’s threatening to people the idea that they don’t own all their success. People take these analyses as personal attack.”
Gaffney: “I don’t do that though. I don’t expect Richard Boyd Barrett or Paul Murphy to bend down to me and apologise for being born middle class… I hate this check your privilege stuff. People should identify oppression and fight oppression… Making young men, young people, think about their skin colour rather than their economic position in society is a dangerous game to play — that has contributed to the…(Gaffney was talked over at this point).
Sheridan: Reads from the #coponcomrades letter. “Have you had any rape threats Frankie since your piece?”
Gaffney: “I’ve had threats of violence. But not rape threats no…I believe in solidarity and shared humanity.”
Sheridan: “And they’re accusing you of the exact opposite…I’m talking about gender based violence, where women can’t walk home alone at night.”
Sheridan: “My little brother is much more at risk of violence.”
Freyne: “You have to acknowledge that there are different problems, related to identity.”
Gaffney: “I know women have needed and still need to organise away from men for their rights. Equality, is the word I believe in, I want to fight together.”
Freyne: “We have to look at all the different problems in society. Working class women have very different issues to working class men.”
Paul: “The backlash against Frankie wasn’t because he wasn’t listening to anybody else it was because people were trying to silence what he was saying.”
Gaffney (speaking about the response to his article): “…This constant demand that I should listen to the women. The amount of left wing people and the amount of feminists that agreed with me, I could’ve got 500 people to sign something no problem…(conversation moves on)…If I’d been a woman saying these things I wouldn’t have got half the attacks I did. .. I don’t put out tweets like typical bourgeois wankers. The working class women I know see me as representing the working class just as well as they could. They don’t see me as representing a working class man.”
I only speak for myself but I see Gaffney as representing working class men, he does not speak for me. There were over 100 women from all walks of life and classes who worked on the many, many drafts that created the #coponcomrades letter and hundreds more who felt so strongly about the contents that they signed it. Many of these women were frightened about signing it and I’m aware of a couple of women who agreed with the message but felt afraid to sign. I don’t doubt that some working class women see Gaffney as speaking for them, but he does not speak for all of us.
Sheridan: “Should men be listening to women more?”
Gaffney: “Men talk a lot more than women and certainly women should be heard.”
Wouldn’t that be great?
To access a life saving abortion in Ireland requires 3 medical professionals (two psychiatrists and one obstetrician) to agree that the woman is at risk of taking her own life. As the recent case of a young girl shows it only takes one psychiatrist however to get sectioned for wanting an abortion in Ireland.
The girl was legally classed as a child and her identity has understandably been withheld so we know nothing more about her other than that she had an unwanted pregnancy and that when she sought an abortion from her healthcare professionals she was of the understanding that she was being taken to Dublin for the procedure. However unbeknownst to her the consultant psychiatrist had given evidence at a hearing to detain her under the Mental Health Act.
“The consultant psychiatrist was of the opinion that while the child was at risk of self harm and suicide as a result of the pregnancy, this could be managed by treatment and that termination of the pregnancy was not the solution for all of the child’s problems at that stage.”
How frightening it must have been for her to find herself in a mental hospital after travelling to Dublin expecting an abortion. We are told it was “days” later that another hearing was held that resulted in her discharge from the mental hospital. During this time her court-appointed guardian ad litem (GAL) had employed another consultant psychiatrist to access her and on the basis of their evidence the girl was released from the institution. She spent unnecessary “days” in a mental institution for the “crime” of nothing more than wanting an abortion.
I’ve heard numerous reports of suicidal people trying to access mental health units in Irish hospitals who have been sent away. In future I’ll suggest to those of them who are capable of getting pregnant to say they’re pregnant and want an abortion, as that seems to be a sure way to get sectioned.
This case raises a number of questions. How is it that it only took one psychiatrist to have the girl sectioned? Why was the PLDP act not enacted for this pregnant, suicidal child? How can the public be assured that the personal beliefs of medical professionals won’t interfere with them being able to access the healthcare they need? Did Government Ministers know of the case at the time?
Abortion Rights Campaign (ARC) spokesperson Linda Kavanagh said:
“Looking at the report, it’s hard not to think that the psychiatrist in this case essentially used the Mental Health Act as a tool to force a child into continuing an unwanted pregnancy because of their own personal beliefs. It is clear we need some process which ensures medical professionals with such conscientious objections cannot block timely health care in critical cases.”
This is the latest case in a long line of women and girls who have been failed by the state. Ms X was another suicidal child prevented from accessing an abortion in 1992 and Ms Y a teenage rape victim likewise led to believe she would be given an abortion and instead detained against her will. Ireland has a disgraceful history stretching back to the Magdalene Laundries of locking up pregnant women.
The Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act is supposed to “protect” women who are at risk of taking their own lives, not used as a tool to lock women who want abortions up.
The Irish Government are allowing this human rights abuse to happen on their watch, leaving a trail of abused and sometimes dead women, girls and children behind them.
Rally to Repeal is on Saturday 17th in Dublin. If you can’t go please contact your local T.Ds and ask them to urgently implement the findings of the Citizens Assembly.
You can sign an UPLIFT petition here:https://action.uplift.ie/campaigns/187
*I’d like to acknowledge the work of the Child Law Project. We would know nothing of this case if it wasn’t for their work. Since 2012 they have been able to report to the public on child care proceedings in the courts, they aim to report on 10% of cases.
(Guest post by Izzy Kamikaze)
This is part of a longer (maybe much longer) work in progress about #coponcomrades – a recent social media kerfuffle here in Ireland, that seems quite instructive and worth spending more time on. I was writing Part One and Part Two at the same time, but Part Two finished itself first and so they are being published out of sequence.
The story so far is basically that a young-to-me (35ish) very effective working class male activist has published a piece in a national newspaper, decrying “identity politics” and the notion that “a straight, white male” can carry any privilege if he is also working class. Amongst other responses, a group of feminist women have signed up to a joint statement, acknowledging the disadvantage of working class men, but otherwise disagreeing.
The usual social media handbags at dawn has ensued. Two days ago, a male left wing poet has weighed in with a poem depicting 350 crazed neoliberal harpies and Part Two is my response to that poem. If you haven’t read the poem, you can find it here (and this contribution may not make much sense without it,) but if you’ve already seen it, meh…why give it any more clicks…
Part 2: Plutonium Pants Suit
I was pretty surprised yesterday to find myself a target of your satire. I’m Capitalism’s Handmaiden now, part of a chorus of “350 identical voices.” As feminist voices are indistinguishable to your ear and presumed to be the voices of privilege and neoliberalism, I thought I’d write, in a spirit of comradeship, to help you distinguish one voice from what you apparently see as a fem-bot army, raining death and destruction on the world from the weaponised genitals inside our “plutonium pants suits.” An appealing image, perhaps Kevin, but a false one. I’m writing to tell you it ain’t necessarily so.
You don’t know me, but you usually tag me when you share your poems and I like that. Well-aimed political satire is one of the most subversive things we can do. I’ve often shared your poems and commented kindly on them – one about the Jobstown protest is a particular favourite and another about Clare Daly. Thank you for those. The words we handmaidens of capitalism sent out into the world were all about privilege, so that’s what I thought I’d write to you about now.
My granny didn’t have a piano, stolen from a refugee or otherwise, but if she had one, she’d have been able to tune it. Her father tuned pianos for a living and she had learned from him. He also played the organ in the local cathedral, which came with a little social standing, but no cash. My Granny lived in poverty most of her lifetime, but was better educated than her neighbours in the council estate and was acutely aware of this privilege. There was a book on her few shelves called “Law for the Millions” and from this she dispensed legal advice to neighbours who couldn’t afford a solicitor. The “Button A, Button B” payphone in her front room was the only one in the estate and that’s where the neighbours came to keep in touch with their emigrant children, or to call a doctor when somebody had an accident.
My Granny never had money in her whole lifetime. She scraped by on a widow’s pension for 30-odd years. I remember going to the coal merchant with my Granny just before Christmas. She paid for her own delivery, then handed him a few bob to bring coal to somebody who couldn’t afford it. My Granny’s voice is one of 350 voices, entirely distinguishable from each other, that pop into my head on any average day. My Granny was no intersectional feminist, but she wanted us to remember “there is always somebody worse off than yourself.”
There is no plutonium pants suit in my wardrobe, Kevin. Just my leather jackets, faded jeans and the shirts and ties that still sometimes get me mocked in the streets by people you presumably feel have no privilege worth speaking about. When I was 24, I found myself living in Fatima Mansions. If you haven’t heard of it, it was a notoriously deprived council estate in Dublin’s South Inner City. I stayed more than 15 years and for most of that time, homophobic abuse was a daily part of my life. For a few months in the early 90s, I cared for a friend and former lover who was terminally ill. She died in the front room there, Kevin. She was tired of the hospitals and clinics, so she chose to die at home, but she had to go to the methadone clinic daily, so I used to scrub the piss and shit off the stairs so we could get down to the waiting taxi. I was afraid she might fall there.
We had no money, so our lives were pretty limited, but one night she went out for a drink with a friend. She hadn’t been out for a long time and was very excited and I was pleased too, because I really needed a rest. When she came back that night, I opened the door and she was stood there on the doorstep, with spit running down her face onto her leather jacket. Her voice is another of the entirely distinguishable voices in my head. She left me all her papers to “write the true story of women living with HIV” and I hear that voice quite often because I haven’t kept that promise, but I got out of that place by getting a job and a mortgage that I’m still paying. So time is short and I only manage it in snatches like this one to you.
The young men who did this were amongst the least privileged in our society and I stand squarely by their side whenever justice demands it. But did they enjoy straight white male privilege when they broke all my windows, wrote graffiti on my door or shoved shit through my letterbox? I say they did. And they had privilege too when they spat in the face of a dying woman, 32 years old, on her way home from her last ever night in the pub? I say they did, Kevin. And did I enjoy white privilege when they eventually bored with me and moved on to harass the black people who had started to move into our neighbourhood? It didn’t feel like much of a privilege, but yes I did.
It was eight years before I had the money to bring her ashes to India as she’d asked me to. I went for six weeks and it’s still the only time I’ve been outside Europe. It’s interesting you should mention Union Carbide in your depiction of us, because I spent one of those six weeks volunteering at a centre for victims of the Bhopal gas disaster. That week was a small thing, Kevin and I’m looking for no medals for it. It was a drop in the ocean, but still, an act of comradeship rather than the unthinking rampage of one of capitalism’s handmaidens, in my entirely discountable opinion.
The left has always had an issue with what it calls “identity politics” but I’m old enough and around both struggles long enough to remember that it used to have another name. When I was young and desperate to be accepted on the left, the term used was bourgeois individualism. The fight for individual human rights as basic as choosing who to live and love with was a manifestation of greed, not need, they told us. Depending on who you talked to, either all our problems would be solved after the revolution, or else we ourselves would cease to exist as our sexuality was nothing more than a symptom of bourgeois decadence. We were an unsightly pimple on capitalism’s arse. Either way, we needed to subsume our struggle to that of the huddled masses, until the glorious revolution came to grant us luxuries like not having to perpetually wipe spit from our faces (or else until it imprisoned us in the gulags, whichever turned out to be the case.)
Identity politics needed to happen, Kevin, and still needs to happen. I was a teenager then and I have a grandchild now. The magical revolution that wipes all problems away is no more assured in her lifetime than it was in mine. I hope as a comrade you see why we couldn’t just wait. Sure, there were people who were assimilationist, who didn’t care at all if others remained without privilege, as long as they got some themselves. But that was never me, Kevin, and there were plenty more like me. I do try to live in solidarity with others. I know it’s never enough, but I know I try. I don’t know all the other voices you characterise as “identical,” but I do know they’re not identical and I’m pretty sure that they try too.
In your poem, even my poor innocent genitals are reimagined as weapons of war, raining down horror on the Middle East. I feel as helpless as most comrades in the times we live in, but I’ve always been against war and struggled for peace. My enthusiasm for your poem about Jobstown isn’t just to do with that case. I’ve fought for the right to protest all my life. I’ve been arrested twice in my life, both times for anti-war protest – nothing compared to what homeless young working class men now face when they get treated like criminals for just trying to find someplace to sleep or rest or to use the drugs they can’t get through a day without, but still a mark that I’ve not lived my life entirely as a handmaiden to the military industrial complex.
One of those arrests was as specious in its way as the arrest of the Jobstown defendants, as we never did find out under what law it was made. That protest was against American foreign policy, as obnoxious 33 years ago as it is today. The other sought the release of a pregnant woman activist, arrested in the USSR on false charges of assaulting a KGB officer. She was a target because of her involvement in the disarmament movement and her husband was frantic because he couldn’t find out where she was.
Their plight would have meant little to one of the warmongering fem-bots of your imagination, but not being one of those, I did the little bit I could. Myself and four friends left the party celebrating my 21st birthday and we chained ourselves to the gates of the ambassador’s residence. We were there for a number of hours before we were cut off the gate and nobody could get in or out, during that time. No doubt we’d be charged with “false imprisonment” today, but luckily we weren’t and we made the papers. We helped to secure the release of that woman and I’d do it again in a heartbeat, if I happened again to be one of the first people to hear news of an unjust incarceration.
I understand your instinct in writing the poem, Kevin. Word reached you of something you thought an injustice and you sat down to write in the same spirit as I chained myself to that gate. I know you heard our voices as a hate-filled chorus, but I also know you didn’t hear what we actually said. My feminism has nothing to do with Golda Meir or Indira Gandhi, nor the Hillary Clinton implied in the line about plutonium pants suits that must have seemed so very clever at the time. I’m rooting for Jeremy Corbyn, not for Teresa May. I’m no friend of power, but while it exists, may compassionate people hold it regardless of gender, not the clowns and tyrants that give me so many sleepless nights.
I’m rooting for Corbyn, though the slogan “For the Many” gives me the heebie-jeebies. Sometimes the few-in-number are not the oppressors, but the tide turns against them anyway and they end up in the camps. Even the kindest ideology contains within it the seeds of oppression. We have to be watchful of ourselves all the time. There are intolerant versions of feminism and I’m happy to stand against them, but so far there’ve been no feminist gulags, where people are imprisoned for minor irregularities of thought or for having a little more than their neighbour has. Within a year of the much needed revolution in Russia, once the bright hope of working people around the world, the first forced labour camp opened. The dreams of freedom often end up dashed on the rocks below.
The seeds of oppression are in everything that once stood for justice, but as yet no feminist bombs have rained on children in their beds. There are no piles of corpses to shame our talk of equality. It was somebody else’s dream of equality that went very bad. I promise to keep an eye out for injustice, Kevin. I promise to speak out where I see it and I hope you keep doing the same – will you join me in being as willing to listen as to speak out? Will we listen to each other’s voices first, before rushing to condemn?
The focus on the assumed privilege of our 350 voices is something that puzzles me. It might make more sense if we’d claimed we didn’t have any privilege, but we didn’t say that. It definitely would make sense if we’d said “even the most underprivileged working class man on the street has more privilege than we have” but we didn’t say that either. What we tried to say was “everyone has privilege sometimes. That’s OK, it’s what you do with it that counts.” I hope you might hear this more distinctly when it’s one voice saying it, but I’m sure each of the others is on her own journey with the privilege she was born with and the privilege she was born without.
I don’t know the circumstances of all the others. I’m sure some are middle class, but what of it? Eva Gore-Booth, born into the splendour of Lissadell House in Sligo, did more for the female mill workers of Lancashire than most male trade union leaders of less exalted origins. Her better known sister, Constance Markievicz, was the victim of many a sneer about her origins, but was so loved by the slum-dwellers of Dublin that they queued the full length of O’Connell St to file past her coffin. The Rebel Countess’s voice is often in my ear. In her youth, you might recall, she felt so strongly for the poor she “put [her] jewels in the bank and [bought] a revolver.” By the time she died at 59, she had nothing left to give away.
Emma Goldman’s voice is another one that sometimes visits me. Nobody was more committed to class struggle than she was, but if she couldn’t dance, she didn’t want to be part of your revolution. Nobody thinks of her as an intersectional feminist, but she said this: “The history of progress is written in the blood of men and women who have dared to espouse an unpopular cause, as, for instance, the black man’s right to his body, or woman’s right to her soul.”
The right to speak freely on matters of conscience is of vital importance and is not extended equally to everyone. We all have to grab whatever opportunity we can find. I’m glad we live in a country where, all of us in this story have been able to speak up as we see fit, even if we don’t all get the same platform and even if we find the criticism of others hard to take. I’m glad a working class man is free to say he can’t possibly enjoy any privilege, even though he’s saying it in the pages of a national newspaper whilst taking a PhD in Trinity College. I’m glad a bunch of feminists can disagree, singly or together, and share their feelings through a humble Facebook post that nevertheless gets a lot of exposure. I’m glad that people who disagree with us can have conniptions on social media about “search and destroy” missions, as if feminazis were training binoculars on their house prior to dragging them off to break rocks in the re-education camp of their paranoid fantasies.
I’m glad that you are free to write a spectacularly ill-conceived poem about the whole affair and to publish it in an outlet that only a few weeks ago was equally free to share for clicks the footage of the shamefully heavy-handed arrest of a naked woman, the late Dara Quigley, another writer and activist, just like you and me. They ignored for hours the pleas of their contributors and readers to take it down, but I’m still glad there were no official censors kicking their door down (and I’m glad they eventually listened and took it down.) I see they’ve changed the picture above your poem and I’m betting they made less of a big deal about doing so, but I’m sure that doesn’t reflect any kind of privilege at work…
I’m glad that I can respond to you as I’ve done here, even though my platform’s smaller and I’m glad you’re at liberty to pen further speculation about my alleged neoliberal sympathies and the fantasised misdeeds of my blameless grandparents. None of us is going to be dragged from our beds in the middle of the night for what we’ve said and I’m grateful. The worst that will happen to any of us is that other people might disagree with us and might say so, singly or in groups and I know from sweet experience (I try not to be bitter) that is totally survivable.
It isn’t always that way in the world we live in. There are writers and activists in the world whose heads rest uneasy on their pillows tonight and it befits us all to recall that when we meet with some pretty civilised resistance to what we say. Let’s keep them in mind before accusing each other of censorship and war crimes. Let’s turn our attention together to real threats to our own speech. They are out there, Kevin and it’s not you or me. It would be good also to remember that feminism has always emphasised the importance of the individual’s voice – “the personal is political” – while socialism all too often demanded that the individual’s welfare and small voice be sacrificed for an allegedly greater good.
Everybody has some privilege sometimes, Kevin. I would say that, even if they did come now to kick down my door. None of us is so lacking in privilege that we can be excused the necessity of listening to other people’s voices. None of us.
The voices I’ve shared with you so far have all been women’s voices. I’m concerned that you might find them hard to tell apart. James Connolly is not usually thought of as an intersectional feminist, but perhaps his voice will land more easily on your ear than mine does. He put it this way: “The worker is the slave of capitalist society, the female worker is the slave of that slave.” I’m with Connolly on that one, Kevin. None of us is so lacking in privilege that we have not at some time benefitted from somebody else’s lack of privilege.
Keep sending me your poems, please Kevin. Mostly I enjoy them.
Yours in Comradeship, Izzy.
I’m sharing this for any other parents of younger children who might find it useful. My 4 year old is OBSESSED with pregnancy at the moment, has been for a good while. Discussions on how to talk to your children about abortion come up a lot in Parents for Choice. I haven’t done that in detail yet with her though I have mentioned once or twice that sometimes people don’t want to stay pregnant.
BUT what I am doing is being very careful in the language I use about pregnancy. I don’t tell her people have “a baby in their tummy”, we talk about people having baby seeds that are growing into babies. When they’ve finished growing into a baby they’re ready to be born. This book is great for a basic explanation of conception that suits all kinds of families (definitely not the case for the vast majority of pregnancy books which are obsessed with married straight white couples) but where it falls down for me is talking about a 5 week embryo as a baby, so I do some editorial reading with Ailbhe and talk about these as baby seeds until the 38 week one which is a baby. It works really well and makes sense to her, we’re growing a sunflower from a seed in our windowsill at the moment. She demanded her daddy read it to her the other day while I was at work and informed him they were all baby seeds up until the 38 week one!
I’m doing this because I don’t want to be trying to explain to a seven year old who’s asking me questions about abortion that actually a 7 week embryo or whatever it is isn’t actually a baby in someone’s tummy as I’ve been telling her all along and so that it won’t strike her as something as immediately shocking as I think it otherwise might. I’m posting in case it might help others in the same situation.