I’ve always known that I was a feminist. My mother was a very gentle, caring woman, and along with the nightly bedtime stories she read to me as a child, she also talked to me very seriously about my future life as a woman. She talked to me about practical things like the kind of job I might like to do as well as more abstract things like the kind of person I might ultimately fall in love with.
Those conversations were always full of strong, feminist messaging. Always have your own job. Always keep your own bank account. Always keep your friends. It was important to her that I would have the freedoms that independence offers, particularly to women. She had grown up in Dublin in the 1950s and 1960s, and she had seen girls and women disappear into laundries or away to England or even just into marriages. She clearly never wanted me to be without choice.
It might seem like a strange conversation to have with a child, but it got me thinking very early on about how important it was to be independent and self-sufficient in life as a woman, so much so that it became a priority for me as an adult. Those bedtime stories were early lessons in feminism, and I’m still a feminist today, by which I mean I believe in equal opportunities for all, independence for all, and agency for all…And I still have my own job, bank account and friends, too.
‘It’s about visibility and representation and seeing different sorts of people doing things’
A few times in my swimming career, comments have been made about my body, and about how I wear my swimsuit, that have really frustrated me.
Once, I was at a pool and someone asked all the women to wear shorts (over our swimsuits) because they didn’t want too much of our bums on show.
I was so annoyed, and it was such an insult. It was just after [the Olympics] in Rio, when I came back as a bronze medallist, and it was one of the first things said to me. I was like, “Nope, not today.”
I remember, at another event, some of the girls were swimming with bikini tops for warm-up, and we were asked not to do that as it was too much skin on show. I remember thinking, the boys are literally in Speedos.
I feel frustrated when situations like that happen, but I just do the opposite of what people tell me.
For me, I wouldn’t always go around saying I am a feminist, but I do feminist things.
I am very open and forward about educating the men in my life — especially about women’s bodies. There hasn’t always been education there for men, so I bring it up in conversation.
For me, feminism is about equality. It’s not just between male and female, it’s also the lack of equality between ability and disability. Feminism is about all women from all walks of life. It’s about visibility and representation and seeing different sorts of people doing things. The more we get that, the more equal the world will be.
‘I see and experience how women from different parts of the world are treated’
The moment I realised I was a feminist was when having my own mind and speaking up for myself was considered being difficult or rebellious.
The moment I realised I was a feminist was seeing how women around me were treated and raised to believe their sole purpose was to please a man.
The moment I realised I was a feminist was when I felt a deep rage in me when told, “Sure you’ll marry a man one day, what you do doesn’t matter.”
The moment I realised I was a feminist was when I voted to repeal the Eighth Amendment.
The moment I realised I was a feminist was when I started teaching my younger siblings the importance of speaking up for yourself, taking action when you don’t like something, and having ways to protect yourself at all times.
The moment I realised I was a feminist was when I realised women were still fighting to be respected wherever we went.
I am a feminist because it is imperative that everybody should have rights, should have autonomy over their own lives, their own decisions, and to simply be respected no matter their walk of life.
I am a feminist because I see and experience how women from different parts of the world are treated.
Even if I wasn’t a woman, I’d be a feminist.
‘My mother’s campaigning made me a feminist by default’
I’m going to be slightly obtuse and talk about when my feminism was first challenged, rather than first discovered. I always considered myself a feminist by default, not because I was a particularly progressive or politicised child, but because my mother had always been one, and her work campaigning was part of the backdrop of our life together. It all seemed to go without saying, what was correct and fair and what was unjust, so that I never spent much time thinking about it.
Then, when I was 17, I started sleeping with my first serious boyfriend. I went on the contraceptive pill, which was a considerable expense, both the pill itself and every six months when a GP visit was necessary to renew the prescription. My mother told me my boyfriend should halve this cost with me. I was mortified. How could I be so indelicate, so demanding, so indiscreet as to demand money of him? It seemed to contradict the impression I instinctively wanted to give him of me, which was someone of little trouble, somebody fun and easy to be with and whose body kept itself neat and tidy without any upkeep.
My mother was right to tell me what she did, of course, and nowadays I would feel no embarrassment about asking a partner to split such an expense with me, only I now live in a country where contraception comes free. But it sticks in my mind as the first time I felt caught out between feminism and my impulses — of course, it would be only the first and most minor conflict of that sort.
‘When I was six, put my mam’s maiden name on all my copies’
Actor & filmmaker
The first ‘feminist moment’ I had was when I was six. I remember asking my mam, “Why do I have dad’s second name?” And she said, “Oh, that’s just the way it is. The kids always take the dad’s second name.”
I was furious. So I started putting my mam’s surname on all my copybooks. There was a whole year in school where I was Clare McGlynn. Then my parents went, “Here, Dunne is actually on your birth cert. You’d have to go through a load of red tape to change it properly!”
Being a child with more important things to be doing, like playing on the streets, I eventually let it go.
But I still have the copybooks with her maiden name on them. I think that must have been when the first seed was planted where I thought, why the f**k is it like that?
I had a questioning mind, and my mam said I was always asking, “But why can’t girls do that?”
And that question is still a core element of how I decide what I want to do in my life and work.
When looking at a role, I always ask, is she a full human being? Or is she a functional device with no actual life? It matters, a lot.
‘I wore my feminism like a sexy dress’
Writer & journalist
It’s mad but I didn’t realise I was a feminist until I started writing Feminism Backwards.
I was — I am — a founder member of the Irish Women’s Liberation Movement (1971), and was fully on board with the then rage against the patriarchy.
No contraception! Bah.
Legal rape within marriage! Bah.
Only the lowest of the low jobs with 50pc of what the boys got paid! Bah.
Zero legal protection for our married sisters whose hubbies could skidaddle to England, get divorced, get the family home, AND full custody of the children. All legally!
I wore my feminism like a sexy dress: yes sir, I am mad as hell. But I didn’t really ‘get it’. I was 23. In a great job. Parties every second night. I’d found my tribe. Scribblers, artists, all eager to dump the post-1916 ‘dreary Eden’ of gombeen men and priests in the trash. Yippee!
Horrible to recall, but marriage to a handsome lover went to hell. And stayed there. It was at rock bottom — two tiny children, no money, no power — that feminism stopped being academic. Slowly, slowly it became our life raft.
On dry land, years and years later, I had time to look back. By God, we were right to be angry. We are still right. With pornography destroying the humanity of men and boys as young as 10, young women being murdered in broad daylight, the Catholic Church still in charge of maternity hospitals and schools, there is everything to be raging about.
Oh sisters, everything.
‘We spent so much of our time in college trying to dodge sexual violence’
In hindsight, the days before I realised I was a feminist were heady ones indeed. A woman who truly believes that she doesn’t need equality is living in luxurious ignorance, and I lived in that blissful innocence for a long time. When girls start turning into women, the world we think we live in can fall away around us like a cardboard set. Usually, adolescence cruelly reveals to us the truth about our place in the world. I was somewhat cosseted from this because I went to an all-girls secondary school, a place where our gender was so inconsequential to our ambition, ability and identity that it was almost like a little utopia.
Life took a moonshiner’s turn when I landed in college, and felt, for the first time, that being a woman made me vulnerable. We seemed to spend so much of our time in higher education trying to dodge sexual violence, as if we were swatting wasps. I was depressed to realise that times in my life when I had felt threatened or scared by men may not have been isolated anomalies, but part of a trend. Things which I thought I’d been unlucky to experience, I realised with stomach-dropping dread, had actually been examples of great fortune. I started to understand that the women who get to talk about close shaves with sexual violence are the lucky ones.
Feminism no longer seemed like a hobby horse for well-off women in Dublin, as I had thought it to be before. From that point, things had changed. It didn’t matter if I or other women wanted to be feminists. We needed to be. Our lives could depend on it.
‘I was educated on how misguided I was’
Journalist & broadcaster
I don’t ever remember not feeling like a feminist. From a very young age, the idea of inequality in any form enraged me. I remember the day my mother told me about racism, for example, and how absolutely unfair it seemed. I have always felt that everyone should be treated the same, and be given the same opportunities.
I do, however, remember the day I was schooled on the type of feminism I subscribed to. I was working in a small office when I was around 25, and an older colleague asked me if I considered myself a feminist. I replied that I did, but not “one of those man-hating ones”. I regretted my words the moment I saw my colleague’s expression change, but now I’m glad I said what I said, because otherwise I would not have been swiftly educated on how misguided I was.
My colleague made it clear to me that nothing about feminism included hating men, and that the fight for equality benefited people of all genders. She pushed me on my beliefs, and questioned those which were based on misinformation. By the end of our conversation, I knew I would never again offer a caveat after calling myself a feminist. There would be no shame or explanation offered. I was a feminist, and am one still.
‘Growing up, I was told to keep my legs together while my brothers splayed’
Author & co-founder of Tramp Press
Women in Ireland have to grow up twice. Let me explain.
I was born and continue to live in a sexist country, in a sexist world. Because it is impossible to have escaped all this sexism unscathed, I am a sexist. We are almost all pretty sexist in fact.
Despite this, most of us have had moments of understanding and insight; times where something has happened, whether shocking or insidious, and a realisation a growing up has occurred. The first time you grow up, you realise that your parents are just ordinary citizens. The second time, you realise that women are barely that, with less access to healthcare, justice, the workplace.
With more notice paid now in the news to cases of assault and murder, it’s strange to me that there’s still such a strong tendency not to notice there’s a problem. Recognising sexism within ourselves and our institutions is a first step some of us are unfortunately incapable of taking — it’s so common to ‘other’ the notion of sexism, along with our ‘othering’ of women.
But those steps toward feminism, those crucial first recognitions, tend to begin earlier for women than they do for men, for obvious reasons. I did not have to be a particularly perceptive girl to notice that sometimes I was put in a dress, and then told to keep my legs together, while my brothers splayed comfortably around me. Once you’ve noticed, it’s difficult to unnotice (though again, some people seem to manage it with great effort). But for the rest of us, we’re growing up, together.
‘In my generation, there was a lot of catching up to do’
Journalist & founder member of the Irish Women’s Liberation Movement
I was about 10 when one of my aunts, recently widowed, decided to take on her husband’s business, although she had no experience in retail, and the situation was challenging. “Ah, no,” I heard another of the aunts remark. “You’d want a man to run a business.” I remember feeling indignant. Why would you need a man to run a business? Why shouldn’t a woman succeed alone? I hadn’t then heard of the great Madame Veuve Clicquot, but that particular widow, who had put champagne on the world map, would have been the template to cite.
My convent school education was, in many ways, antediluvian (and social class, rather than gender, emerged as a stronger theme in such single-sex institutions). Yet there was a special admiration for strong-minded saints like Joan of Arc, and Catherine of Siena “who drank a cupful of leper’s pus to show she feared nothing”. Even St Bernadette of Lourdes was praised for standing against the conventions and establishments of her time, clerical and political. Despite the dispiriting emphasis on deference and modesty, there was also this sense of extolling fortitude, bravery and upholding your own principles.
During World War II, women’s freedoms in neighbouring nations had been expanded — the bar against married women working had been lifted, for example — and Ireland missed out on these changes. So, in my generation, there was a lot of catching up to do, in liberation and opportunity.
‘I was brought up in a home of unconventional balance’
Singer & writer
I don’t remember
not being a feminist.
I hadn’t the name
but I had the notion.
I was brought up in a home
of unconventional balance.
On Thursdays I watched
my father hand his pay packet
to my mother and wait
on ‘pocket money’ she gave him
after sorting bills together.
On Saturdays she washed us,
he dried our hair.
She fed us, he put us to bed.
Mam showed us how
to utilise utilities,
guided us to sew and cook,
Dad taught us to dance and DIY.
Boys and girls. All of us!
They were equals, passionate,
arguments resolved, affection open.
I witnessed a true partnership.
Mam ran a music and drama group,
Dad made the props.
She campaigned for causes,
he made the signs
(an earliest memory is in my
pram protesting with Mam).
Her mother, Maisie Morrissey,
was in the Cumann na mBan.
At 16 Granny jumped on and off
trains with a bucket of glue
and a roll of posters
‘Join the resistance!’
She stuck on every platform
“because people look at their feet”.
My Fianna Éireann granddad,
Joe Comerford, fell for her
immediately and loved her spark
for the rest of their lives.
Great women. Great men.
I was told
“You can do whatever
you put your mind to”
and I did. I do.
I became a feminist
because I was born an equalist
to an unequal world.
I’m descended from giants,
my blood is mighty,
my spirit strong,
my daughter continues the line
‘hen I discovered I didn’t have to follow anyone else’s way of feminism’
Entrepreneur & activist
Feminism was always instilled in us as we were growing up. It didn’t have a label and we didn’t need to announce it, but it was always there. Gender roles were smudged and we were encouraged to discover our confidence to take on the world within ourselves. We were taught we were no better than anyone else and no one was better than us and, at the end of the day, this is what feminism boils down to for me.
Unfortunately, when you become aware of the injustices, inequalities and inequities that are in place in society because you are a woman, that’s when you need to name feminism, as it is then that you have to fight back to simply level the playing field.
When I discovered that I didn’t have to follow anyone else’s way of feminism, that my own path was equally as valid, that’s when I realised I wasn’t afraid to be a feminist. To announce I was a feminist.
It takes many different types of voices to bring about change. You don’t have to ascribe to one way of doing things and can’t be an expert in everything. When I realised this, I went back and reminded myself that no one was better than me and I was no better than anyone else, and continued on my path of feminism-ing as best I could.
‘For someone so politically oriented, I came rather late to feminism’
Author & broadcaster
For someone so politically oriented, I came rather late to feminism. When I was growing up, I experienced quite a lot of racism, and so much of that was from women that I didn’t automatically assume the existence of any type of solidarity in gender. Looking for answers to explain racism, I read a lot of black studies theory, through which I encountered thinkers like bell hooks. Through black feminists like her, I came to understand that feminism was for everyone black, white, male and female and that feminist practice had the potential to transform society, to liberate us all from the violence of patriarchy.
I think it is really important to actually define feminism because, as hooks herself said, “Masses of the people think that feminism is always only about women seeking to be equal to men. Their misunderstanding of feminist politics reflects the reality that most folks learn about feminism from patriarchal mass media.” Feminism and capitalism are incompatible, so concepts like “girl boss” feminism are oxymoronic. Feminism is about dismantling patriarchy and recognising that while patriarchy is a system that women bear the brunt of, it is also one that greatly diminishes the quality of life for men as well.
Emma Dabiri is the host of Audi Ireland’s limited-edition podcast series Driving Progress
‘The boys were told to play sports outside while we were kept indoors’
Journalist & director of media at the Clooney Foundation for Justice
It wasn’t so much about when I realised I was a feminist but more about the moment I grasped that, as a young girl, I was not being treated equally to the boys in my class. My male comrades were often encouraged to play physical sports outside, for example, while us young ladies were held back to learn other ‘indoor’ skills. I genuinely recall feeling a sense of injustice back then as I was acutely aware that I was, in fact, better at sports than many of the lads outside and I had no interest in staying indoors! The illuminating part about reflecting now, so many years later, is that it was quite clearly the institutions that we were exposed to in Ireland as young girls, as opposed to my home life, where this inequality manifested and even mushroomed.
Later, in my working life, when I was significantly more vocal, there were countless times that the loudest voice in the room (always male but not always the most intuitive) was the voice that was listened to. I learned hard lessons early on that, as a woman, you had to fight ferociously to amplify your mere being, especially in a corporation. Sure, I’m a feminist (my job quite literally these days is to advocate on behalf of women’s rights at the Clooney Foundation for Justice), but I’d say, in many ways , I’m more of an egalitarian and believe both women and men should be treated as equals.
‘I realised feminism was necessary when I began to recover from an eating disorder’
I realised that I was a feminist, and that feminism was useful and necessary for understanding myself and the world I’m in, when I began to recover from eating disorders in my mid-20s. It took that long! I was quite depressed before that. I didn’t think I deserved what feminism sets out to achieve. Over time, though, encountering feminist ideas in fiction, films and critical theory helped me unravel my own fear and anger about the world. It was such a creatively rewarding experience. It helped me channel all that energy into something constructive.
You need optimism to be a feminist. Scepticism, too, because ever since it came into being, feminism has been hijacked for cynical motives, like advertising and embarrassingly bad Hollywood films. I also think the line between feminism and telling women what they should be is a fine one; this is one of the reasons I don’t understand the current ‘debate’ within feminism about trans women. To me there’s no question: trans women, and trans people in general, deserve all our support. It’s very easy to lose sight of the goals of equality, tolerance and respect, especially once you’re relatively comfortable. I’d rather have multiple feminisms out there — evolving, intersecting, in dialogue with other causes — than have one definition of what feminism should be.
‘In my immediate family, there were no shortage of female role models’
Every Saturday morning, my siblings and I would get up early to watch cartoons. I’m not sure how old I was, but I can vividly remember us playing ‘superheroes’ in the garden afterwards and feeling really annoyed that there weren’t any female superheroes.
Luckily, in my immediate family, there were no shortage of female role models, and so I think I was always destined to be a feminist.
My mother’s mother, Ethel McKeever, was born in 1922 in Dublin. She wanted to fight in World War II. Her parents did not approve. She didn’t let that stop her, running away to Belfast the moment she turned 21. She joined the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF), becoming one of the first female electricians in the air force.
My father’s mother, Sylvia Cairns, is another role model of mine. In the 1970s, she helped to set up Cherish. This was a charity that supported young, unmarried, pregnant women, who were often thrown out of their homes. My dad remembers young women staying at their home during their pregnancy while he was growing up.
As a child, I was very aware of my mother’s struggles to be taken seriously as a dairy farmer. She grew up on a farm in Co Meath and always wanted to take over the family farm. However, as she was a woman, this was out of the question. She moved to west Cork and bought a small dairy farm instead, which evolved into the farm and seed business we have today.
Not all superheroes wear capes. Sometimes they wear overalls and wellies and inspire their daughters to go into politics to change things for the better.
‘I grew into a strong black woman who was going to use her voice’
Writer & filmmaker
I didn’t think too much about feminism or women’s rights as a young girl. I mean, I believed in the cause somewhat, but I didn’t really think about it until I got to college and studied various theories and heard names like Luce Irigaray, Alice Walker and more.
I suppose when I found my voice and confidence as a young woman is when I felt that I could associate myself with that term. It was not something I thought about too much. I just realised, after some time, I grew into my own and became a strong, black, young woman who was going to use her voice to speak out on subject matters I was passionate about.
The moment may have also come to me when I first heard about author and feminist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I was a teenager sitting at the library during my English class and I was fascinated by this woman who had a similar background to me with such strong opinions. It motivated me along with giving me pride in my identity.
The concept of feminism really is not that complicated at all. You are a feminist if you believe in the socio-economic equality of the sexes. I think if we looked more into ourselves, we would realise that that is a lot of us. We should all be feminists, like Adichie has said.
Ola Majekodunmi created the bilingual short film Say My Ainm, which features interviews with collaborators on the importance of their names, in partnership with Axis Ballymun
‘I got paid less than a boy doing the same job’
Being a feminist today is very different to the extremism that some perceive it to be.
I have had the term thrown in my face by both young and old men, and boys, along with #MeToo.
These people, thankfully, are now in the minority.
For me, it was not the period reading Germaine Greer. It was a number of things that started with becoming a teenager.
Like being groped by an older man at the age of 12 on the train home from a tennis match. All I was doing was walking from the loo to my seat.
Then there was my first job, and I discovered I was being paid less than the boy, the same age as me, who was doing the same job as me.
There were the times when myself and my little sister were being followed repeatedly from our bus on Middle Abbey Street by a creep who would flash us as we waited for my mum to pick us up.
Working selling flowers in nightclubs was the worst though. Guys putting their hands right up your skirt and down your top as you were trying to navigate through clubs. Being spat on when you shouted at creeps to stop.
These are a few of the personal reasons I became a feminist. Because I was sick of this.
Outside of my own life experiences, there are so many incidents — from Ann Lovett and Savita Halappanavar to the recent tragic case of Ashling Murphy.
‘Imagine how free we would be without gender expectations’
I knew I was a feminist from a very young age, even if I’d never heard the word or knew what it meant quite yet.
My mother used to tell me how people would pray for a boy as soon as they heard a woman in their community had become pregnant, because the mentality then was boys were the ones that essentially saved the family and brought success. I remember her telling me this story of when she was pregnant with me, but she would always finish with, “My daughter will be a star.” This really stuck with me, because although society may have taught us that boys are superior, I knew in my heart this was not the case.
I was determined to be an independent woman, a woman who paved her own way. I believed that dreams were possible. I know it’s one thing to say you can be anything, you just have to work hard, but it’s another to actually see a woman in that high position. When there is no woman or black women/women of colour in leadership roles, it’s even harder to sell that dream. I am glad that, when young girls look at me, they do see the possibility there, the same way I have looked up to many other women in my life and chose to be an example, to be a powerful woman in my society, to be heard and to be listened to.
To me, equality is when we find equality in leadership, in business, in politics, and that is when I, as a woman, will be satisfied — when we have equal opportunities and equal pay to men.
When a man walks into a room, he doesn’t have to speak for all men. But when I walk into a room, I automatically represent all women, or all black women — and it should not be this way. We should be able to be our individual selves. Imagine how much happier and free to be our true selves we would be if we didn’t have the weight of gender expectations.
‘We have to be warriors from birth to survive life as Travellers’
Growing up as a young Traveller girl on our island, experiencing discrimination on a daily basis, really gave me an in-depth experience of injustice, firstly as a Traveller, then as a Traveller woman and being an Irish woman. My lived experience shaped me into the feminist I am today.
Once I reached my teenage years, I realised I was passionate about a woman’s right to self-independence and equitable opportunities in life. It was during this period that the additional barriers we face as Traveller women dawned on me — obstacles out of our control, such as erosion of our nomadic life, rearing children in inhumane conditions, daily discrimination, daily unjust evictions from our camps to nowhere, an education system failing us, many of us experiencing segregated education, having to hide our identity to obtain employment. The fact that we have to be warriors from birth just to survive life as Travellers.
Our statistics as Travellers are both frightening and shocking for a rich country such as ours in 2022. On average, we die 11-and-a-half years younger than non-Travellers. Suicide rates are six times higher.
As women, we have been left behind for generations, not only by men, but also women. As a Traveller woman who is a proud feminist, it really frustrates me that some “feminists” who have powerful positions within society continue to leave us behind. This has to change. If Traveller women are left behind, then we do not have a feminist movement in Ireland.
https://www.independent.ie/life/my-mother-said-my-boyfriend-should-pay-for-half-my-contraception-20-well-known-irish-women-on-the-moment-they-became-a-feminist-41403241.html ‘My mother said my boyfriend should pay for half my contraception’: 20 well-known Irish women on the moment they became a feminist