As I saw #FeministsAreEverywhere trending on Twitter ahead of the AGM of the National Women’s Council of Ireland tomorrow 8 June 2017, asking people to comment on why they are feminists, I was wrecking my head to come up with a good response. But somehow I couldn’t think of anything.
I guess I’ve always felt like I’ve been a feminist but I never really questioned it or was able to pin point a moment when I decided to become one. I started looking back on my life and thought about what moments might have signalled changes in my awareness of gender inequalities.
Growing up in socialist East Germany, I experienced working mothers as the norm rather than the exception. My mum always worked when I was a child and both my grandmothers had busy careers outside the home. Although a “second shift” at home was standard for a lot of East German women, I’ve always felt in our house the chores were pretty equally spread between my parents. My dad is a clean freak and always did a lot, if not the majority, of the cleaning. He’s useless as a cook though, so my mum always looked after that and the washing.
I don’t think growing up I was aware of any restrictions to what I can do because of my gender. This is possibly due to being surrounded by strong female role models and seeing the women around me playing an active part in different aspects of society.
As a teenager in the 90s, Grunge provided me with more powerful female role models who not only defied beauty standards but also couldn’t care less about playing the “good girl”. Riot Grrrls like Courtney Love and Kathleen Hanna didn’t hold back with their opinions, they rocked out as hard as the boys and looked like trashy princesses. They were loud and angry, and gave girls like myself permission to be loud and angry too.
I thought they were the coolest and I wanted to be like them. I wasn’t though. Most of my rebellion happened on my own, in my bedroom listening to loud and angry music while quietly feeling inadequate and invisible. Back then I didn’t relate those feelings to the fact that I was a girl, it had more to do with being a teenager.
Only as I got older and reached my late teens, early twenties, I began to notice certain differences in the way men and women were treated and interacted with each other. I would notice the sleazy older guys in work being inappropriate with me, making sexist jokes and expecting me to laugh at them.
I was quite taken aback by this behaviour, probably because I had never experienced it before from other men in my life. My dad didn’t act like that and neither did any of my male friends. So I guess I was surprised at the revelation that some men are sexist pigs.
While I noticed my revulsion against this sexist behaviour from some men, I wasn’t yet paying any attention to the fact that most of the senior management in the company I was working for was exclusively male and all my secretary and admin colleagues were female.
When I entered into an academic career in my thirties, I became aware of the underrepresentation of women particularly in leadership positions in universities. Leading experts in my field of military history and war studies were often men and at conferences with established academics presenting, it became clear to me that this was very much a boys club.
That stood in stark contrast to my experience as a postgraduate student where I was surrounded by plenty of other women. But somehow they seemed to drop off the further you got up the career ladder. (There are many other issues regarding a lack of diversity in academia, for example during 9 years at university I was never taught by a single person of colour.)
I began to ask myself if and in what way my personal experience of gender imbalances in academia was representative of the situation as a whole. The Higher Education Authority’s National Review of Gender Equality in Irish Higher Education Institutions published in June 2016 confirmed my suspicions that what I was observing was indeed the norm across the board at Irish universities.
As a lecturer I could see clear gender related differences in how especially younger male and female students acted in class. Of course there are always exceptions, and this is just my personal subjective observation, but I was struck by how frequently female students would preface their response by ‘I don’t know’ or ‘This is probably wrong’ while male students displayed a remarkable confidence when giving even the most nonsensical answers.
You could say by then I had become acutely aware of structural inequalities based on gender and my feminist conscience was awakened. Or to put it less dramatically, I realised I needed to educate myself more on the reasons for these inequalities.
The death of Savita Halappanavar in 2012, however, marked a watershed for me and I’m sure for many other women and men living in Ireland. You hear about awful things happening in the news all the time but usually I get on with my life. The sadness, anger and helplessness I felt when hearing of the circumstances surrounding Savita’s death, denied a termination while miscarrying her baby and ultimately dying from septicaemia, was different though.
It made it crystal clear to me, that to the Irish state the life of a 31 year old, educated, successful woman who chose to make Ireland her home was not worth more than that of an unviable foetus. What does that say about how much, or better, how little we value women in Irish society? Am I just a vessel to deliver babies and if I cannot do this I’m worthless?
From here on I began my armchair activism, attending protests for Repeal the 8th, signing petitions, being more vocal about feminist causes on social media, working for the herstory movement and trying to read up on feminist discourse. I say armchair activism because I still very much feel like a fraudulent feminist and don’t think I’m doing nearly enough to make even the tiniest of impact.
Despite that, I feel feminism is a cause worthwhile pursuing for me. To me feminism is about equality, denying a particular group of people equal representation based on their gender, class, ethnicity or sexual orientation means oppressing them. I believe feminism allows us to understand how systemic oppression occurs and how it can be broken. And that’s why I’m a feminist.