The opening event of the Dublin Writer’s Festival at the Smock Alley Theatre last night celebrated the publication of Fifty Shades of Feminism by bringing together co-editor Rachel Holmes, contributor to the book and Director of civil rights organisation Liberty Shami Chakrabarti, theatre maker Louise Lowe, and Irish journalists Una Mullally and Margaret Ward, who chaired the event, to engage in some lively discussions exploring just what exactly the “F” word means today.
The event last night was an engaging and highly informative one, at least for this late twenty-something woman. The exchange between the five panellists was interesting and entertaining, and equally so, the interaction between them and the audience, which was over 95% female. This is, perhaps, quite telling about male interest in Feminism in Ireland today. The age range looked to vary from early twenties to, what Shami reluctantly termed herself as a member of, “the middle years”, and others beyond. It was populated with women from young students to women who had championed the feminist cause in decades past, including a Californian student who talked about the variations in abortion laws between her home state and Irish state; a newly qualified pilot, a young woman working in a male dominated career; and one woman, Isabel Healy, who had taken part in the ‘contraceptive train’ with the Irish Women’s Liberation Movement in May 1971. The Smock Alley Theatre provided the perfect venue to allow healthy discussion between this audience and the panel about the shades of Feminism in the world today.
The book itself came about, Rachel explained “like a lot of births, it was an accident…but a happy accident.” Over wine and a discussion on Fifty Shades of Grey in the aftermath of the its phenomenal success, the seeds of Fifty Shades of Feminism were sown. They had to grow fast, as in order to take full advantage of the 40 year anniversary of the feminist press, Virago, and have the book out in time for Women’s Week 2013, they had just 4 weeks to pull everything together to get to print. And they managed it – 50 women were selected to submit a 1000 word piece. Shami spoke of her contribution, highlighting the fact that she is a campaigner, not a prose writer and that is reflected in her piece. Her mother passed away in the summer of 2011, and with an 11 year old son of her own, she chose to write about motherhood. Rachel said that looking through the book as an exploration, it is clear that the feeling and opinions of women on the issue of feminism is something that changes over their lives.
As the conversation developed, there was a consensus among the panel and the audience that a ripple of something has been forming around the Feminist question in the past few years. There are people who are ready to rediscover and re-debate this loaded “F” word again. When Margaret asked whether Feminism is a scary word, Una said she doesn’t think so anymore – “Caitlin Moran has become the gateway drug to making feminism a less scary word.” When Una was in her early twenties, the only feminist discourse seemed to be academic; whereas now, she feels it’s not purely academic and with sites like Jezebel and everydaysexism.com pointing out that sexism is not ok, the traditional media is slowly beginning to cut their teeth in on this wave of change too. Shima chirped in about the need to kick-start change and about another “dirty” word that’s not used anymore – solidarity.
Una mentioned the march for Savita Halappanavar – never before had she seen so many men out on the streets for a march for women’s rights in Ireland. While Margaret and Rachel highlighted that the 18th century Socialist Feminism movement had men marching alongside women against lower pay for women and child labour; men and women in solidarity for the same cause. I think the most noteworthy quote of the evening, which received a round of applause, came from one woman in the audience when she said, “Is Feminism a dirty word? Feminism was never a clean word!” Essentially, that Feminism has always been about women doing things that people don’t want them to do. It’s revolution, which can’t be nice. However, there is a need to have men involved too, and men need to be able to say they are a Feminist. The solidarity is important.
Overall, I think it was a fantastic kick-start to the Dublin Writer’s Festival. The panel, and the audience alike, were highly engaged with the topic of Feminism, though perhaps missing a male voice in the vein of solidarity. With the exploration from the origin and publication of the book, to discussion on the beginnings of Feminism – socialist to suffrage to sexuality – and to where Feminism is now in the 21st century, this woman was entirely absorbed in the conversation from beginning to end. Also, it was really fantastic to see so many women buying the book after the event. Hopefully, Bob, of the Gutter Bookshop fame, didn’t have too many to lug back up to Cow’s Lane!
Written by Caelen Dwane