Society

Femfest: The Past, Present and Future of Feminism

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This morning, 150 women stepped into the science gallery with their femfest lanyards swinging from their necks, coffee in hand and smiles on their faces. It’s not a sight that most of us see. It’s brilliant to have spent a day surrounded by bright, young women who aren’t just perceptive of the world around them but are eager to change it as well.

This year’s femfest event played a brilliant tribute to the centenary of the 1916 rising. Starting off with the past, UCD’s Mary McAuliffe took to the stage to tell us about the 66 women who participated in the 1916 rising before being conveniently left out of the history books. She told us about the roles that these women played, roles that risked their lives on a daily basis but resulted in an aftermath where they weren’t recognised as equal citizens in an Irish Free State, despite the proclamation declaring otherwise. Considering that it is the centenary years and Ireland has been rife with celebrations, it’s a wonder that we still hear little about these women’s participation in the rising. But it was a thrill to hear Mary McAuliffe’s overview of this segment of history. More than that, it’s a thrill to know that women like Mary McAuliffe, and hopefully others after her, continue to work in the field to bring women to the fore.

Following Mary McAuliffe’s talk, began the panels. The present panel chaired by Ailbhe Smyth, featured TD Brid Smith; writer and poet, Clara Rose Thornton; and Jeanne Sutton, editor of Stellar magazine. They launched into the recurrent issues that women face every day: harassment and abuse, both online and offline. Clara Rose Thornton probably shared the anecdote that every woman at femfest will carry with them for a while: an anecdote of being harassed and abused in a public panel, in front of a public crowd, not just for her gender, but also for her race. Of being mitigated to nothing but a sexual object while the men alongside her were praised for their career achievements. The type of abuse and harassment that is unfortunately too relatable for most women. Worst of all, Thornton described how the host of the panel not only defended her harasser, brushing it off as “Irish banter,” but in fact continued to blame Thornton for not being able to properly defend herself.

But Thornton eloquently described the kind of thinking that continues to support this form of harassment against women

This leads into this self-preserving patriarchal thinking where it’s not the abuse that’s the problem. It’s not the harassment that’s the problem. That’s some drunken, inappropriate man’s right but the onus is on the woman to defend and deflect in a manner that seems appropriate to the abuser. And that line of thinking leads right into dismissing rape victims, leads right into consent being something that doesn’t need to be spoken about, something that’s an insult somehow to a man by saying that consent classes are necessary. There’s this whole self-preservation of patriarchal power that insists that women are not autonomous human beings, that their entire selfhood is determined on how the man in this space want to conceive of her, talk to her, treat her, touch her and the onus is on her to then deflect, or smile or to make herself smaller in a way that appeases the abusers.

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Perhaps my favourite part of both panels was the few minutes that the panelists offered before opening up the Q&A to the floor. Both times it allowed myself and others to communicate with bright, young women, who were clearly thriving off of the energy that these panelists had given them. It’s not the type of energy that you see every day, and certainly not the type of drive that you see from young women. Probably because feminism and feminist ideologies still tend to be dismissed with an eye roll, at best, and outright abuse and violence at worst. It was thrilling to be able to spend time discussing these issues that young women face on a daily basis with other young women.

The last panel of femfest was about the future. It was chaired by Anna Cosgrave and the panelists included the author Sarah Griffin; freelance journalist, Rosemary MacCabe; investigative journalist, Ellen Coyne; and minister Katherine Zappone. Much of the discussion on this panel focused on the future of feminism in Ireland. It particularly focused on what’s probably the most significant issues that face Irish women today: the 8th amendment. The panel ended with a poem by Sarah Griffin about this very issue. Griffin, and other panelists, were eager to encourage their audience not to stay in this echo chamber where we’re continually surrounded by our views. Griffin said

You can only invite people and I think that’s where it starts on the day-to-day. It’s just bringing people in and seeing if they want to have that conversation with you because ultimately all of this is a conversation…anything that you do in terms of feminism is an invitation for a chat and that chat can lead to somebody surprising themselves by having empathy for you. And that’s where people start moving on a day-to-day level towards change.

I was encouraged to see how young many of these women really were sharing intelligent comments and ideas and asking important questions. They ranged from age sixteen to twenty-four, and many of them spoke about bringing these thought processes, ideas and discussions with them into their school, college or work environments. As someone who has identified as a feminist from an early age, it’s wonderful to see groups of young (and I mean, really young) women actively working to do something about these issues, attending events like femfest, and attempting to be activists in their daily lives. I was especially emboldened to see the women from secondary school who were energetic participants during these panels. Perhaps because this wasn’t something that I experienced when I was their age. And considering that the very last panel of femfest looked towards the future of feminism, with all of these bright, young women actively seeking to make a change for the better, perhaps the future will be bright too.

* For any readers who are not Irish, the 8th amendment in Ireland is a constitutional ban on abortion. It recognises the right to life of an unborn child, equating it with the right to life of the mother.

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