Growing up in Mayo, I had never heard of Dr. Kathleen Lynn. I was surrounded by strong women in my family, but for female public role models, between Grainne Mhaol and Mary Robinson… tumbleweed. That’s the crux of the problem that gave rise to #WakingTheFeminists – the continued denial and erasure of women from our collective stories.
Now being a pirate queen or president are pretty rarified career paths for most people, but a medical leader with a social conscience and radical politics, a campaigning feminist, a suffragette and a public representative, in a lesbian relationship? Kathleen Lynn was someone I could have done with knowing about growing up! However, she didn’t fit -in with the cosy national narrative of the times.
I had also never heard of Helena Moloney before she came to my attention through the Abbey Theatre’s 2016 programme launch last October. Helena was an Abbey actress, and had introduced Kathleen to the Cuman na mBan movement. The Abbey used a quote of hers in its advertising “We saw a vision of Ireland – Free. Pure. Happy. We did not realise this vision, but we saw it”. Yet there was only one female writer and three female directors mentioned in its programme. I was annoyed that I had been ignorant of Helena, Kathleen and many of the other women involved in 1916. Why had I never heard of them? And who else had I not heard about? What other stories and histories had been muted, sidelined, buried?
The Abbey was right that 1916 and the intervening century require interrogation. Those at the forefront of the Celtic Revival understood that the nation had to be imagined before it could be created – that we create ourselves through stories.
It’s important to interrogate our dominant narratives from time to time. Being overwhelmingly male-focussed, The Abbey’s programme missed the true opportunities for interrogation. It matters who is in charge of our stories, and it matters who is doing the telling. So, it was with complete delight that I heard about the plans for the Kathleen Lynn exhibition – where the Abbey missed out, visionaries such as Marie Farrell and her colleagues here in Mayo have taken up a torch to reconnect us with our lost, invisible women. It’s even more gratifying that they have chosen to do so through a county wide tour featuring contemporary artists responding to the social and cultural issues of today.
It was like those of us who worked in theatre were sleepwalking until last October – in denial of the deep inequities that were staring us in the face. Or, more likely, just focussed on keeping the show on the road in a recession. Then we woke with a start to realise – hold on a minute here – there’s something not right in this supposedly liberal, equal, meritocratic arts community. The cultural diet that has informed my own sense of self has been seriously deficient, and the statistics bear this out: 11% of history is written about women; less than 15% of plays on our main stages are written or directed by women; less than 28% women’s voices are heard on air; less than 16% of our films are written or directed by women. In some cases the statistics for women’s work have diminished, not increased over time. We can go backwards as easily as we go forwards – there is no such thing as a ‘natural’ progression towards equality over time. Just ‘waiting our turn’ is not going to work.
For women, it’s been a century of disconnection and stunted growth. We’ve all been culturally famished. Boys and men are spoon-fed their cultural icons and heroes, breakfast, dinner and tea. Our present is malformed from a past where male creativity has been feted and feasted, and female creativity starved.
Yet women are the majority of the population, the majority of ticket buyers and audience members in our theatres, but a minority as far as what happens on our stages. Girls have precious few external structures from which to build positive complex versions of ourselves as women. We have to really dig deep to uncover what is reburied in every generation – women’s creative and public achievements, our contributions to culture, to society, to science, to history, to the economy. This cultural archeology is ceaseless and exhausting for those of us who go looking for a past that will connect us to a different future – an escape route from the patriarchy.
Women’s cultural space matters as much as our political space, our economic space, and our physical space. These all work together to either diminish or affirm our humanity and equality. And what women have to say through our artistic work is not just for a female audience, it’s for everyone, in as much as male work is assumed to be for everyone. And, yes, in case you are all wondering, there is quality in equality! A meritocracy only works effectively when there is an even playing field. The issues affecting women in theatre are the same as those that affect most working women: opportunity, advancement, access to childcare, bullying and harassment, lower pay.
Following the unprecedented social media outcry started by Lian Bell, over the Abbey’s Waking The Nation programme, #WakingTheFeminists was born – and quickly become a globally recognised grassroots movement. At 1pm on 12th November 2015 – in an event that sold out in under 7 minutes – over 600 people bore witness at the Abbey Theatre to a moment of great change in the performing arts in Ireland. 30 women working in all areas of theatre took to the main stage to document their experience of gender inequality in theatre. A massive outpouring of personal testimonies and support came from all over the world including Oscar award winning actors Meryl Streep and Nicole Kidman, Irish actors Saoirse Ronan, Gabriel Byrne and Brian F O’Byrne, and writer Emma Donoghue, among many others.
Our aim in #WakingTheFeminists is simple: Equality for women in Irish theatre. We call on all theatre organisations in receipt of state funding to establish equality for women by implementing:
- Policies and actions for inclusion with measurable results
- Equal advancement of women artists
- Economic parity for all working in the theatre
#WakingTheFeminists has passed into the global lexicon as a reference to gender equality. With the constant media references, and even an Irish Times Theatre Award, the issue of gender equality in the arts has been at the forefront of everyone’s minds. While it feels like there’s been a huge shift in our cultural consciousness, it’s easy to forget that nothing has objectively changed yet: male artists are still in the vast majority on our main stages. Real change takes time. However, we know how to fix this problem and are actively going about addressing it. We understand the causes are structural and systemic. The solutions have to work at board level, at executive level, and throughout each organisation, supported in turn by Arts Council policy.
We have met with the boards and executives of key theatres including The Abbey, The Gate, Druid, Rough Magic, Dublin Theatre Festival, Dublin Fringe Festival, and Project Arts Centre. At a second public meeting in Liberty Hall on International Women’s Day in March, these organisations outlined their response to the issues and restated their commitment to making gender equality a reality.
As well as commissioning groundbreaking quantitative research, #WakingTheFeminists is in talks with Tonic Theatre about tailoring their highly successful ADVANCE programme specifically to address gender inequality in theatre in Ireland, and ensure female talent rises to the top. There are once-off costs associated with this research and training for which we are fundraising. The issue of gender equality is not however an issue of funding per se – it is an issue of programming choice. We all support greater public funding for the arts, but women’s work should not be an optional add-on, funding dependent.
We have set a deadline – five years to achieve full gender equality in Irish Theatre. We know how theatre works and we believe this is achievable.
While we are working directly within the sector, here are some ways everyone can get involved and help support the movement:
- Start counting #WTFCount is a simple way you can raise awareness and help change the numbers: every time you go to the theatre, take a picture of the programme, and count the number of women and men in each role. Share your results on facebook or twitter.
- Get in touch @WTFeminists firstname.lastname@example.org
- Buy some merchandise and spread the message – available from Project Arts Centre http://projectartscentre.ie/wakingthefeminists-merchandise
Looking out from the stage of the Abbey on the 12th November I was shocked by the depth of feeling, by the anger expressed with dignity, by the sheer number of women of all ages and backgrounds affected by inequality. I was furious at the full realisation of what we all had lost and continue to lose, artists and audiences alike. For the women and men organising the event, it was clear that the most effective solution would be in the best tradition of theatre – a sector-wide collaborative commitment. Anger burns short, but determination burns long, and the core group of #WakingTheFeminists working week-on-week to drive the campaign are fuelled by that determination. The public campaign will continue throughout this year. The legacy will last generations. Women of the theatre will no longer fade into the wings, no longer be told, ‘wait, wait, not yet, not good enough, not ready’. We will not wait. Our audiences will not wait. The time for action, the time for equality is NOW.