Talk given to Labour Women
What more needs to be done in order for us to really live in a Feminist Republic?
I’ve recently had conversations with with three female top executives in major leading corporate companies – companies dedicated to achieving gender equality. One explained that over one month, she had been the only female in every single meeting she had attended. Another outlined that while they are making progress in this area, it’s incremental, and not seeing it happen fast enough is demoralising. They say they’ve been inspired by the #WakingTheFeminists movement.
Yet, their stories, and stories about countless women like them, changing their world day by day, are not reaching our main stages or screens or airwaves. I’m fed up sitting politely in theatres regularly having to translate the protagonist’s experience to my gender. It’s not that there aren’t any great lead roles for women in theatre. It’s more that those roles tend to be women who kill their children, shoot themselves or throw themselves under a train. ‘Strong woman as cautionary tale.’ What if we expanded the narrative? What if we had a theatrical reference for Hillary Clinton other than Lady Macbeth?
The republic has to be imagined before it can be created. We create ourselves through stories. To achieve a feminist republic within the next 20 years we need to create imaginative spaces that allow us to explore that possibility, exactly the kind of space that the arts can and should provide. #WakingTheFeminists, Women In Film and Television, Women on Air, Composing The Feminists, Women in Advertising, all know in our bones and our everyday working lives – as women, we’re continually culturally famished.
Boys and men are spoon-fed their cultural icons and heroes, breakfast, dinner and tea. If we want a feminist future, then we have to start a more balanced cultural diet across all artforms. Girls have precious few external structures from which to build positive complex versions of ourselves as women.
It matters who is in charge of our stories, and who is doing the telling. 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. As a society we cannot be economically rich while we remain culturally impoverished.
A snapshot of our deficient cultural diet: 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.
Yet women are the majority of ticket buyers and audience members in our theatres, but a minority as far as what happens on our stages. This damages our collective ability to advance – inequality of voice, inequality of visibility, perpetuates an inequality of power. Equality legislation and policies, as fundamentally important as they are, only give us the possibility of equality, not the actuality. They are a starting point, the danger is the destination is on a eternally receding horizon. Equality in principle must be back up by equality in practice.
#WakingTheFeminists aim is simple: Equality for women in Irish theatre. Equal opportunity, equal advancement, equal pay, safe workplaces, childcare – you’ve heard it all before. The theatre community is small, but its reach is wide – and we hope that what we achieve will impact beyond the theatre world.
So, we need more stories by and about women, told from a woman’s perspective throughout our culture, reaching wider audiences, performed in prominent places, more often. Otherwise there is no strong counter-narrative to the dominant patriarchy and its constant feedback loop affirming male dominance. We need to make it normal, not exceptional to listen to female voices.
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, there is quality in equality! Meritocracy remains a fallacy until there is full equality of access and opportunity – it’s only effective on even playing field. It’s one of those tricky ways language is used to exclude women from advancement.
On the morning of the 12th Nov last, as I waited to go on Morning Ireland, discussing the matter with a government minister in the green room, he commented, ‘but surely it’s about picking the best plays.’ It should be, but it’s not. You can’t rise on merit if someone else’s unacknowledged privilege is prioritised. The flaw is not in the talent and ability of our female artists, (scientists, politicians, economists, etc.) It is in our perception of them, steeped in a culture that does not value women.
There are many deep and subtle causes, structural and systemic, that contribute towards gender inequality, and the solutions are complex. Unconscious bias is everywhere. Inequality is a socially transmitted disease. Without the tools and training in the practicalities of addressing gender inequality, and the focused participation of leaders, nothing will actually change. Awareness is not enough. Only by taking rapid, extensive, and sustained measures to adjust our perception will we achieve herd immunity to this disease.
As well as commissioning groundbreaking quantitative research, #WakingTheFeminists are working with leading theatre organisations in order to set up policies, assessment plans, and training programmes that will address several aspects of the issue. From these actions we have to see results – soon. We co-exist in a globally connected community, and we will achieve our aims faster by working together.
While the Abbey found itself at the centre of a maelstrom last November, since then its reaction has been astonishing. The Board have developed and adopted several key principles to address inequality, that are visionary, far-reaching and practical. Combined, they place gender equality at the centre of the organisation. They understand it has to be addressed first at highest level – it’s a board responsibility, and then to be implemented at every level. I am fortunate as I join the Board, not to have to be the lone voice for gender equality, because they have all gone on that journey and fully embraced it. Because Lian Bell started a conversation we’d all been waiting for.
Ultimately, though, at its very heart it’s simple. Danai Gurira actor, and playwright of the Tony award-winning play Eclipsed speaking at the Lilly Awards in NY, gave this wonderful advice to women writers: ‘Go where you are loved.’ Hearing this, to me, it correlates that we must have structures, institutions, companies and champions that love women and want them to succeed. Love, in the respect, listening, encouragement, trust way, not in the ‘oh, you’re so hot’ way.
Finding ourselves as accidental activists with #WakingTheFeminists, here’s what we’ve learned so far:
- Be publicly vocal on every platform and at every opportunity
- Demonstrate the real impact on women’s lives
- Place accountability at the top of governance and with leadership
- Make specific and achievable asks that address structural inequality
- Empower others to speak out, tell their story, get organised, and take personal and collective action
- Include men in the conversation
- No blame, focus on solutions we can all be responsible for
- Meet weekly, use Slack (it’s a brilliant app)
- Be clear about the issues and back them up with statistics
- Count the numbers to change them
- Listen for what’s going on under the surface as power dynamics begin to shift
- Move fast, but understand that lasting change takes patient negotiation to achieve
- Create space, time and training for people to learn about the issues and co-create the solutions
- Create mutual amplification with sister causes
- Have Meryl Streep in your corner, [Meryl makes everything better!]
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. As a former producer, there’s nothing like setting a date for Opening Night. #WakingTheFeminists have set a deadline of five years to achieve full gender equality in Irish Theatre.
It’s quite probable that another 100 years could pass without achieving a fully feminist republic. We need to rapidly accelerate the pace of change across all our institutions. Set a deadline. Make achieving gender equality a stated priority at every opportunity.
Finally, women of the theatre will no longer fade into the wings. We will not wait. The stakes too high for us, we’ve lost so much already. They are too high for you, and for every other woman out there trying to make her way in the world, to allow the status quo to continue. No woman should wait for her voice to be heard, for her body to be fully her own, for her wages to be equal, for her full potential to be recognised. We must disrupt the culture. The time for action, the time for equality is NOW. To change the future, change the story.