say it out loud: feminism and equality

‘I’m not a feminist,’ says Laura Waters, in her Guardian column about women in science. ‘I’m an ‘equalist’.’

In doing so, she resurrects a tedious semantic argument, and one that’s been fought on many shores before now. Waters contends that she is “fully devoted to promoting science to women as a great career choice and [that she] honestly believe[s] we need more women at all levels in science.” She wants to “ensur[e] women actively choose to stay in science and climb the promotional ladder.” She mentions positively the Athena SWAN programme – which gives praise and status to institutions that actively work to promote equal treatment for women in academia.

I’m sorry to break it to her, but that’s a feminist viewpoint. That’s an entirely feminist argument. If she wants it from a better source than me – it’s exactly the feminist argument I heard Jocelyn Bell Burnell give at WITS a couple of weeks ago.

I have no problems with Waters’ viewpoint. It’s one I espouse myself (any reader of this blog will know that). My problem is with her denial of feminism.

I’m a feminist because I believe in equality. Equality is – for the most part – the primary role of practical feminism. Currently society does not view women as being the equals of men. There’s a gap there that needs filling, and feminism works to boost women’s role in society to fill that gap. It’s not inherently anti-men to be pro-women; it’s not anti-equality to say that one group needs more support.

Imagine a bar chart of the gender pay gap. For every euro Irish men earn, Irish women earn 13.9% less (Irish Examiner, Feb 2013). Parity in the hourly wage – the value of an hour’s work – would have men with 100%, and women with 100%. At the minute, men have 100%, and women have just over 86%. Clearly that’s inequal. To make it equal, you have to close that gap – and you do that by helping women, because women are the group that’s worse off in that situation.

Equalism? Sure. Through feminism.

Waters wants academia to be fairer to women. Women need more help than men do to fulfil their academic potential, because currently the power bias in the institutions of academia swings heavily toward men. What do we do? Make things fairer for women. Use Athena SWAN to reward institutions that reward women. Understand that family structures still involve more women than men doing part-time or awkward hours in order to be around for the kids, and accommodate that. Give positive female role models to young women in STEM careers.

I’m almost reciting Waters’ points here, which is actually the key to what I’m saying: this is a feminist argument.

Why disavow feminism? It feels like internalised misogyny to me**. It’s not lesser to be a woman, and it’s not lesser to be a feminist. Throwing your lot in with the boys may get you approval at the time, but in reality you’re cheerily standing over the status quo while inequality happens all around you.

Feminism is the reason you have a job in academia. Feminism is the reason you get to have an opinion and have it out loud. Feminism is the reason programmes like Athena SWAN happen, and feminism is the reason that it’s recognised that the sciences should be more welcoming to women. We are where we are because of feminists, and sniffily casting that aside and pretending you’re more advanced, somehow, is disrespectful to their work and their sacrifices.

No-one is saying that scientific output should be judged separately depending on its author’s gender. No-one is saying that an institution should seek a candidate of a particular gender rather than a candidate who’s best for the job. What feminism asks is that a women who reads the jobs posting should feel as able as a man to apply, or that a woman offered a job should feel comfortable and respected in accepting the place.

I believe in equality. I think a just society would offer the same chance to everyone. Feminism wants that full and fair chance for women.

Be proud to be a feminist! Feminism is the path to equality. We have lots of work to do.

** please note that I say this in reference to mainstream feminism, and women who disavow the label totally. I’m not referring to women who choose to use a different term for ‘believes in women’s rights’, like ‘womanist’, because of minority status or perceived disrespect by mainstream feminism. That’s a matter beyond the scope of this post.


“HORRIFIC” – an anti-choice blight on Dublin’s streets

Walking around Dublin at the minute, it’s very quickly obvious that the city is under siege by an army of bullshit. I’m sorry – I normally try to be reasonably polite about other people’s politics, but up with this I will not put.

I speak, of course, of the anti-choice posters that seem to have been splattered over the city from a paintball gun held by a despotic and artless misogynist. I found out that they’re from the always-reliable Youth Defence, quickly rushing into the breach to spread their moronic gospel – so I feel totally vindicated in my first opinion.


Look here: you are not pro-life. There is nothing pro-anybody’s life about opposing a Bill meant to save women’s lives. You understand that, don’t you? I have a grandmother who’s ninety-one and more Catholic than God, and she understands that. If you let the mother die, not only do you let the foetus you’re so concerned about die with her, you also make sure that she can never have any more children.

I can’t believe there are people in this country who don’t understand that. I can’t believe that people have been pelting the Taoiseach with Catholic paraphernalia, threats of harm, and letters written in blood. I just can’t believe it. I can’t be eloquent about this because I am just so utterly gobsmacked.

I shouldn’t be. I know, like, and respect people who are pro-life. I know, like, and respect many people who are Catholic. The bit that I don’t like and don’t respect is when people who share those views attempt to impose them on my body, my uterus, my liberty.

It’s so strange, this dogged determination that I should have to live by your rules, when you would absolutely agree that I am free to consign myself to Catholic hell if I so desire. If I were to get pregnant tomorrow, I would have it terminated. You know why? Because I’m not ever going to be a good parent. Because I’m not ready to hand over control of my body to an invader. Because I’m mentally ill, and I’d have to change my medication – which would probably land me in hospital, combined with the distress of said pregnancy – and it’s a 50/50 chance whether I’d pass this on to my offspring, and I couldn’t, with a clear conscience, take that risk.

So thank you very much for shouting until my broken, violated, and distressed self would have to get three doctors’ opinions before I would be counted as suicidal enough to require a termination. Suicide kills! Why does no-one take that at face value? Why is it that when several young men kill themselves in a row, they put psychiatrists on the news to discuss the problem, but when women threaten to kill ourselves it’s totally legit to write difficulties for us into law?

Don’t answer that. I don’t think I’m going to like your reasoning.

One of the more vocal anti-choice voices in Ireland is an old lecturer of mine. In person, he’s a genial and intelligent man, who teaches well and greets his students pleasantly when you pass him in the hallway. In the media, he espouses a viewpoint that would let me have a crack at killing myself and a hypothetical foetus, rather than allow me a termination and save my life. The cognitive dissonance there makes me slightly dizzy. I think that’s why anti-choice rhetoric has such a stranglehold in this country – because respectable, smart, likeable people carry a massive conservative bias and don’t seem to see anything wrong with imposing that on (hopefully also respectable and smart) women who don’t share the view.

So I’m pretty bloody angry about this, and every time I have to look at those dreadful posters I get angrier. I’m having daydreams out the windows of buses about having a lovely big bonfire on O’Connell Street – not that I would ever do such a thing, as I have respect for public order and the laws of the state, but a girl can dream. Also ruled out by law would be ‘editing’ them to have a more realistic message, but no-one said I can’t do that on the internet:



This was nicely cathartic, even as rants go. I know this is a sensitive issue, and I really do understand that people can hold a viewpoint I dislike and will do so for reasons they think are morally right. I honestly just cannot deal with the far-right on this one, though. People like this are anti-choice and anti-women, and I am so very tired of seeing their rubbish defiling my beautiful city.

Previous post: a background to Irish abortion law pre-2013.

I’m not ‘having a fat day’ (and neither are you)

I grabbed the wrong t-shirt today, and realised only about half an hour later that I was wearing one that makes me look very oddly shaped and quite unlike my actual figure. Bugger, I thought, I look ridiculously fat today. And then I caught myself.

It’s been a few years since I tried to cut fat out of my vocabulary as a critical descriptor of my figure. I’m not fat, and I don’t think fat is a bad thing to be. I’m being neither accurate nor appropriate. It’s still a really difficult habit to shake, which probably shows exactly how engrained it is into women’s mindsets that the default response to unhappiness in self-image is ‘I look fat’.

It seems like a lot of us don’t really look into that thought process. If you extrapolate from that phrase you get: I don’t like how I look -> I look fat -> fat is something to dislike -> fat people don’t look good. Except… that’s not true. Fat people can look good or bad, as much as thin people can. The word ‘fat’ is not a synonym for the word ‘ugly’. That is – or should be – common sense.

Okay, the media don’t think it is. The advertisers don’t think it is. The Daily Mail would get this far in this post (should they be very bored at work) and split their sides laughing. I’d like to think most of us are smarter than that. It is hard, though, to hold up a properly feminist and equality-driven set of beliefs on body image when you’re bombarded from all sides by: Get a beach body! Snack packs of biscuits, 100 calories! Figure-enhancing and very uncomfortable tights!

What will you gain when you lose? asks a cereal company. Bad restrictive food behaviours and an inroad to obsession over my intake, say I (but that’s another story.)

There are pat answers thrown around – have a body; put a bikini on it – but they’re a patch, not a cure. Ridding yourself of the pattern of thought behind ‘fat = to be avoided’ requires an understanding of the root of that pattern. Isn’t it odd how women get so much more pressure than men to ‘look after’ our bodies? A feminist angle on that question puts the matter among the societal limits put on women. We are to be dainty, petite, restrained people, and we are to be neither seen nor heard, for the most part. Being fat – being anything above waiflike, to be honest – means that we take up space in the world. It means that we have to confront the fact that our bodies don’t equal the idealised image constructed for us. Being a woman who’s proud of her muscular physique, or loves how her curves look in a dress, or doesn’t give a damn that she’s wearing something unflattering for comfort’s sake, is a challenge to that ideal. It’s a statement we make by our mere presence.

And it’s intimidating, don’t get me wrong. Piloting a non-airbrushed female body around means you’re open to uncouth remarks from (mostly) men, and unpleasant comparisons between yourself and the images in the media. How are you meant to feel okay in yourself when someone who’s six feet tall and a size eight looks so much more sleek than you do in a dress? How is a six feet tall, size eight, woman meant to feel when she’s told that wearing heels makes her look ridiculous? It doesn’t matter what you look like – eventually someone, somewhere, is going to say something that makes you feel like Gregor Samsa, post-cockroaching.

Here’s where ‘having a fat day’ comes in – when you have that thought, you’re expressing something internalised from your experiences in society. You’re not actually after becoming twice your size, nor have you instantly added several inches of saddlebags from eating a plate of chips. You feel like something is off about your appearance, and the way you process that is: I feel fat. You’re saying that you feel misshapen, or wrong, or uncomfortable, but the narrative that we’ve internalised translates that vague feeling of off-ness into a conviction that you’re too big, you’re taking up too much space, and you’re straying farther than you should be away from the ideal.

Well, ladies, that’s some bullshit we put up with, right there.

It’s bullshit from both angles. It’s demeaning and embarrassing to people who are fat and are living comfortably, or learning to live comfortably, in their bodies. It’s too simplistic an answer for those of us who feel a dysmorphic discomfort in ourselves – because if we just blame fat, we can avoid the disagreeable procedure of figuring out what’s actually going on in our heads.

Saying ‘I don’t feel right. I don’t know why. I think I look bad, but I can’t tell where. I don’t like my body.’ is difficult but honest. Saying ‘I feel fat’ is careless, insulting, and unproductive – and getting that phrase out of your vocabulary is the first step toward teaching yourself to understand what emotions are leading you to use it. It’s a hard habit to break, but I really feel it’s worth it – even (especially, really) if you just do it to be one less person making women feel bad about themselves.

We’ve got a long way to go when it comes to reclaiming our relationship with our bodies. Thinking about that might make you uncomfortable. It’s okay.

But you’re not ‘having a fat day’. Trust me on that.

an open letter to Praveen Halappanavar

Dear Mr Halappanavar:

I’m sorry.

I’m sorry for your loss, for your beautiful wife and your hope for a child.

I’m sorry there are people in Ireland so blind to human suffering that they don’t understand why what happened was wrong.

I’m sorry that doctors are too afraid of the law to stand up for a woman’s life. I’m sorry that the doctors you dealt with treated you the way they did. That was wrong, inexcusably so.

I’m sorry we’ve elected cowards more interested in staying out of political hot water than in massive, massively important, issues like a woman’s right to choose. I voted for this government in the hopes that they were the pro-choice option. I hoped that they’d legislate on X and give us our Eighth Amendment referendum. I’m ashamed for my country of what happened in the Dáil yesterday. I’ll contact my TDs. I’ll ask them to say that they’re sorry too.

I’m sorry you and Savita have become figureheads for a movement, positions for which you did not volunteer. The movement is a good thing, don’t get me wrong. It was about time Irish feminists and pro-choice advocates got a rocket lit under us. Nevertheless, it must be so difficult to play out private grief and deal with public interest at the same time. You’re a strong man. I admire you.

I’m sorry that Ireland has treated you the way it has. I’m sorry that this is your impression of our country. It has failed you. It’s not right.

I’m sorry that “in the interests of balance” the media are wheeling out anti-choice cretins who would leave this sorry tale to play out again and again. In the interests of balance, we should stand every lawmaker hiding behind the Constitution and afraid of electoral castigation up in front of the nation and make them listen to women telling their stories. Twelve women a day fly to Great Britain to procure terminations, because they’re not sick enough to fight for one here. Unwanted pregnancy, spanning a spectrum of emotions from discomfort to violation, is apparently not enough. You have to be dying. Even then… seemingly, not enough. I’m sorry you have to listen to these people.

I’m sorry that the doctors brushed you off in the name of Catholicism. I want them to take out their Bibles and show me the bit where it says that saving a woman’s life is wrong. I’ve read a lot of it. I don’t think that’s there.

I’m sorry that somewhere along the line being a Catholic country became an excuse to be un-Christian in our acts. I don’t believe in God, but I was taught a lot about the Christian God as a child. He never sounded like someone who would treat people in grief or in danger the way you have been treated here.

I’m sorry that the God that lives in Ireland is a selfish old man, who looks out only for the welfare of selfish old men like him.

I’m sorry that I can’t even express how wrong this all has been. How inexcusable. How heartbreaking your loss must be. What a rotten stain on our society this sick Catholic hangover is. The audacity of trying to argue any logic or reason into refusing your wife her termination to save her life.

We will fix this. I promise. We will fix it so that no-one suffers like your family ever again.

Until then, I’m just so very, very sorry.

“pro-life.” whose life?

In the lead-up to the US Presidential election last week, many US-based feminist friends of mine were passing around information and charts with titles like ‘What would America be like without Roe v Wade?’ and ‘We need Planned Parenthood!’. What would it be like, they wondered, to live in a country with no abortion rights? No comprehensive family planning and reproductive health experts with whom to discuss every option facing someone with an unwanted pregnancy?

I’ll tell you what it’s like. It’s like this.

Here we have Savita Halappanavar. Savita was 34 and in her second trimester of pregnancy. Savita’s foetus died, and it poisoned her from the inside out. Savita’s husband, Praveen, watched his unborn child lose viability for life, and then watched his wife slip away after it.

Savita’s doctors watched the couple struggle to keep it together. They listened to her plead for a termination of the pregnancy, and they said no. They would not remove the unviable, failing foetus from her uterus.

Put it another way: they would not remove the tissue which caused septicaemia to spread through her body.

When you say it like that, it does sound rather barbaric, doesn’t it?

This was not a matter of law. I’ve written a comprehensive post on Irish abortion law before, linked here. That post was from the day some archaic Catholic windbag in the Dáil made some entirely misguided remarks about the sex lives of people other than herself (and therefore, not her business), and then the Dáil went on to vote down a private member’s bill to enforce the Supreme Court’s judgment in the X case.

The X case is twenty years old this year. Ms X was 14 and pregnant as the result of a rape. She wanted to go to England for a termination, because – understandably – the situation was making her suicidally desperate. The Government got wind of the plan and took out an injunction to stop her going. Ms X and her family fought it all the way to the Supreme Court; they were vindicated, eventually, but by then Ms X had miscarried.

The precedent set by that case allows a doctor in Ireland to perform an abortion if there is ‘a real and substantial risk’ to the life of the mother. I am not a doctor, but even I know that septicaemia is a rare but recognised side-effect of some miscarriages. It is definitely real, and it’s about as substantial as risks come. (Grateful here to Dr Muiris Houston in the Irish Times for this article on risk in miscarriage.)

That was decided twenty years ago.

This country remains abysmal for women’s rights. It is downright humiliating to turn around to our European and American neighbours, hat in hand, and say ‘this exists, and we haven’t done anything about it.’ It is an absolute joke that our politicians – especially our women in positions of influence – do not stand up before the country and bang down doors until we get a proper debate, a referendum, a Yes campaign. It is so very harmful that our doctors will not perform a procedure which, if necessary, they could validate under current case law.

But that’s just the thing, isn’t it? This is the status quo. No doctor will be the first to hang out their shop sign and perform terminations, because they need to know they won’t be struck off the medical register. No political party will take up the cause wholeheartedly, because this administration have enough on their hands without fighting another referendum campaign that might fail – and worst of all, yes, it might actually fail. As a rule, young Irish people are mostly in favour of abortion on demand, but young people are not the bankable demographic that you depend upon to win a popular vote. The Catholic moralists just have to tell their side that God says ‘no’, and therefore, ‘no’ will be said. Makes you wonder what Jesus would have thought of that.

There is no redeeming the death of Savita Halappanavar. I am glad the HSE are investigating the matter; I can tell you that if I were in her husband’s position, lawyers would be involved (and probably are). I’m glad her story is getting the publicity it deserves.

Just… let’s remember today, okay? Let’s have the outrage and the hurt we’re feeling to galvanise us, feminists and secularists and progressives of any gender. Let’s keep up a steady hammering on that door, and when it opens, let’s grab the opportunity with both hands. Let’s remember. Let’s work.

Let’s never have this happen again.

misogyny: not so rational

Before you read this, you probably should have read Rebecca Watson’s article in Slate yesterday. I’m going to give you a brief run-down, but her article is really worth the full read.

The gist: the skeptic community is not a particularly welcoming, pleasant, or even safe place to be if you’re a woman.

Skeptics are people, like myself and presumably a lot of you reading this, who believe in challenging irrational beliefs and scams: anything from psychics to homeopathy to organised religion, depending on your limits and your own areas of interest. If you think communing with the dead is a load of rubbish or that energy healing is useless and time-/money-wasting, you’re probably at least a bit of a skeptic. Welcome on board.

As a well-known skeptic writer/speaker who’s been involved in a few high-profile conflicts, Rebecca Watson is something of a lightning rod for misogyny. This is a shame, as she’s also a smart, outspoken woman with a lot to share.

But she is a woman, and therefore she bears the toll inflicted on most women who go around Having Opinions In Public.

You get sexualised. You get told not to worry your pretty little head about things. You get spoken over. You get treated as an ‘other’ – as not quite part of the club, even when you have the same right to be there as any man. And not all of this happens to every woman, and not all of it happens all the time, but enough of it happens to enough women to be a problem across any particular sector of society you care to mention.

That is something I know, and it’s something I’ve experienced, and yet I feel more disappointed to see it happening among skeptics than in most places. As Rebecca says in Slate,

I started checking out the social media profiles of the people sending me [hate] messages, and learned that they were often adults who were active in the skeptic and atheist communities. They were reading the same blogs as I was and attending the same events. These were “my people,” and they were the worst.

Generally, the demographics of the skeptic community skew young, liberal, and well-educated (this is my observation, but I’d be interested to see if there’s data on that). It makes some sense, anyway. Those factors usually – not always, but usually – mean that an individual is societally progressive: for my purposes here I’m going to read that as ‘in favour of granting equal rights to historical minorities’.

I don’t know if this assumption comes from my background here in Ireland, where most of the barriers to women’s rights down through the years were put in place by the Catholic Church and its influence on the legal and legislative powers-that-were. Young, educated, liberals are the most likely to have turned away from Catholicism and the folder of conservative societal views attendant thereon.

(I should add here, by the way, that when I talk about religion in Ireland, I mean organised religion and doctrine, not faith itself. I have no problem with people believing in God. I have a very big problem with people thinking I, and my body, need to believe in him too.)

To me, skepticism and feminism are two sides of the same coin. I believe in women’s rights, and I express that within the context of my country by arguing against religious influence; I don’t belong to organised religion, which leaves me free to fight for women’s rights. Two sides, one coin, no bull.

I don’t understand, then, how skeptics can understand ‘I am bereaved, I feel scammed by the person who told me they could speak to my dead auntie, and I wish they’d stop that,’ but not ‘I am a woman, I feel threatened by this set of behaviours from men, and I wish you’d stop it.’

I am [X]. I dislike [Y]. I wish it would stop. Why does it make more sense to skepticism, as a whole, in the former case than in the latter?

So that’s why it bothers me on a number of levels to see the abuse that gets directed at a writer like Rebecca. Such blatant misogynist vitriol is nauseating, and would be anywhere.

Seeing it from people who claim that they’re intelligent, rationalists, general cutters-through of society’s bullshit, is even worse.

Ada Lovelace Day heroine: Carolyn Porco

Today is Ada Lovelace Day, the celebration of women in STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) – from the eponymous first lady of computing, right down through to the present day. The Finding Ada project was started by Suw Charman-Anderson in 2009, with a pledge from almost two thousand people to write a blogpost about a female scientist they find inspiring.

My pick for ALD this year is planetary scientist and science communicator Dr. Carolyn Porco.

If you don’t know Dr. Porco by name, you almost certainly know some of her ‘colleagues’: Voyager, New Horizons, and especially Cassini, the Saturn orbiter which sends back the kind of awe-inspiring photos that make you want to sell the farm and hop on the next rocket off this planet. Dr. Porco is the imaging director of the Cassini mission, which means that she’s not only responsible for those wonderful pictures, she’s also one of the world’s leading experts on Saturn, its rings, and its moons.

Dr. Porco became fascinated with astronomy at a young age, and worked her way up to the Voyager imaging team as a doctoral student. The 1970s were not an easy time to be a female astronomer – the field was overwhelmingly male and full of men she once described as “schoolyard toughs*”. Not a lot comes easy for women in traditionally male fields like physics, and anyone who makes it to the top will have had to employ an iron will as well as a sharp intellect. It’s unsurprising, then, that she has been more than capable of the two decades of hard work the Cassini leadership has required.

To return to earth for a minute: astronomy has always seemed to me to be one of the most enthralling branches of the sciences. As a kid I pored over charts about the solar system; as an adult I still find looking through a telescope or photographing the moon to be a thrilling experience. I’m not a scientist by training or even by talent, but I’m fascinated by the thought of other worlds and the prospect of yet-unknown discoveries. It’s a siren call to anyone with an inquisitive mind – as Carl Sagan said, “Exploration is in our nature. We began as wanderers, and we are wanderers still.”

This brings me to my second reason for choosing Carolyn Porco to write about for ALD: she is an unparalleled science communicator. Her talks and interviews overflow with enthusiasm for her work, and she presents her findings clearly and comprehensibly to experts and laypeople alike. Her TED talks (2007 and 2009, both on Cassini’s discoveries about the Saturnian system) are especially worth watching for anyone interested in space exploration and its possibilities for the future.

“Saturn is such an alluring photographic target. It’s a joy, really, to be able to take our images and composite them in an artful way, which is one of my cardinal working goals. It’s about poetry and beauty and science all mixed together.”**

The world needs more women like Carolyn Porco. Thank you for sharing your worlds with us.

I am participating in Ada Lovelace Day because:

I believe that science is an investment in the future of humanity and an instrument of enlightment for the present. I believe that science should be accessible and comprehensible to everybody at their own level. I believe that all women and girls should be given the inspiration and opportunity to engage with science. I believe that science is for everybody.

Join in?




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