My social media sources flooded with IWD, with promotions, with hashtags, with exhortations to talk about the inspirational women in your career who helped you along the way.
I am not a fan of Women’s Day. Its existence reminds me that women are systematically discriminated against and expected to accept whatever small crumbs come our way. There is always some chorus of basses and tenors singing about the lack of a Men’s Day. (it is November 19th by the way; the fact that it appears not to be such a big deal speaks volumes about how much men care about it and campaign for it)
I wanted to think about the things that would make being a woman easier in today’s world. One of those things would be Not Being Embarrassed About Your Period. A sanitary towel or tampon falls out of your handbag? No big deal.
Being on your period? No big deal. You have an accident? No big deal – it happens to us all. For my lifetime, though periods were handled as something to be hidden, something to be embarrassed about. When I look back at some of the men in my life, they could handle discussing contraception; they could not handle me having sleeping problems because my period was due in 2 days.
Plus, as it happens today I accidentally flicked a sanitary towel out of my handbag while looking for a sketchbook. I’m now 46 so I don’t give a damn any more but I also know that for years, I would have been scarlet.
So that’s one thing.
I was also thinking about inspirations, and if I’m honest, one of the women who I wish was around when I was 18, 19, is Federica Mogherini. I think she’s great. But I don’t want to talk about her right now. I want to talk about someone completely different.
I grew up in Ireland and I was born in the early 1970s. I spend a lot of time on Irish social media and I can tell you, young people today really have no concept of what Ireland was like back then. Reeling in the Years does not even come place. I want to sing the praises of one, unknown, not famous woman who changed my life in a very significant way in June 1980. I don’t even know if she is still alive.
The rhythm of life in Ireland came with various rites of passage, of which the second major one after starting school at the age of 5, was, and remains for many people, the First Holy Communion. When I was a child, you got this in First Class.
So at the age of 7 and a half, one Saturday in May, I was clad in a short white frilly dress, wandered up the church, and got Communion for the first time. There was a sort of party in the school afterwards, at which my mother strictly ordered me not to even consider the idea of going near an orange, much less trying to peel it. Part of the deal with being in the Communion class was something altogether more secular. It was a school trip.
We didn’t have many of those in school in Ireland when I was a child, certainly not in most of the small local schools in towns where both major employers had challenges from time to time. But the Communion class got to go away for a whole day. By tradition, it was a trip to Dublin Zoo.
We lived 150 miles from Dublin Zoo, and the most logical way to get 80 or so 7 year olds to Dublin was to shepherd them onto a train into a reserved carriage, and have them picked up by bus in Heuston Station and then shipped out to the Phoenix Park to pay attention to the exotic animals we could not imagine. I had never been to Dublin and to be frank, I don’t think I had been on a bus before either.
Anyway, Ireland of the 1980 had a bunch of limitations which meant I think the sole option for bus hire would have been CIE’s Dublin city bus service. So a double decker arrived to take us to the zoo.
Most of the women I knew at that time were teachers, nuns or nurses. All of the teachers in my school were female. We knew the boys’ school for the Second Class and upwards (ie, older than us) had mostly male teachers but most of the men I knew at that time were mechanics, truck drivers, creamery managers or some such.
We had the Veritas encyclopaedias and in the page describing the kind of jobs people could do, women had just 2 of the 8 jobs described; teacher and nurse. Every other job was a man’s job. People talk about how important role models are in the tech sector today, in politics, and the idea of ensuring that language isn’t exclusionary. Images can be very exclusionary.
Anyway, back at Heuston Station, my all female cohort of teachers discovered something highly unusual about this bus. It was so extraordinary they made a point of pointing it to an army of 7 and 8 year olds who really only wanted to go to the zoo and see the penguins.
The bus driver was a woman. It was, to be frank, unique in any of our experience.
It is nearly 40 years since I made my Holy Communion, but I still think of that moment – almost a Kodak moment in my life; stamped on my memory – when I realised that if a woman wanted she could be a bus driver. That a bus driver did not have to be male.
We talk about the importance of role models. I don’t know who that woman was but frankly, she made a massive change to my view of the world when I was 7. And the impact of that change on my life has been immeasurable.
Anyway, I was busy, yesterday, on International Women’s Day and like I say, I just want periods not to be a subject of embarrassment or shame. But when we talk about inspiration and role models, we need kids to see them, not just teenagers, or early career researchers or students.