A lot of people these days don’t see the need for feminism. To many it’s just a lot of whinging and moaning about superficial things that don’t matter too much. Others see it as an issue that belongs in the history books, important in its time but not today. Don’t women have equal rights today? Hasn’t the movement run its course? A recent survey found that 85% of people support gender equality but only 18% consider themselves feminists. Basically, most people just don’t understand feminism (for a long time neither did I). However, I think there is another ideology that is more easily understood and can be used as a guide to explaining feminism, especially to people who wouldn’t otherwise see where Feminists are coming from.
At first glance Nationalism and Feminism don’t seem too similar. However, at their core, they are both ideologies about identity and are dedicated to the promotion of the welfare of their group. One has a worldview based on gender, the other on nationality, but both wish to promote “their” people and redress past grievances. They both aim to amend imbalances in their relations with other groups and try to submerge other interests in order to provide a united front. Both revolve around who holds power and ensuring their people’s voice is heard.
Take Irish nationalism for example (though the story is more or less the same for Welsh, Scottish, Catalan, Slovak, Lithuanian etc I’m just most familiar with Irish). The foundation of the United Irishmen in 1791 is a useful point to mark the birth of Irish nationalism. Its core aim was to unite all Irish people regardless of religion or class towards the aim of an independent Ireland. At the time there were a host of discriminations against Catholics who were unable to vote, hold seats in parliament, own property etc. In essence, it believed that Irish people were not and could not be properly treated under British rule. Irish Catholics were completely excluded from power and their grievances could not be addressed until that changed.
Nationalism was the dominant ideology for at least the next century if not longer in Ireland as a series of political parties and armed rebellions attempted to increase the rights and power of the Irish. The movement didn’t weaken even when concessions were made and as even after Irish Catholics reached full legal equality, they still remained Nationalists. Between 1874 and 1918 every election in Ireland was based on the Nationalist issue, with every seat in Ireland being won by a Nationalist except those in the North which were won by Unionists (which is another form of Nationalism). Even though an Irishman and an Englishman had equal rights in the eyes of the law, Nationalist feeling was still strong. Legal equality was not enough, especially when there was huge economic inequality. Irish people still faced prejudice and were rarely promoted to positions of power. There was a widespread feeling that their voice was not being listened to and they were excluded from decision making. Many felt that their problems could only be solved if people like them were running the country. The motto was “Tiocfaidh Ár Lá” (Our Day Will Come).
Feminism too began as a movement to challenge discrimination against women. This is the kind of Feminism that pretty much everyone agrees with. The initial feminist movement fought for women to have the right to vote, hold seats in parliament, own property, have the same jobs as men etc. Like Nationalists, they found that legal wasn’t enough to close the gap. They still faced prejudice, unequal treatment and the gates to power were still closed to them. So the movement kept going and moved onto less overt but still damaging barriers. Many people today ask why we still need feminism when there are no longer any visible barriers preventing women from living the same lives as men. Many argued that Irish didn’t need independence when they had all the same benefits as British citizens.
Both movements faced similar opposition and mockery. It was asserted that neither women nor the Irish were rational enough or could be trusted with power. Even to this day Irish people bristle over cartoons that depicted them as monkeys or drunken idiots. Women too were thought of as too emotional or delicate to make decisions. Both were often mocked, ridiculed and presented as absurd caricatures. Feminists are often criticised as men-hating lesbians who blame all their problems on sexism instead of taking responsibility for their actions. The Irish too were seen as British-hating idiots who were too lazy to work and lived off British handouts that they spent on drink. Instead of taking responsibility for their problems, they blamed everything on the British. Both ideologies were seen as belonging to a different time, as being stuck in the past and complaining about problems that didn’t exist anymore.
Even the criticisms of both ideologies are similar. Some of it is plain denial, either from those who claim that the Irish were just as well treated as the English under British rule or that women and men are equal today. Any differences in economic status is due to skill and life choices, not discrimination. Or it is said that identity doesn’t matter, that a male English politician can represent just as well his female and Irish constituents. Or that these ideologies are divisive and turn people who should be friends into enemies. Some even go as far as to say that men are the real victims and women are the exploiters (just as some thought the Irish Problem was that the Irish had too much power).
It is true that like all movements they have extremists. There are some Feminists who do hate men and treat Feminism like a private club that only the most radical are allowed join. There are some Nationalists who wish death upon the British and unfortunately some of them acted on their beliefs. Nationalism in Ireland has been somewhat discredited in Ireland due to the sectarian campaign of the IRA which murdered countless innocent people.
Both have questions over who can join. Can men be Feminists and can non-Irish people or even English people be Irish nationalists? Different people have different views, but they are both broadly open and aware that in order to achieve success you have to be willing to work with others and gather as much support as possible. Yet there is also a sense that in order for women to break dependence on men, they must do this themselves. Having men fight their battles for them, even if they’re in the right direction won’t solve the long term problems. Likewise, while Nationalists traditionally received help from many other nations, there was an acknowledgement that we ourselves had to achieve independence, not replace dependence on one nation with that of another.
It is worthwhile to compare the position of Irish Catholics in Northern Ireland up until the 1970s with that of women. On paper, both had full citizenship rights and didn’t face any official barriers to success. In reality, they both faced a glass ceiling. Women and Catholics were far less likely to be hired and when they were they received lower wages and were less likely to be promoted. Both had little or no representation in the police, on the judiciary or the media. The government was solely comprised of Protestant men. In theory they claimed to represent all the people of Northern Ireland and that the only requirement to success was hard work, not begrudgery or blame. However, that’s not how the Catholic Nationalists saw it. In their eyes, the state didn’t represent them, didn’t care about them, didn’t want them. They were excluded, marginalised and disregarded. How could their interests be represented when none of their people were in power?
This resentment festered for decades before exploding into violence as the IRA attempted to overthrow the state they saw as illegitimate. The exclusion fuelled the conflict and lead to decades of violence. Most people agree that the discrimination and exclusion significantly contributed (but didn’t justify) to the conflict. What is interesting is that women were in a similar position. They too were excluded from power and decision making, even more than Catholics, despite making up an even larger share of the population. They did not react with violence and despite (or perhaps because of) this, they receive very little attention. In fact, often the same people who so decry the plight of the Irish, dismiss the concerns of women as frivolous and non-existent. The memory of Bloody Sunday, the Penal Laws and the Famine are issues that still strike at the heart of many Irish people, yet the history of the oppression of women is seen as irrelevant today.